By now the name Sarah Hepola should be familiar to you. Not only has she written for us, but she’s been filling up the internet for a while. Perhaps you’ve seen her work on Salon. Beginning with our July issue, Sarah will now write a column for D Magazine called The Smart Blonde. You can read the first installment, about the Dallas big hair myth, here. So what, exactly, is The Smart Blonde all about? Glad you asked. Herewith, Sarah explains her intentions:
The Smart Blonde Manifesto
By Sarah Hepola
Last November, I took two friends visiting from New York to Nick and Sam’s on a Saturday night. I wanted them to have the ritzy Dallas steakhouse experience. What we got, instead, was a glamour parade.
“This is crazy,” my friend Lisa said as we watched the women arrive in various shades of bedazzlement.
“Is it prom?” asked her husband Craig.
We stood at the caviar and vodka bar (note: there was a caviar and vodka bar), unable to stop our jaws from migrating to the floor: A foxy brunette in a mink vest; a blonde in aqua sequins. The men were meh, the men were button-down whatever, but the women, lord have mercy. My eyes stayed glued to one of the hostesses, a 5’10” glamazon in a dress so clingy and short it made me wonder how straight men get anything done, ever. Beside us was a woman in a cocktail dress, who also happened to be on crutches. She had a cast on one foot and a high heel on the other.
“I feel like I’m on the set of the Real Housewives,” Lisa said.
“I feel like I’m on the set of Dancing With the Stars,” said Craig.
I felt so many things: Amused, horrified, invisible and conspicuous at once. I alternated between wanting to make fun of those women and wanting to be more like them. The red-polka dot dress that had seemed so adorable when I left my house — the coy 60s-inspired number that came all the way to my knees — suddenly contained the erotic appeal of a clown costume.
“Is Dallas always like this?” Lisa asked. She’d spent the past decade in New York, a town not known for its subtlety, but she’d never seen a restaurant so over-the-top.
“I think it might be,” I said, and for the first time since moving back, I wondered what the hell I had done.
I grew up in Dallas during the glory days of America’s Team, when even a little girl who placed in spelling contests could think of no greater joy than to shake her delectable rump for the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. That changed, of course. The universe made me less perky pom-pom girl, more flinty artistic type. I discovered my firm middle rung on the social ladder of Highland Park, and replaced dreams of fringe and fan kicks with a posture of sarcasm and eye rolls. I watched from the sidelines as the drill team and the cheer squad flaunted their leggy genetic gifts in spandex unitards. Oooh, how I hated them. Oooh, how I wanted to be them. But I was all Irish frizz and troublesome curves, hearty peasant stock trying to pass among the landed gentry.
I spent most of my 20s in Austin, a pursuit of strong verbs and strong bourbon, and during those years I found new and exciting ways not to care about how I looked. Roomy flannel shirts and scrunchies and clothes picked from a pile on the floor. When I moved back to Dallas at the age of 28, and landed a job as the music editor at the Dallas Observer, I had forgotten how fancy this place could be. Hoop earrings at yoga, heels at Starbucks. And it brought out a surliness I never let fly when I was a 16-year-old in Payless flats. I wanted to fire two middle fingers directly into the heart of uptown. I dangled cigarettes from my mouth and pounded beers at the old Barley House. I dyed my dark-blonde hair auburn and gave it punky white streaks. All of which makes me sound far more rebellious than I was, because I still shopped at Banana Republic and loved sparkly things and ate wildly expensive dinners at Al Biernat’s. But I was doing that thing where you kick off against a city, even as that city shapes you. I had the heart of a nonconformist, and the hot-pink platform flip flops of a good Dallas girl.
When I moved to New York — land of brunettes and black wrap dresses — the Dallas girl stayed strong. I liked the contradiction of being an East Coast intellectual with a kink for Texas glam. I hung up a picture of “Dallas”-era Charlene Tilton in my office. I carried a pink tote bag silkscreened with an image of 70s-era Dolly Parton. I instructed my cool Brooklyn hairstylist to turn me blonde again and cut my hair like Farrah Fawcett.
So I’d made peace with my hometown (mostly). And when I finally had enough of New York, after six years, I was grateful (mostly) to move back. But there were moments when living in Dallas felt like stepping into the sun after a long matinee, and my eyes blinked and squinted to adjust to the light. Nothing did that to me like Dallas women. The nails, the white pants, the wedge heels, just: All of it.
In the month after Nick and Sam’s, I told that story at dinner parties, where women would sigh and nod in empathy: Oh, sister, I have walked in those Aerosoles. It didn’t matter if the woman was old or young, thin or plump, slathered in makeup or sleeved in tattoos — she understood what it felt like to walk into a room and feel so outgunned.
People agreed with me on this topic so often that I was a bit startled when someone did not. This happened one afternoon at coffee with a male friend. I don’t know how I expected him to respond. Probably in the way he responds to most of my stories, which is to laugh, or offer some insight I had not considered, because he is a thoughtful person who believes in the wisdom of good books and dirty jokes. But instead, the look on his face was odd. He looked almost disappointed in me.
“Why do women do that?” he asked. “Tear each other down like that?”
Uhhh. Is that what he thought I was doing? I have certainly hurled my share of poison darts into the lean and spray-tanned thighs of a few Dallas blondes, but that’s not what I was attempting at that moment. I was trying to express my own discomfort in a place that was both foreign and all too familiar. I was trying to be funny and sad and real.
But he was not wrong to spy scorn in my voice: Those Dallas women, with their tiny clothes and their ludicrous bodies. And it just so happened that my friend LOVES those Dallas women, with their tiny clothes and their ludicrous bodies. He thinks they’re gorgeous. Did he really have to choose between them and me now?
“Here’s what I don’t get,” he said, kicking his legs out in front of him. “If you hate the game so much, why do you play it? Why not just drop out?”
Which is a fair question, but a bit of a dismissive one. It had a ring of “put up or shut up” to it, as though I was not allowed to have conflict on this topic, when conflict seemed to be all I had. And the truth is that I had dropped out for years, and I can attest it was not awesome — less like dropping out, really, and more like hiding — and having found a modicum of comfort in my own body, I was still trying to figure out my place in the glamour parade: How much of myself was I interested in tweaking? When did the push to be beautiful tip into desperation? How high should the heel be? How short the skirt? And why was I so annoyed by women who answered these questions differently than I did?
And maybe that’s what my friend was asking, ultimately: Why does any of this bother you? If other women want plastic surgery and hair weaves and stilettos to the sky, what do you care?
Later, he and I would discuss all this over email. He would explain that he felt frustrated by what he saw as an endless female competition to be the prettiest in the room. “That tractor beam that draws otherwise attractive women into unsexy pillow fights for the male gaze is a worthless creator of suffering,” he said. “And women perpetuate it and hand wring over it and attribute it to every man, rather than recognize it and give it a wide berth.”
I wanted to argue with him, but I wasn’t certain he was wrong. “I know women feel imprisoned by beauty standards,” he said. “But many times, I think they walk into the jail themselves.”
Not long ago, I heard Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO show Girls, talk in an interview about the ways “women make each other crazy just by being what the other one isn’t.” She described it so perfectly as “looking at what’s on everybody’s plate and feeling jealous about it.”
My mind stayed in that sunny alcove at the coffee shop long after my friend and I stopped talking. I kept replaying the conversation in my mind, thinking of better, pithier ways to express myself. (I spend a lot of time in my brain, fighting with men.) This went on for so long that I realized I had stumbled into rich writing territory, because I had all these emotions and observations and opinions but so few real answers. And because I am 37, this is a conversation that surrounds me. My friends talk about Botox now, and getting things “fixed,” and it’s not just happening in Dallas — of course not, don’t be silly — but it is happening very close to the surface in Dallas. It is highly visible. And it struck me as a fascinating story about this place that no one was telling, because stories about beauty tend to fall into two camps: Buy this product. Or, This is ridiculous. Those camps are valid, but I wanted to explore something different, something murkier and in-between.
And so, The Smart Blonde was born. (It’s a tricky trick to name a column, but I think Tim Rogers and I did okay here. I’m not sure how smart — or, for that matter, how blond — I really am, but I like that a column wrestling with beauty stereotypes might begin by challenging one of the oldest.) It’s a monthly feature in D Magazine that examines our city’s pageant of beauty from multiple angles. I think Dallas women have a more intense relationship with their appearance than possibly any other place in the country. And I wanted to tackle that from a journalistic perspective, but also a personal one, because these hit at the core of our being. How we feel about waxing, weight gain, skin care products, our thighs — it’s really a reflection of how we feel about ourselves.
I have described my approach as a mix of cultural reporting, personal writing, and anthropology — which usually leaves people staring blankly and gesturing for the check — so I’m glad that I have the first column, about the myth of big Dallas hair, to show people.
In time, I hope this column grows other components: I want to create a podcast, because I love talking to people and because someone has to give those boys at the Ticket a run for their money. I also plan to start a blog, because after years of complaining about the hell of internet comments, I find writing for the print medium to be awfully — quiet. Readers of FrontBurner and D Magazine are incredible sources of information, because they see so much more of this city than I could ever hope to experience. But my blog-building and podcast-creating skills lag far behind my scribbling skills. Maybe I’ll get that going in a few months? In the meantime, I hope anyone with ideas or thoughts or strong feelings not fit for the gladiator arena of online commentary will email them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Already, in the few months I have been gearing up for this column, I see this place differently. I feel more at home here. I don’t know what changed. Did I change, or did the city change me? It’s a question I’ll be kicking around for some time. When I see old friends from New York, they sometimes blink at me twice, three times, like they are emerging from a long matinee, because they are not accustomed to the woman who once picked her clothes up off the floor arriving in vintage dresses and eyelash extensions (column No. 2, btw). But whatever external shift is taking place has been accompanied by an internal one as well.
The other day I was with my friend Allison at a D Magazine event at the Dallas Contemporary, and I could not stop watching this group of young women. Everything about them was so artfully constructed: The tight jeans in various colors, the bright and chunky jewelry, the long, flowing hair, the scarves draped around their neck. It is not how I would dress, but it was a nice way to dress. I was talking to Allison about this when a guy in line for a beer caught sight of us.
“You two are whispering about those girls,” the guy said. “This can’t be good.”
So I told him exactly what I had been saying: How beautiful those women looked.
On that, we could agree.