The first memory I have of my red hair is of wishing it away. I was at my grandmother’s house. I took a pair of sewing scissors and began hacking away at my hair in front of the TV. She ran in screaming, then grabbed one of the fallen pieces for her wallet.
I wanted blonde hair, like Barbie’s. It seemed sunny, easy, uncomplicated. Red hair felt like a burden, popular with mostly older ladies (“Do you know how much I pay to get your cuhl-ah?” they’d say, hovering over me in a cloud of Giorgio Beverly Hills) and babysitters (“She looks like Strawberry Shortcake!” they’d coo). I didn’t want to be popular with retirees or likened to a doll. Like all kids, I wanted to fit in, but as a redhead, I always stuck out.
Just how much? I can tell you exactly: Redheads make up about two percent of the world’s population. Not that anyone with the slightest hint of red in their hair needs statistics to know they’re an anomaly. Everyone will tell them so. I was in seventh grade when I found out just how deep my difference ran. A friend barreled out of bio class, tripping over herself to break the news to me: “You’re…you’re a mutant!” she said, practically spitting. I begged her to lower her voice. She explained that the redhead gene has a mutation — and it turns out she was right. “If you’re a redhead, one or both copies of your MC1R gene will have a mutation, or possibly several,” says George Busby, a research scientist at the Big Data Institute at Oxford University. These mutations, or variants, have implications for hair color, skin pigment (most red-heads also have freckles), even how sensitive you are to hot and cold (sometimes very), how much anesthesia you require (often more than the average), and how you smell (sweet, actually, according to some reports).
That hallway encounter was just part of a long history of people making sure redheads are well aware of their otherness. In 2005, South Park aired an episode called “Ginger Kids,” in which one of the grade-school characters (Cartman, of course) gives a hate-speech presentation against redheads, saying they have “no soul.” This kind of rhetoric may sound wacko, but it certainly wasn’t born out of the 21st-century satire of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. “Because red hair was so rare, the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Christians believed it was the mark of the devil,” says Erin La Rosa, the author of The Big Redhead Book: Inside the Secret Society of Red Hair.
In the wake of that South Park episode, some kids were inspired to create “Kick a Ginger Day.” One 13-year-old Canadian boy was reportedly assaulted dozens of times on this “holiday” in 2008. Five years later, several school-children were assaulted at a school in the U.K. on the day. But many redheaded kids are subject to bullying on any (and sometimes every) day of the year. In 2014, a 13-year- old Texan boy committed suicide after being teased relentlessly for having ginger hair.
Fortunately, for most redheads, things don’t get to that point. To have red hair is always to tolerate some form of bias, though. “People called me ‘gingerbread man’ because of my darker complexion,” says hairstylist Vernon François, a redhead of Caribbean, Jamaican, and Grenadan descent. While the MC1R variant for red hair is more common in European populations — roughly 5 percent of Scottish and Irish people have red hair — migration over time means that it is found all over the Americas, Asia, Europe, and even Africa. In an ongoing project called the MC1R Series, photographer Michelle Marshall captures the diversity of ginger hair by shooting black and mixed-race redheads in particular.
Perhaps the most unwelcome comments — especially as an adolescent — are the ones about red hair and sexuality. “To my knowledge, redheads are the only people whose pubic hair is a point of public discussion,” says La Rosa. “People feel like they can sexualize us at every turn, and the line ‘Does the carpet match the drapes?’ is used with a disturbing frequency.”
Unfortunately, I can relate. This overt sexualization isn’t something Jared from gym class came up with on his own, clever as he thought he was. Artists who wanted to grab attention would often use Titian-haired women in their paintings. Case in point: “Elizabeth Siddal, who was a stunning redhead and complicated artist herself and served as the muse for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Walter Deverell, John Everett Millais,” says La Rosa. “These Pre-Raphaelite artists would often depict redheads in the nude or as temptresses. Our place as the come-hither type was cemented early on.” And modern pop culture has been sure to maintain the cliché with characters like Jessica Rabbit, Julia Roberts’s in Pretty Woman, Joan from Mad Men, and Alyson Hannigan’s flutist in American Pie.
Real or rumored, redheads’ sexual appeal may actually be what’s keeping the “race” going, says La Rosa. Those clickbait headlines you read about redheads going extinct? Entirely unfounded. “It’s been theorized that the reason redheads have continued to exist is partly due to the fact that we stand out more than any other hue” and therefore, are, er, “chosen.”
Thankfully, among the recent cultural movements to embrace our differences, redheads have not been left out. Sites like Ginger Parrot (a wellspring of support for the ginger community) have sprung up. And if you’re in Georgia this month, head to the town of Rome on the 17th for the Ginger Pride Parade. (Or hit up similar events everywhere from Chicago to Milan later this year.) Kick a Ginger Day has given way to Kiss a Ginger Day, and there’s even a lobby for a redhead emoji (fingers crossed).
I found my own redhead positivity by seeing the way red hair looks on women I admire. It happened the first time I saw Tori Amos. Her red hair wasn’t dorky; it was cool, artistic, regal. (I got those same vibes again with Florence Welch.) That type of mystique is another one of the long-held, but lesser-known, perceptions of the red-haired: “According to 16th and 17th-century pagans, redheads symbolized magnetism and mysticism,” says Tobias Anthony, the author of Ginger Pride: A Redheaded History of the World.
For redhead Molly Ringwald, the breakthrough came when she saw Nine on Broadway as a teenager. “This dancer’s hair was bright, bright red,” she told me recently. “I thought, I want to look like that. I am going to look like that.” She had once put Sun-In in her auburn hair to try to look like her blonde sister, but now she doubled down on the red, making it even fierier. It would become her signature. And she would become an icon.
That’s the thing about red hair, says makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury. It makes people pay attention. “My hair is my defining feature,” she says. “It ensures you’re never forgotten.” And it encourages some people to speak up.
“I totally buy into the fiery-redhead stereotype,” says Ringwald. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a redhead that I’m known to speak my mind, or if having red hair gave me permission.”
A spectacularly rare color that inspires unforgettable, self-assured personalities? That’s more than hair; that’s power.
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