My mum always said it was ‘auburn’, but she didn’t have me fooled. I knew from the other kids’ taunts that I was a ginger. A redhead if you’re being kind. But playground bullies aren’t normally known for their kindness. So I was a ‘carrot top’, a ‘firecrotch’, a ‘ginger minger’ or just good old ‘ginger pubes’.
I used to draw pictures of myself with long, blond straight hair, like all the princesses in my storybooks. Back then, I hadn’t yet realized that there was something suspicious about their relentless homogeneity. I hadn’t yet asked where all the minorities had gone. I just thought that’s what princesses looked like.
And as if the genetic lottery hadn’t failed me enough, or so I thought, my hair was not only ginger but also laughably thick and curly. My mum used to drag a hairbrush through it daily, stoically ignoring my screams of protest. As a result, my hair wasn’t just curly: it was a veritable explosion of frizz. It rose up from my head like the mushroom cloud above Hiroshima. Remember, these were the days before ghds brought poker-straight hair to the masses, peddling ‘perfection’ to anyone with enough money, time and patience. As a reformed straightener addict, I’m glad they weren’t around in the 90s. Otherwise, I’d have spent my teens terrified of rain and with no pocket money left for fun.
The last time I can remember being ginger was at a fancy-dress party aged 14. I went as the Little Mermaid – one of the few decent ginger characters around at the time. I hopped down the street with my legs bound together in an improvised tail made from scraps of sparkly green fabric. I was excited: maybe as Ariel I’d stand a chance with the boys? I didn’t. Even a ginger Disney princess was still a ginger– one of the few minorities it’s still socially acceptable to mock. In retrospect, I’m sure the real problem was my lack of confidence, not my hair.
At the time though, I decided drastic action was needed if I didn’t want to die a virgin. The next day, I hit the chemist and bought my dream in a box. I was going to be a sleek, glossy-haired brunette sophisticate. That would show them all. While my mum was out, I turned the bathroom into a salon. The traces of dye took weeks to scrub off the bath. I had suspicious brown stains down the sides of my face. And my hair? It was an odd shade of aubergine: the ginger hadn’t given up without a fight.
Scarred by my amateur efforts, I went professional after that. I entrusted other people with hiding my ginger secret. My new disguise of choice was blonde highlights. It was a tedious, unreliable and expensive habit. Living abroad, I once accidentally blew a month’s rent on a salon bill of €400. I’d mistranslated the sign and expected to pay €25 in total. Not per highlight.
Shortly after turning thirty, I found a lone white hair (gingers don’t go grey). By all accounts, it should have bothered me. But instead it was the wake up call I needed. I’d been dying my hair for more than half my life. That day, I realized I just couldn’t be bothered any more.
I’d been spending my adult years compensating for something I’d been ashamed of as a child. But we all have our differences. And at some point in time, most of us will be picked on for at least some of them. And most of us will do it to other people too. I certainly did, although I’m not proud of it. I squirm looking back on how we taunted one girl at school. Her name was Somerset: an English county, not a name, we said. So we mocked her by speaking incessantly in faux West County farmer accents.
Part of growing up, I suppose, is letting go of the illusion of what it means to be ‘normal’ and accepting yourself, differences and all. It’s not so much about having the courage to change what you can and accept what you cannot. No, it’s more about learning to recognize what actually needs to be changed in the first place.
For some reason though, I’d clung on to the illusion that my gingerness mattered. That day, I finally saw that it’s not a good thing or a bad thing: it’s just a part of who I am. When the dye grew out, I would rediscover my natural hair color for the first time in my adult life. I didn’t know what to expect.
Only around 1-2% of the world’s population is ginger. We are genetic rarities, the product of a mutation in the MC1R gene. Like anything ‘foreign’, we’ve not always had the best reputation: the ancient Greeks thought we were vampires;Early Modern Europeans and North Americans persecuted us as witches; Mark Twain once suggested we were descended from cats. I now prefer to think of us as the unicorns of the hair world.
After years of hiding my gingerness, I am finally out. And you know what? I love it. It turns out being ginger suits me. I look nicer than I ever did with dyed hair. I love not worrying about regrowth. I love spending less time at the hairdressers. I love the extra cash in my wallet. But what I love most of all is that every time I go for a cut, the first thing they say is, ‘Who dyes your hair? It’s such an amazingly unusual color’.