One day my mother came home from the interior decorating shop where she worked, very upset about a young man who had come into the store with his mother.
“You wouldn’t believe what his T-shirt said!” my mom cried. “‘Better Dead Than Red!’”
I asked her what it meant.
“He’s making fun of redheads, of course!” she lamented, her curly, fiery hair aflutter. “Why would anyone wear such a thing?”
It was the early eighties, in the thick of the Cold War, but I had yet to learn about Communism. It didn’t occur to me for another decade or so that the shirt that would pierce her to the core was merely calling for the demise of Soviets. But that memory has always defined my mother and her abiding personal connection with her hair, something the rest of the family would never fully understand.
I didn’t inherit the red but passed it on to my middle daughter, whose hair stops people cold in grocery aisles and brings elderly Irishmen to tears. We have fielded questions about her hair since she emerged with the carrotty fuzz nine years ago. Almost without exception, it’s the first topic of discussion when she meets someone new. It’s made for some pleasant talk but also some awkward situations, such as when she is praised as rare and beautiful just inches from her brown-haired siblings.
Not long ago I asked my daughter what she thought about her hair, and she said, “I like it. In the sun, it’s shiny, and underwater it looks all coppery. But talking to everyone about it gets annoying.”
Redheads live in a complicated world. A recent college grad I know said that starting in sixth grade, boys teased her about her hair. She felt ugly, that she didn’t fit in, and eventually dyed her hair an even brighter red as a way to prove to herself that she was strong enough to handle the alienation. Now she embraces her hair but acknowledges it has impacted her confidence and personality for life.
Red hair is challenging to grow up with. But when middle-aged women color their hair (myself included), they often go for redder shades, as if trying to capture some essence of life they imagine that color suggesting. And even though boys can experience an even harder time growing up ginger, we can’t imagine Van Gogh or Prince Harry without those tousled autumn shades. Conan O’Brien built his comedic empire, to some extent, on his flaming waves. Better dead than red? Or is red the key to a richer life?
Like it or not, our physical traits define us in ways others will never understand. As a 5’11″ woman, I’ve never bought “normal” pants, stood in the front row for pictures, or earned the descriptors “cute” or “spunky.” In high school, the majority of boys weren’t in my dating altitude. I’ve answered a lifetime of cloying questions about basketball, volleyball, and modeling (three things I’m not qualified to do).
Most people who get to know me on Facebook first then meet me in person can’t help but exclaim, “I didn’t know you were so tall!”
The land of tall has been lonely at times. But I can’t imagine living elsewhere.
A few months ago, my mother said she had to tell me something very important, something about Becca that couldn’t wait.
“Remember when I told the doctors I was in excruciating pain while waking up from surgery and they didn’t understand why? I understand now. I think I woke up during surgery.”
“What does that have to do with Becca?”
“I read in an article that redheads are less responsive to anesthesia. She needs to know that before getting surgery, if she ever needs it. She might wake up.”
I wondered why my mother felt the need to share this information so urgently, but then I realized that she needed to nurture this connection to Becca, the only other person in the family with whom she shares the fire. Red hair had been a source of frustration in her life but also a source of pride. Now that she’s been gray for so many years, she lives with the memory of her red hair and still, apparently, experiences its physiological effects.
And now I will admit it: I’m no longer 5’11” but 5’10 ½”. The last couple of times a nurse has measured me, I’ve insisted there must be some mistake. While I’ve always said I’d like to know what it’s like to be average, or even just a couple inches shorter, now that I see the numbers shrinking, I want to hold on.
Tall is who I am. When I’m having an unconfident day, I see myself as a lumbering giant, all accusing eyes on me. When I’m feeling secure, I see myself as bold and striking, all adoring eyes on me.
In Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel Middlesex, Callie celebrates a new redheaded student with lush lyricism: “There was something richly appealing to her color combination, the ginger snaps floating in the milk-white skin, the golden highlights in the strawberry hair. It was like autumn, looking at her. It was like driving up north to see the colors.”
It’s a gorgeous description. But do redheads find these romanticized images patronizing and overwrought, the hair, as always, overshadowing their identities? Or do they feel at home with these words, proud of their extraordinary place on the earth?
Ninety-eight percent of us will never know.5