I’ve been a redhead my whole life. The day I was born light, orange fluff decorated my face, blossoming into a darker, auburn red that I grappled with for most of puberty. Finally, I came out the other end and began to accept life as a proud Ginge. Several thousand curl taming and frizz reducing products later, I’m quite happy with my hair color. It’s part of who I am and, to be perfectly honest, I rely on it heavily in my day-to-day life. From be- ing easily recognizable in a crowd to attracting a certain kind of ginger lover, my hair col- or has served me well over the past 28 years.
Several weeks ago I was chatting about physical insecurities with a friend. I confessed to her that I’m really, really scared of going gray. By now my identity is tied up in being a redhead, I’m scared of losing that part of myself. I decided to address this problem by speaking to some redheads, aged 17 to 71. My goal was to find out if this fear was mine alone, or if it’s something we share as a people, we ginges. My friend Madeleine Berg says that if she does go gray one day, she’ll probably consider dyeing it. “It’d be like losing an old friend. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that. I saw an old lady on public transport once, she must have been around 70, with extremely vibrant red hair.
I remember thinking that is exactly how I want to look when I’m her age. Granted, she did have a pretty banging style in general, her hair was just the icing on the cake”. She continues “I think red hair is like coriander, you either love it or you hate it. Having a rare hair color can make you a curiosity, which turns you into an ambassador responsible for answer- ing questions. This sort of attention can either turn the redhead into an object of desire or one of ridicule, but what’s certain is that everyone will have an opinion”.
Throughout the interviews I thought of a semi scientic fact that I’d read somewhere: comparatively, redheads are documented as the last to go gray. A cursory Google search tells me that yes, it could be true, but I can’t end the evidence. In one of my favorite pictures of my father and I, taken shortly after I was born, his beard is half red and half white, but instead of slowly graying from the top down the lower half is white, while the top remains a vibrant red. I never thought of this as bizarre until someone pointed it out to me.
Patrick O’Farrell will turn 79 in March of 2017. Though he’s still fortunate enough to still have a full head of hair, it has now gone completely gray. He remembers “As a former strawberry blonde redhead, I used to receive the odd joking remarks”. Originally from Ireland he left for the UK at 17 and has lived there ever since. He says that he doesn’t feel any loss of identity with age. “It has never really bothered me. I never felt like I was standing out in a crowd. Moving in pro- fessional circles whilst working, it never arose”. Unlike most people I spoke to, Björn Kagel had a bit of a rough time growing up as a redhead. Because, let’s be honest, “kids and teenagers can be really awful. Every now and then I still get a smartass comment from grown ups, but then I just remember that, given their remarks, they can’t have too much going on upstairs”.
I want give him a high five for this insight. Even after everything, Björn would never dye his hair. “Every time I go visit my grandmother I think how wonderful she looks with her gray hair and freck- les. What scares me more is the thought of going bald.” Hair loss isn’t something I ever thought of, seeing as it tends to a ect more men than women. But the root of this angst is the same. Losing a part of yourself that makes you unequivocally you, and dealing with the changes it brings. His thoughts on his grandmother remind me of how wonderful it is to watch someone age gracefully. Those of us lucky enough should embrace it with grace and humility.
Marlene Eckard, a beautiful and vivacious 60-something from South Africa, tells me “Now that I think about, yes, I do feel a sense of loss. Luckily my hair is turning to gold and blond and I still have my freckles! I’ve put in copper streaks for about two years but now I’m growing it out because it costs too much and it’s not good for my hair”. She continues, “Whatever the future holds, it’ll be interesting. Turning golden or blond will be ne. After all, age can not be held back. Embracing age with an open heart it seems.”
Sandra Jean McClean tells me that her coloring has always been “a thing” for guys. In her experience, “men generally tend to comment on the combination of my hair color, skin tone, and freckles. Once I tell them that I am Irish, I can almost hear them whim per (via dating app! Ha!).
I have to admit, it’s a bit bizarre to be “a thing”, I’m obviously fulling some fantasy/desire, and having that vocalized, is unusual. I find it funny how there are myths about gingers, and I have to admit, I do trade on them sometimes. I’m just quite a fiery person, it’s the red hair, I’m just quite a sexual person, it’s the red hair… Her favorite thing about being a redhead? The fact that we can make our own Vitamin D and that we have a higher pain threshold. “We’re basically super beings!”
On going gray she says, “The thought of not having my personal hair color really upsets me. I think that I would have real is- sue with that. It is really hard to fake red hair, I think that’s what makes it such a spe- cial color, you can almost always tell when it’s fake. Which is I am currently growing my hair to donate it to the Little Princess Trust so that a little kid can have a real ginger wig”. Her approach to dying her hair is similar to mine.
“I’ve always secretly envied people who dye their hair, I would like to be able to be more of a chameleon with my image, however, the reason I don’t dye my hair is that I’m afraid that I’ll ruin it, and to be honest I re- ally love the color it is. Once I get older, and the color leaves it I may then start to exper- iment. I want be an old grandma with some trendy rinse going on. I have toyed with the idea of wearing wigs to satisfy the desire to mix it up a little, however my gingerness is such a de ning part of my image, that it would just feel weird to not be ginger. I am very proud to be ginger, and feel that it has helped me, physically, mentally, and socially. It is quite a big part of who I am, I hope that it remains with me for a long time, and I grow to be golden”. Peter Ramsay might not have much ginger left in his hair, but he still very much considers himself a redhead. Unlike many of the women I spoke to, who received positive attention for their hair color, Peter had a more di icult experience “If you call them bene ts of being red and standing out. I will not miss that. Most of my life it was like having a beacon attached to my head and if anything happened, good or bad, the rst thing anyone saw was the red beacon, so I tended to get the blame for nearly everything. That I will not miss”. In spite of such experiences, Peter is still a proud ginger. “Even if I lose my red altogether I will still be a redhead, as it has been with me all my life. I am ginger and proud to be so.”
I visit Bettina for advice on how to age gracefully. She believes that as a redhead, you do get a little bit of special treatment, “though it’s hard to say because I’ve been a redhead my entire life, so I can’t objectively compare my experience to that of a blonde or brunette”. When Bettina was 30 she had a boyfriend who was a big admirer of her red hair. She began dying it around that time, to enhance its natural vibrancy and coloring, and she hasn’t stopped since. “I’m not vain when it come to make-up but my hair color is important to me. Most likely that’s because of the compliments I’ve received over the years. My hair belongs to me, it’s a part of me.
But remember, hair isn’t everything: if you’ve reached the age of 70 and don’t have any kind of personality or charisma, then you have far bigger problems!” I take heed of Bettina’s advice. Others still can’t shake the angst of going gray one day, but I’ve decide to meet it head on. One of the most joyful experiences of this project has been the fact that I was free to speak to other redheads about things that I’ve never discussed with anyone. Some of our singularly shared experiences might seem trivial to those outside our experience, which is why I never thought to broach the issue. However, listening to Sandra Jean, Peter, Patrick, and Bettina describe their experience was an incredible comfort. Their stories left me with a reassuring feeling (and I apologize for the cheese): we are all in this together. When I start going gray I’ll nally have the courage to go peroxide blonde. Which is notoriously the hardest color for redheads to dye, because you need to rid yourself of every single red tone. After that? I’ll most likely jump straight back to my auburn locks. I’ll let you know how it goes in 30–40 years time.