The pre-Raphaelite look…

Red Alert

5th September 2014

To mark the annual Redhead Days festival in Breda, Netherlands, taking place this year from 5 to 7 September, Claire Moulds looks at the changing fortunes of those with auburn tresses…

As my friend looked at her husband’s vivid red mop and then at her growing bump and uttered the words ‘as long as it’s not ginger’ I inwardly cringed. It’s a ‘joke’ I’ve heard so many times before from expectant parents but one that never ceases to inflame my – stereotypical – temper.

Amusingly though, such ‘humour’ now only serves to highlight how out of step the speaker is with current trends. After all, with redheads riding high in the charts and on stage and screen it’s clear that those blessed with crimson locks are enjoying a modern day renaissance.

Sadly, Sonia, Tiffany and Mick Hucknall – the only prominent redheads I knew – weren’t quite such achingly cool role models when I was growing up. Nor was Elizabeth I, also famed for her red or red-gold hair.

To a non-redhead who is used to seeing celebrities with their colouring all the time, the subtle shift probably hasn’t even registered. But for those with flaming tresses, having successful role models across a range of fields represents a clear change in mind-set, underlining the fact it’s now ok to be talented and to have red hair – you don’t need to dye it to be a star.

And it’s not just the fact that redheads are doing well in a range of industries that is making their ascendancy so noticeable. The increasing acceptability of red hair means that general fashion, hair and beauty articles are also embracing redheads in their features. Again, to a non-redhead this may seem a little trivial, but if you’ve ever opened a magazine and been confronted with only blondes and brunettes, then you do feel like the poor relation.

That’s not to say that everything is suddenly rosy for redheads as there remains a steady stream of stories in the press about people being bullied because of their colouring as well as those which reinforce traditional stereotypes.

For example, earlier this year match.com in America decided to mark St Patrick’s Day by releasing a story about how redheaded ladies would be having the ‘most fun’ during the celebrations as redheads are ‘the most vivacious of all singles when it comes to their sex lives’. By choosing to reinforce an age-old prejudice, in order to market their services, they no doubt encouraged an avalanche of unwanted advances in the process.

Ironically, given the animosity towards the ginger community, redheads and non-redheads actually have more in common than they might think. Recent research revealed that, while redheads are still a niche group, the proportion of the population who are carriers of the red hair gene is actually vast – 20.4 million people across Britain and Ireland.

As a natural redhead myself – think Shirley Temple post-GHDs – I grew up with daily playground references to my hair from ‘rusty’ to ‘carrot top’ and that tried and trusted favourite ‘ginga’. While I was convinced that the girl with the long golden curls got the part of Cinderella in the school play for her lustrous tresses rather than her acting ability, an injustice my five year old self was never quite reconciled to, for the most part I weathered the playground taunts about my hair with good grace. Famous redheaded model Lily Cole has acknowledged that she found the teasing and the bullying about her copper top hard to take as a child.

But while other childhood stigmas might pass – nobody is going to call a 30-something-year-old woman ‘specky’ – the ginger moniker still lingers. If anything, the jeers have taken on an adult nature. From having an insatiable sexual appetite to being violent tempered – I’ve heard them all.
So where does it all stem from?

As the rarest hair colour on the planet – less than 1% of the world’s population has red hair – it’s not exactly surprising that such a unique trait should either raise or lower the status of redheads in the eyes of others.

Unfortunately history has shown that, rather than something to be prized, red hair was more likely to be something that was feared. During the Middle Ages red hair and green eyes were thought to be the sign of any number of supernatural beings from werewolves to vampires. Indeed, during the Spanish Inquisition flame-coloured hair was evidence that its owner had stolen the very fire of hell and must therefore be burned at the stake as a witch. Hardly encouragement to celebrate our radiant locks.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of words were devoted to Rebekah Brooks’ mane during the recent phone hacking trial with article after article feeling the need to refer to her red hair as if it alone was sufficient to paint her as the villain of the piece. Worse still for Brooks was the fact that her hair is not only red but also curly, enabling the liberal use by her fellow journalists of the words ‘wild’ and ‘unruly’ as if it demonstrated her clear rejection of the established order. If she’d been a blonde or brunette would even one article have felt the need to reference her hair colour?

And it’s not just stereotypes that have led to redhead persecution over the years. Biological make-up means that we’re genetically programmed to become friends and mate with ‘people like us’, as we want our own segment of the gene pool safely maintained and transmitted to future generations. As the redhead community is very small it means we don’t resemble a lot of the population, which may explain the less than favourable responses – bullying, taunts and isolation – that we receive from other social groups.

That’s why, while I’d like to think that not wanting a red haired child is part of a parent’s inbuilt programming to protect their offspring from pain and injury – given no child with fiery tresses will ever make it through life without some degree of name calling – I can’t help thinking that it’s more a case of them not wanting to give birth to someone who is ‘different’ from their own ‘tribe’.

It’s also the reason that campaigns such as the RED HOT movement, which aims to challenge the fact that guys with red hair still don’t have the same number of positive role models that girls do in our culture, are so important. The brainchild of Thomas Knights, RED HOT is currently following a hugely successful exhibition in London at the end of last year, which attracted worldwide press coverage, with a large scale coffee table book featuring redheaded males from all over the word alongside quotes about their own experience of growing up with red hair.

Like many with titian tresses I’ve grown to absolutely love my auburn curls over the years. Once the name calling of the playground had passed and I grew older I liked being different and standing out in a crowd. If anything, I’m saddened by the fact that my hair is not as red and as vibrant as it once was.

That’s not to say I’ve overcome all of the challenges that my colouring brings with it. I still struggle with trying to achieve even the faintest tan when on holiday; finding a foundation pale enough to match my ‘freshly dug up hue’ – as one friend so thoughtfully puts it – is almost impossible and, right now, I’m faced with a new delight thrown up by the ageing process…

I clearly remember my Dad’s red hair fading as he grew older, becoming almost blonde, and the emergence of the odd white hair amongst his moustache. At the time I never fully took on board the implications for my own crowning glory, but lately I’ve had to.

While I was resigned to my own colour fading over time the arrival of white hair in my 36-year-old mane has been a rather rude wake-up call. At present it’s just the odd one or two and I can pull them out but, sooner or later, I’m going to have to face facts and hit the hair dye. The question is though, do I go for a subtle reddish blonde, as my hair is now, or do I embrace the vivid red of my younger days?

Whichever way I turn though one thing is for sure, it’s never been a better time to be a redhead – which is why I have my fingers firmly crossed that my friend’s glossy, brunette bob is secretly hiding the recessive ginger gene and that I’ll therefore be bouncing a little baby carrot top on my knee in the very near future…

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