13 August 2011

Something light for a Saturday, the blessed curse of red hair

Modigliani, Redhead in a Black Dress, 1918

I read something interesting and well written on The Huffington Post yesterday. In and of itself that's news. As my Dad would say, "Even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while." Anyhow, the piece if found was an essay written by Katherine Bindley called Being a Redhead: Why it's a Love Hate-Relationship.

A highlight:
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."

Disclaimer: I am a redhead.

Every word that woman wrote rung so true I couldn't believe it. It's as if she talked to me before she wrote her essay. But really, she didn't have to talk to me. We're members of the same tribe. She knows and I know what having red hair means without uttering a word.

Redheads are tormented as kids, tormented. That can't be repeated often enough. We're tormented. If there's any truth to the idea that we have quick tempers, that temperament stems from an endless chorus of "redhead peed the bed" we hear all through elementary school. It's an easy difference to spot and latch onto. That it's encouraged by absurd stereotypes their parents hold onto just makes it worse. In the West, we're the other kind of white person and having red hair taught me early and valuable lessons about what it feels like to be an other.

Red hair's not an exclusively Caucasian trait though and it's thought that it first appeared in Africa some 50,000 years ago. Asian, African, Middle Eastern and European redheads get our hair color from a genetic mutation on chromosome 16. Due to that mutations, we produce more of a pigment called eumelanin than we do the more typical melanin. Our skin color tends to follow our hair color and regardless of race, redheads are always more light complected. That light complexion is a double-edged sword. In tropical climates we get more skin cancer. But in temperate climates we can make more vitamin D in low light. Tropical redheads are a lot more rare than temperate ones as a result.

In addition to being able to make more vitamin D in low light, we're also more prone to be left handed, we require on average 20% more anesthetic to knock us out, we retain heat better, go deaf more often, have worse than average vision and bees sting us more readily.

Worldwide, we make up between 1 to 2% of the population. In the US, we're somewhere around 3%. Scotland, the land my red-headed ancestors called home, has the world's highest percentage at 14%.

History hasn't been kind to us, redheads have always been viewed with a suspicious eye. In the Spanish Inquisition, people with red hair were assumed to be Jewish automatically, rounded up and slaughtered. In ancient Egypt, red heads were rounded up and burned alive to purge society of bad elements. Adolf Hitler's insane beliefs about genetics led to laws that forbade two redheads from marrying. In Medieval Europe, red hair was seen as a sign of someone who was oversexed and untrustworthy. In England today we're called gingers and discrimination against gingers is reported to be widespread. In Australia, we're called rangas, slang for orangutan.

Here's a quote from Heinrich Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum. Heinrich Kramer a Catholic Inquisitor in Germany in 1487.
Those whose hair is red, of a certain peculiar shade, are unmistakably vampires. It is significant that in ancient Egypt, as Manetho tells us, human sacrifices were offered at the grave of Osiris, and the victims were red-haired men who were burned, their ashes being scattered far and wide by winnowing-fans. It is held by some authorities that this was done to fertilize the fields and produce a bounteous harvest, red-hair symbolizing the golden wealth of the corn. But these men were called Typhonians, and were representatives not of Osiris but of his evil rival Typhon, whose hair was red.
Being a redhead then makes dealing with the childhood harassment of today seem mild to say the least.

It's taken me a lifetime to get used to my red hair and at this stage of my life I love it. I think the tide turned some time when I was around 25 or so. I had about a 15 year run until it started to change color to something more like reddish brown. The hair on my head at any rate. Without getting too indelicate, the hair on the rest of me is as red as its ever been. That hair color change is also reported to be typical. redheads tend not to get gray hair. Rather, our hair changes color all at once. From coppery red as kids, to something more red-red as teens, to brown-red as adults, then onto gold-red, light gold and finally, white. Based on what I saw unfold for my beloved grandmother Stewart, I will be an old man with gold-tinged hair at some point in my late 60s. When I hit 75, it'll be as white as snow.

I have a very large family. I have five brothers and a sister. I have 23 nieces and nephews, two great-nephews and a great-niece. I love those kids with a love so deeply it scares me sometimes, regardless of their hair color. In total, my immediate family now numbers 39 people once I include my sibs, their spouses and kids. By any stretch, that's a lot of people. Two of my older brothers are red-headed too and despite how prolific they've been, there haven't been any more redheads in the generation that follows me. However, all of that changed last spring with the arrival of my great-nephew Xavier.

Even in his pre-verbal state, the redhead brotherhood runs as deep as it runs strong. That little boy and I share the same mutation on chromosome 16. Beyond that, when he and I lock gazes, we share something else, an almost knowing allegiance. I make it a point not to have favorites among my many nieces, nephews and assorted greats. But this little guy's going to challenge all of that.

All of those kids I'm related to are already perfect in my eyes and there's nothing any of them can do that will ever make me think less of them. However, Xavier's something more than perfect. He's something closing in on sanctified.

I know he's going to get hassled when he's a kid and I know he'll always be described as "that red-headed guy." But what Xavier can't know that I do know is that he's going to age better than his peers will. He'll have a better tolerance for pain (which will help with the bee stings). He'll be viewed as an exotic species for the rest of his life, and eventually he'll see that as a positive. By the time he's 25, I'll be the drooling, inconsequential old man in the corner and though he may not know it then, he will have always had the the undying adoration of his great-uncle Paul. Even though he doesn't play favorites.

Chime in if you're a redhead (or ginger or ranga)!


  1. Coming from a Jewish family of brunettes, we were really shocked when our oldest child was born with red hair. I hope she doesn't have angst because of it -- right now, it's a beautiful copper color that strangers walk up to touch and comment on. I'm more afraid that it's going to make her conceited.

    I loved the history and perspective Paul - a great read!

  2. I never knew it until I was reading about it yesterday, but red hair's an Ashkenazi trait. Who knew?

  3. I never knew it was an Ashkenazi trait til just now! Always learnin' something...

  4. King David was a redhead too!

  5. Regardless that I'm not a redhead, ginger or ranga I can relate as believe me Paul having fair hair also can come with its stigmas. ie: 'The golden-haired child', 'dumb blonde' etc. If it is any consolation, I recall as a child envying two of my cousins who; yes were carrot-tops whereas I was the only blonde one in our large clan. At least they had one another and their hair colouring was associated with a healthy vegetable. :)

    Xavier is beautiful!!!!! -Brenda-

  6. Wait a minute, do you mean to say that blondes don't really have more fun? Thanks Brenda and I agree of course, Xavier's a beautiful young man. I'll pass along your compliment to his parents.

  7. "I'll never tell" Paul. :)

  8. Paul, I was a "cotton top" as a baby and small child. It darkened to a dark "dishwater" blond the older I got. Not a very flattering color or color name, in my opinion. So, back about 20 or so years ago, I decided to become a redhead. I have a nice coppery/auburn color that I love. Everyone that meets me now assumes that this is my "natural" color.

    Having been both a blonde and a redhead, I have to say that I have way more fun as a redhead than I ever did as a blonde!

    I enjoyed the history on redheads.

    Brenda Lynn

  9. My mother is a redhead by birth, now blonde since her red faded to a brownish color she didn't like. I am a very light blonde by birth; at 40 my natural hair is silvery white and with my extra pale complexion I needed to punch things up so I didn't disappear....so I am now a dark coppery redhead BY CHOICE. I have always thought red hair is beautiful!

  10. I always wanted an extreme hair color - raven black, copper red, white blonde - but what I got is what is commonly referred to as
    "mouse". Light brown blah. I'm envious of all you cotton tops and gingers!

  11. I'm a redhead, ginger mellowed to red-brown now I'm over 40. Three of my four children are differing shades of red. The youngest is so sad that she doesn't "match" the others that we have agreed not to mention it.

  12. A lot of Aussies have red hair as many of us have Irish and Scottish ancestry. Until very recently redheads would invariably be nicknamed "Bluey", "Ranga" being a neologism from the last decade (I thought it was Maori when I first heard it, and apparently it might be derived from the Maori word for blue; nobody's sure).
    I have a six-year-old Ginger Ninja, but me... I'm a librarian... yes, a brunette!

  13. I am the adoring mommy of a six year old boy with the most beautiful, silky coppery red hair ever! We never expected to have a redhead since both my hubbie and I are blond! He is complimented on it endlessly and even remarks himself on how people love his "beautiful red hair" Like Erika, I hope he never suffers any unhappiness because of it! I feel like times have changed since you were a child and now it is cool to be a redhead! I think so!!!

  14. I've pretty much always had light orange/coppery red hair. I'm 24 now and I'm hoping this same tone sticks around, I've come to really love my hair as it's always been. Even if I wasn't so fond of the negatives of growing up with it. Red hair only comes up every couple generations it seems in my family with only my great aunt, my great grandmother (Rosemary O'Flynn, wonder what possible heritage I have! Haha) and myself that I know of with it. So I consider myself fortunate to not only possess but to have show my genetic heritage.


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