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Katherine Bindley

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Being a Redhead: Why It's A Love-Hate Relationship

Posted: 08/ 8/2011 6:27 pm

Every so often, a fascination with red hair flares up in the media. Sometimes a celebrity dyes her locks and starts a short-lived surge in the popularity of strawberry, copper and ruby shades (see Blake Lively, Scarlett Johansson and Rihanna). Other times, a high-powered executive at the center of a phone hacking scandal (Rebekah Brooks) unapologetically displays her natural hue, and a journalist (Robin Givhan) writes a 900 word story criticizing her for it.

Some adjectives Givhan uses to describe Brooks' hair deride its curliness (see "tangle of vines") while others focus on its color ("red cloud"). Givhan's message may be nothing more than, "Take a flat iron to it before you go out in public, lady" but as a redhead all too familiar with the ridicule this single genetic mutation inspires, I have to wonder whether Givhan would have come down so hard on a blonde or a brunette Brooks.

I'm going to go with no. Judith Newman argued in the New York Times last Friday that it was the untamed curliness of Brooks' locks that got to Givhan, but I disagree. If only the curls bothered her, would she really have described the former News of the World editor's mane as "flaming" and a "spray of self-conscious indifference"? Later she wrote, "That was look-at-me hair--stare at me, remember me. Me, me, me." I find it hard to believe she was attributing all of that perceived arrogance and egocentricity to volume alone, especially considering the title of the slideshow that ran with the essay: "Are Red-Haired Women Evil?"

Givhan's piece is just the latest evidence of a prejudice that dates back, globally, at least to ancient Egypt and personally, to approximately the time I started forming memories. I've hated my hair for as long as I can recall. When my best friend gave me a red-headed doll named Freckles for my fifth birthday, I cried and fled my own party. (She claims I actually threw Freckles before making my dramatic exit. I may well have.) I responded similarly to a red-headed doll I got for Christmas a couple of years later (you know it's bad when you think even Santa is making fun of you).

I first planned to dye my hair when I was 13. When my parents caught wind of the scheme, they threatened to ground me. I can't remember the fight we had about it, but I imagine they argued that my hair was a unique and beautiful part of me that should be a source of pride. Easy for them to say: they, and my two older sisters, are brunettes.

I didn't dye my hair, and as a result, a boy at camp that summer was able to spend the better part of a day-long canoe trip yelling out my least favorite of all red-headed insults from another boat (think Brandon Davis and Lindsay Lohan, a la 2006).

Years later, redemption seemed to come in the form of the extremely-gorgeous-at-the-time Jordan Catalano (aka Jared Leto) on "My So Called Life" singing a song called "Red." A hot guy on TV paying tribute to Angela Chase's red hair and thus, to my people! No, another cruel joke -- later in the episode, we learn it was a tribute to his car.

I admit that being a redhead isn't the only hair curse. Having tightly wound, frizzy, unmanageable locks is no blessing for your average kid, either. And yet, I've never heard anyone threaten to "beat someone like a curly haired stepchild."

History has not been kind to the ginger people. At various points we have been hunted as witches, sacrificed to the gods and thought to be vampires.

When it comes to art and literature, the biblically-themed, at least, red hair is often the mark of sin. The roster of corrupted redheads includes Eve, after she was been seduced by Satan, Cain, after he offed his brother, and everyone's favorite disciple, Judas. Redheaded Mary Magdalenes are also common, emphasizing what a harlot Jesus had the compassion to befriend. (Legend also has it that we're sexually insatiable and morally depraved.)

Over time, things haven't really gotten better. Sure, we're not burned at the stake anymore (and we appreciate that) but contemporary pop culture is no friend to the redhead. A 2005 South Park episode dedicated to us declared that we have no souls (the gingers in town are discriminated against and subsequently live up to their stereotypical volatile temperament by trying to kill everyone).

Just the other weekend on "Entourage," Jeremy Piven's character, who recently separated from his wife, responded to her revelation that she was dating red headed chef Bobby Flay by shouting, "He's a genetic mistake!"

I'm just lucky I don't live in the U.K., where centuries-old animosity towards the Irish makes life significantly rougher for redheads. Across the pond, hatred for the red-haired people is so ingrained there's an actual term for it: gingerism. In 2007, a waitress received a hefty settlement in court after her coworkers harassed her about her hair. That same year, a family in Newcastle relocated because their red-headed kids were being teased and beaten up.

Then there was the Facebook group that sponsored "National Kick a Ginger Day" in 2008. They acquired 5,000 members before being shut down. 5,000 people want to kick me? Really? I felt a little better when I came across a "Hot Ginger Appreciation Society" on Facebook, but then I saw that it has just 89 members.

Even supposed tributes to redheads are offensive: the honorees almost inevitably include several fakes. Selecting Blake Lively and Emma Stone (fakes) over, say, Isla Fisher (real) in this Teenvogue.com slideshow sends the message that natural redheads aren't as pretty. This TODAY show gallery featured 17 redheaded women, only 10 of whom were born that way. And in a recent Marieclaire.com slideshow, dye jobs out-numbered naturally red tresses 10 to 7.

To be fair, it's not entirely the editors' fault. Many of the most celebrated redheads are blonds and brunettes in disguise. Christina Hendrick's fiery locks in "Mad Men"? Fake. Ditto Julia Roberts, Debra Messing, and Rita Hayworth.

Even Lucille Ball, the woman who once declared, "Once in his life, every man is entitled to fall madly in love with a gorgeous redhead," got her color from a bottle. The few naturally flame-haired starlets out there -- Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Little Mermaid -- must be exhausted. They've been carrying this team for years.

The problem gets worse when "Marie Claire" argues that faux reds -- people who choose strawberry or auburn or crimson but suffer none of the pain of actually growing up with it -- are still redheads, deserving of equal appreciation. I worry that many are now under this misapprehension.

A 2006 New York Press article by a bottled redhead detailed how spicy her sex life had gotten since she'd gone "fiery." (For her, this confirmed the results of a study published earlier that year showing that redheads actually do have more sex.)

"I'm a redhead alright, I just wasn't born that way," the author wrote.

Um, sorry, but you're not. Real redheads are rare: We're four percent of the population worldwide, and just two percent in the U.S. We're also gifted -- or afflicted, depending on your perspective -- with a few other unique characteristics: we're more likely to be left handed (check, I'm a lefty), and we need 20 percent more anesthesia (woke up during oral surgery once).

That said, the one trait most often associated with us hasn't been proven: that we're more hot-tempered than most. Which doesn't mean we don't have good reason to be. While there's no scientific evidence to suggest that we're genetically more inclined to anger, Jane Asher argued in the Daily Mail, that hypothetical tendency would be a normal reaction from a population the rest of society has decided it's okay to mock. No one -- not even a redhead -- survives a lifetime of ridicule without developing some post-traumatic response.

In other words, we're uniquely screwed, or at least that's how I felt about it for most of my life. Then, a few years ago, a funny thing happened: I started to like my hair. I started to think it might even be, I don't know, maybe pretty. Around that same time, another funny thing happened: my hair started to get darker and less red (I'm telling you, it's all lose-lose with us).

Don't get me wrong, I'm still terrified I'll have ginger babies. No one wants to see her child suffer and, in a cruel-twist of fate, it turns out that my half-Lebanese boyfriend somehow has traces of red hair in his family.

But at some point, I grew proud of my hair. At my most recent DMV trip, the guy behind the counter asked me if I wanted my license to say 'red' or 'brown.' I'd wanted to be anything but a redhead my whole life, and there I was, suddenly insulted by the mere suggestion that I might not be one. I put 'red' because anything else felt like a lie.

At a family wedding this summer, my cousin told me all her red-headed friends who'd grown up hating their hair and seen it get darker over the years were dyeing it back. There was a time when that would have shocked me. Today, it makes sense. I'm not sure I'll ever dye mine, but I get it: As redheads, we earn our stripes -- seems only right we keep them.

Are you a natural redhead? Tweet your response to Katie's essay @KatieBindley or @HuffPostWomen using the hashtag #beingaredhead, and we'll include it in the slideshow below!

Dawn Weitzel
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Dawn Weitzel
@katiebindley ...I say it is a matter of embracing the red head within. I am a curly red head and would not have it any other way...
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