About five years ago, right before my senior year of college, I decided to take the plunge and dye my hair red. I’ve been intrigued by red hair since I saw Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. I was two years old when that movie came out, so it’s pretty much been my whole conscious life. Reflecting on the other female characters I idolized as a child, most, if not all, had red hair: Jessica Rabbit, Poison Ivy, Daphne Blake of Scooby Doo, Lindsay Lohan in every movie she was ever in, Ann Margret in Viva Las Vegas, Lucille Ball’s Lucy Ricardo, Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, Miss Kim Possible herself. Most kick-ass trios also featured a redhead: the Power Puff Girls, Totally Spies, the 2000s Charlie's Angels. Red hair was for the cool, sexy, glamorous, sassy, unique girl. And I wanted in.
Being born with blonde hair to a clan of natural brunettes, I was already somewhat of a genetic anomaly in my family. There’s the thinnest of genetic threads on both sides of my Irish family for red/blonde hair and I’m one of the few where it actually showed up. In fact, my mom famously didn’t believe her OBGYN my blonde head started to crown. She’s dyed her hair blonde since 8th grade, following the tradition established by her mother, aunt, and grandmother. My own sister even partook for a few years before transitioning back to her natural chestnut brown shade.
Just judging by my own family lineage, the changing cultural norms of the 20th century into our own become apparent. My great-grandmother stayed close to her natural color for most of her life and didn’t start dying her hair blonde until after something other than peroxide was invented. From the 80s until the end of her life in 2010, she requested my mom take her to acquire “champagne blonde” from the drugstore, which is the hair color I remember her having. My grandma and her sister also favored a similarly honey-toned shade in the 60s, moving to a whiter blonde in the 70s and 80s. My mom started with champagne as well, moved to almost white blonde in the 80s, and has bounced around with her colorist ever since.
No matter the shade, blonde was THE color of the second half of the 20th century, thanks to Eurocentric beauty standards. Celebrities like Beyonce, JLo, and Shakira adopted blonde hair in the 90s and 00s, proving its versatility and adding dimension to the narrowly pre-established norms. However, the last decade has seen a Return of the Brunette. This trend comes from a more diverse understanding of beauty and leaves room for women to maintain their natural hair color. The “au naturel” craze might just be over, though, with nearly every celebrity under the sun dying their hair red.
Red hair is loaded with connotations, many that we’ve already discussed. Genetically speaking, it's the rarest shade of hair on planet earth. 40% of people carry the gene but only 1% of the population are born gingers. It can appear in peoples with various European ethnicities including Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, and German but is mainly associated with the British Isles. The genetic mutation is thought to originate in the Neolithic period when a group of herders migrated to the Steppes of Central Asia where lessened exposure to sunlight caused their hair and skin to lighten, some changing altogether to a red instead of blonde.
Because of its rarity, red hair has always been noteworthy throughout the ancient world in tribes like the Thracians, Gauls, Celts, and Germans. All were called barbarians by outsiders, especially since these tribes also were generally pretty tall and large making them formidable opponents. Aristotle thought it was the ultimate “red flag” signally an untrustworthy person basically because redheads slayed too hard and looked like foxes, the sexiest animal.
The suspicions of just how hard redheads could slay only grew in the Middle Ages, when it became strongly associated with demons. Both accused witches and Jewish people were identified by their hair color and persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition as enemies of the Church. This horrible and dangerous stereotype extended into literature and art, with characters from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dickens portrayed as being deceitful, red-headed, and Jewish.
If you were in middle school in the 2000s or 2010s, you’ll probably cringe to remember the not funny at all “joke” that “gingers have no souls.” Dually associated with wickedness and beauty for centuries, what in scientific terms is an evolutionary mutation, same as opposable thumbs, has been viewed as the ultimate sign of something that does not belong. In other words, a mutant.
Pop culture images of redheaded women still embody the same mix of lust and mystery as Botticelli’s Venus, Rossetti’s Persephone and Lilith, Mary Magdelene, and the French Impressionists’ can-can dancers. Although this storied history of red hair laid the foundation, much of our modern associations with red hair come from Old Hollywood and its movie stars. This is when the demonic shade evolved into a “feisty,” mysterious, sexy signifier. While blonde hair was exalted, red hair was its kooky counterpart. Most of these movie stars dyed their hair red, rather than being born with crimson locks, including Lucille Ball and Rita Hayworth (the latter being secretly Latina!). It was an instant rinse of sex appeal for those who dared (or were told by a studio exec) to be different.
Having red hair is like being a hat person; not everyone can pull it off, or rather everyone could but doesn’t think they can. Red hair favors the bold, those unafraid to stand out. It’s also a huge pain in the ass, being the most difficult color to absorb and the fastest to fade. Celebrity colorist Jenna Perry describes the appeal succinctly: “Red hair is bold, different, and a redhead is typically the only redhead in the room.” As for me, having red hair has only heightened my sense of personal style. Dying my hair red was like a self-fulfilling prophecy, transforming me into the glamorous, striking, and mystical siren I always wanted to be.
Red: A Natural History of Red Hair by Jackie Collis Harvey