Fifteen years ago today, a younger, darker-haired version of myself was in the midst of a strange period of physical and emotional turmoil. She was trying to navigate the rocky waters of the summer between Grade 6 and Grade 7, recovering from a school year in which she lost several friends (whom she tried to change everything – her sunny disposition, her love of dresses and shoes – for!) and dropped a bunch of weight (for not the best reasons). She was very unhappy in her own skin and unsure of the ways in which she was growing up and out (hello, bras!). While occasional afternoons with her Sims family and diary helped ease the pain, there was still something missing. And that something, it turned out, was a movie about an ambitious and audacious young woman and future Harvard Law School student Elle Woods.
Legally Blonde, Elle Woods’ cinematic debut (a sequel set in D.C. would follow!), came out on July 13, 2001, and I remember the day I saw it like it was yesterday. I went to a near-empty theatre to escape the heat of the afternoon and ended up being transported to a place I didn’t think I could get to at the time: a place where empowerment, where happiness, seemed real and attainable for even the most lost of young girls. Watching Elle (Reese Witherspoon at her perkiest!), with her bright personality, bright
Watching Elle (Reese Witherspoon at her perkiest!), with her bright personality, bright clothes and even brighter future, keep her light-haired head up even in the darkest times was a sort of revelation.
Here, in this film, was a woman who was 100 percent true to herself and wholly successful because of it. She didn’t change her overly optimistic outlook or femme wardrobe to appease anyone who thought she needed to be more “serious” (ahem, Warner Huntington III). In fact, she used these traits and preferences to her advantage, showing up her competition with her genuine passion and self-assuredness. And even when she hit an unusual breaking point, thinking that maybe she should quit law altogether because no one was seeing her as anything but “blonde hair and boobs,” she still managed to pull herself back up again, walking into the courtroom in her signature color and winning the case (and my heart).
Long story short, Legally Blonde spoke to 11-year-old me like nothing else did at the time. It said, in the cutest, most welcoming and fun way, “Hey, Emily! You can make a change. You can make things better for yourself. You can get through this.” It said, to paraphrase Elle’s valedictorian speech at the end of the film, you must have faith in yourself.
Naturally, since I was 11 and unable to see too far outside the surface, the first thing I did to change myself and my life involved my hair. Yes, I got blonde highlights.
And while it might seem like a superficial choice, especially for a pre-teen, to say that it changed my life entirely would be an understatement. It was the first big decision that I made entirely for myself (my mom was not totally on board and definitely wouldn’t let me fully dye my hair at the time) and it so felt right. This small, physical change made a big change in my emotional well-being and sense of self. For the first time in a long time, I felt like the Emily I always wanted to be: confident and beautiful and ready to take on the world (or at least high school).
That’s not to say that I resented being a brunette (I adore brown hair and think it suits so many people wonderfully, just as red and black tones do others). But I always wanted to be a blonde for personal reasons and by actually doing that, by making that leap, I felt like I was owning my identity, much like Elle did when she stepped on the campus of Harvard Law School in all pink (or when she rocked a bunny costume at a non-costume party). I actually fully identify as a blonde now, even going platinum a few years back. To this day, a lot of people assume that I’m naturally blonde (they’re not totally wrong, seeing as I had light hair as a toddler). I’m not sure if it’s because they’re used to it, or because it suits me. But I’d like to believe it’s because it’s just who I am and who I’m meant to be.
The thing is, my transformation didn’t stop at my hair. After watching Legally Blonde, I also started to reevaluate my personal style, inspired by Elle’s ability to kill it in skirts, dresses and bright colours. As a much younger girl, I had been a full-on girly girly, rocking Laura Ashley dresses and Belle costumes to school without a thought. I continued this streak until about Grade 3 when I fell in with new, intellectually engaging friends who wouldn’t be caught dead in anything other than a Sporty Spicy replica outfit (think tearaway pants and sneakers) and felt a pressure to conform. The thing is, while I respected these girls’ opinions, I was never quite comfortable in these tomboy/cool girl looks and often secretly yearned for the brighter colours and flamboyant patterns. So when I drifted from those friends in high school, I started to pack up the baggy jeans and trade them for jean skirts (and later jean dresses). Immediately, I felt lighter and freer. And eventually I found friends who didn’t share my sartorial preferences (hey, Vivian and Elle couldn’t have been more different, but they became best friends by the end!), but still accepted and, dare I say loved, me.
It took a few years for me to go full Elle in the fashion department, but these days it’s rare to see me in anything other than a statement dress and accompanying lipstick. I know it’s definitely not a look for everyone, with people often wondering why I have to dress “so fancy” even at casual events (example: my mom used to think I was going on dates when I was just headed to work). But, as I always tell these people, when I’m getting dressed and ready for the day, it’s not about where I am, or where I’m going. When I’m getting dressed and ready for the day, it’s about who I am. And who I am is a girl who likes to wear big, bold colors and swingy skirts and a little too much blush. Who I am is a girl who, yes, sometimes is underestimated by her overt attention to her hair and accessories, but is ready and willing to prove the non-believers wrong with preparation and passion. Who I am is not unlike Elle Woods in a Harvard lecture room: a boldly colored MacBook in a sea of chrome personal computers. Who I am is me.
Okay and a little bit Elle Woods.