The Red Hair Fetish

Non-redheads are obsessed with going red. It's kind of odd.

Only 1-2% of the population has red hair. Redheads have been subject to discrimination across cultures and throughout history. (You didn't tell me your brother was a ginger!" said a Scottish friend, horrified, when he first saw a picture of him.) There is a redheads solidarity day held annually in the Netherlands. People with red hair often feel it to be an integral part of their identity, a source of pride or irritation or simply something that strangers, annoyingly, talk about all the time. Having red hair is a way of life.

The rest of us don't really know about any of that: we just know it looks cool. And because it's unusual, becomes a way of standing out — without the baggage actual redheads have to deal with, either in childhood or historically speaking. But the irony is that most of our redheaded icons — Christina Hendricks, Cynthia Nixon, Lucille Ball, Amy Adams, Gillian Anderson — are actually blondes. Rita Hayworth, meanwhile, was a brunette. All of these people have chosen red hair — and in the process, maybe, helped cement its rep for chic beauty — but without any of the context.

At some point in her life, most women will think about dyeing her hair. Whether it's the henna-hue of an Angela Chase or Lily Cole titian, we crave the distinction and drama of red hair. Part of it is that in children's culture, red hair is associated with spunk: think Pippi, or Anne Shirley, or Ariel. At least some of their specialness seems to come from their coloring — never mind that this is just as stupid as associating pheomelanin with a bad temper. Still, those impressions stick, and it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that businesslike, competent characters (think Joan Holloway or Miranda Hobbes) often rock red hair — even if the actresses playing them have to fake it. Other times, the shorthand is more literal: think the Weasley family, or the dancing Pontipee woodsmen. In the novel Perfume, perhaps the creepiest redhead fetish ever committed to print, the protagonist distills the essence of the most beautiful women he can find; incidentally, all his victims have red hair. (It's rougher for guys: people are more likely to think "Uriah Heap" than "Caddie Woodlawn," and there's a serious dearth of big-screen male redhead role models.)

Periodically, magazines will deem red hair "hot" or "in," but I'm guessing its fascination never dies for most of us non-gingers. I have one friend with the most stunning, deep-red hair and whenever we go out, people stop her on the street to, um, point it out. Some of them compliment it, sure, but others just say something like, "red hair." As if she didn't know. I asked her if it bothered her and she said that, yes, it did get a little tiresome for her, considering it wasn't anything but a trick of genetics, and an inconvenient one at those times when she felt like traveling under the radar. I asked her if she minded all the fake redheads out there. But then she told me this quote, by the photographer G. Adam Stanislav: "There is more, much more, to being a redhead than the color of one's hair."