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Essay: Red Hair

The musings of a redhead

February 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Photo by Jonathan Stephanoff

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When mom, with her platinum blonde Pantene-Pro-V-model hair, and dad with his rich, fudge-brownie-like tresses, mixed and mingled their genetic decomposition’s deoxyribonucleic acid in a swirl of swimming tadpoles — lo and behold — three true-blue redheads blinked back at them.

First, my brother popped out, with a mane as dark red as the blood-pumping human heart. Then came my sister, with even redder locks-of-love in a hue you could find in the condiment aisle at your local grocery store next to the mustard. I was the last baby carrot-top and by far the brightest of them all - in hair that is. My tresses looked like they were on fire — burning in radiant flames of untamed crimson.

Completely unaware of the rarity of red-locks, I blindly stumbled through childhood. I focused more on how to get away with murder (metaphorically speaking), and if I’d be able to attend recess at the monkey bars, rather than cogitate my mystical hair color.

During a fourth grade assembly starring the incredible yo-yo master, I was chosen to come on stage and show off my yo-yo moves. I won the brand new, red Spintastic Tornado 2 for my performance. My best friend, Tiffany, taunted me that the only reason he picked me to go on stage was because of “the red on your head.”

“Nuhuh! I won because I jumped up higher and screamed louder than anyone else in the crowd. Aaand he knows that I am the next yo-yo Master,” I cried as I eagerly spun my new yo-yo out of my palm and broke it against the pavement.

As I got older, the longer my red ‘do grew and the more I accumulated an alarming number of nicknames. Red, Big Red, Ariel, Fire-Engine-Red, Redheaded Slut, Red Hot, Ginger, Ginger Spice, Carrot-top (my least favorite), The Big Red Machine (my favorite) and Red Cox (a play off my last name that generated a distinct branch of phallic nicknames I won’t repeat here).

Other than the redhead pseudonyms, a plethora of aphorisms and propaganda are constantly thrown at me. “Fiery-tempered,” “Red on the head means fire in bed,” and of course the overused, “Does the carpet match the drapes?”

I thought South Park’s ingenious creation of the hereditary disease known as “Gingervitis” was phenomenal, and I now use that term whenever I am asked to describe myself.

During college I began to realize the mysterious power that being a redhead generated, and I became inquisitive. I would wonder about anyone and anything with a red tint. What is this strange and mystical color connecting us to both rage and ecstasy, to love and war, blood and passion, risk and romance?

Red. The first color on the color wheel. Red. The most powerful hue. What is your origin or mission among us? I want the truth about this mutant gene, so to speak. Do you even know or will you even tell?

When I was a freshman, I was approached at the college bookstore by a bro with sandy blond hair. After poking me in the gut, he asked, “Did that hurt you?”

Taken by surprise, my eyes immediately scanned his profile to determine his creeper rank. Judging by his crisp, freshly ironed button-down shirt and his stylin’ Birkenstocks, I could tell his mother dressed him. “Definite 10,” I thought.

“Yeah… I think I felt some pain there,” I said, while rubbing my stomach.

“Redheads are supposed to tolerate more pain. You must not be a real redhead.”

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I about flat-out walloped him right then and there. Did I just live the last 18 years of my life with natural red ringlets only to be stepped on by some blond mama’s boy who looked as if he had been through one too many hazing rituals?

“I am totally real,” I retorted. Then, in order to prove my existence, I let out some steam by promulgating redheaded facts.

“Did you know natural redheads make up less than 2 percent of the population? And that because of a recessive gene, known as melanocortin-1, natural redheads have a higher pain tolerance? And we, along with blonds, are supposed to be extinct by the year 2060? Red dye is also the No. 1 selling dye among women who wish to change their tresses.” But oh, it did not end there. In a redhead wrath, I began to vent.

“Natural redheads, hmm. Let me think. Lucille Ball is natural, as is Woody Allen, General George Custer, Annie Oakley, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Galileo, William Shakespeare, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, George Washington, Debra Messing, Mary Magdalene, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Shawn White, Queen Elizabeth I, Carrot-Top (my least favorite redhead) and Conan O’ Brien (my favorite redhead).”

Okay, so this creep-turned-brave soul asked me out. But I turned him down because he was shorter than me (a real pet peeve of mine). I still occasionally see him on campus and try desperately not to make eye contact with him by either hurriedly texting a fictitious person on my cell phone or acting as if I am in deep, intellectual thought.

It seems acting is the only choice redheads have when it comes to hiding because for us, transparency in appearance is nonexistent. We do not know what mundane, ordinary and prosaic feel like or what vanilla tastes like. Our red hue radiates an exotic power, a minority power, which separates us from the pack. Our pose is avant-garde, and we don’t even try. Meeting people is an effortless task. Every day I get some sort of an, “I remember you. How are you doing?” by an unfamiliar face I apparently met a few days ago.

Oh red, how I love thee. You have opened up for me a world of questions, a world of curiosity, and a world of spontaneity. I hope my crimson tresses are never extinguished and that a redhead’s rose never wilts. For without you, dear red, we would be bored. You color of love and lust, of cupid and the devil, of power and danger, of Thomas Jefferson and Conan O’ Brien, of cherry pie and sweet red wine.

I love you.

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