I’m currently chomping my way through Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders by Michael Newton, a highly fascinating book on Gaelic history and culture. As I read through a summarised but highly informative and engaging account of Highland history, I couldn’t help but think of the current situation we find ourselves in, with our corporate governments and banking élite exploiting the human race. I will not go into the Clearances (Fuadach nan Gàidheal) here, but I would like to share this observation by Newton. Though it is in relation to the Gaels, I think it can be applied to all of us who are struggling under the austerity inflicted upon us by our ‘political representatives’:
…interpretations of the Clearances are often the cause of much debate. The focus of many texts is on ‘economic conditions’, stating them to be objective facts and processes that can be stated to run to logical conclusions, with both landlords and Highland peasantry being equally the ‘victims’ of forces beyond their control. Such an outlook, however, neglects the fact that the economy is a cultural institution in which human agency is involved; the state always intervenes in the economy when it is in its own interest. Standard interpretations absolve landlords and government from blame and ignore the harnessing of prejudice and racism to justify the forced removal of Gaels from their homes ‘for their own good’.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
and I eat men like air.
See if a Gaelic learner says “I love you” in Gàidhlig, it means a lot cause that ‘ao’ sound in “Tha GAOL agam ort” is damn hard to make!
Loved, loathed, revered, reviled – redheads generate more extreme reactions than almost any other natural genetic disposition. Emily Ross, a voluntary redhead, swears allegiance to her tribe of flame-haired women
Redheads are trouble. We all know it. Anne of Green Gables said “You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair” and “People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is”. Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem ‘Lady Lazarus’: “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair and eat men like air”. All a far cry from Marilyn’s easy giggle in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Alfred Hitchcock believed that “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints”. No redhead would ever be called virginal – it’s more likely they’re the one wielding the knife.
Innocent, never; comedic, certainly. Writers have for decades used red hair as a frame for their wildest women. From the early days of television with I Love Lucy to the pithy putdowns of Will & Grace, a statement redhead indicates a complexity of character that an actress of any other shade would need acres of dialogue to convey. Lucille Ball said “Once in his life, every man is entitled to fall madly in love with a gorgeous redhead”. Molly Ringwald knew it in The Breakfast Club. Flame-haired Addison of Grey’s Anatomy made such an impression on viewers, it warranted her own spin-off series. Bree van de Kamp is by far the most psychotic of the Desperate Housewives. Redheads on our screens have enjoyed the dubious privilege of being complicated, crazy and sometimes, downright dangerous. But what makes a woman choose to be red?
The stereotypical redhead, if there could possibly be one, is fiery, tempestuous, quick to anger. If there ever was a hard sell, there it is. Of course, there’s always the sexual connotation. Henna was used in ancient times as an adornment to the hair and hands of prostitutes. Women of loose morals were branded ‘scarlet’. There’s a saying – “gentlemen may prefer blondes, but only a real man can handle a redhead”. Bruce Springsteen agreed when he sang “Man, you ain’t lived till you’ve had your tyres rotated by a redheaded woman”. But it’s more than sex, it’s also about emotion. For men from The Boss to Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, red hair symbolises all that is most passionate in a woman.
There has always been a stigma attached to natural born redheads. Less than two percent of humans have red hair, with around four per cent of the European population carriers of the recessive gene. It is regarded with both ridicule and admiration - and it’s this duality that sets it apart from the clichéd ‘bubbly blondes’ and ‘brainy brunettes’. In Corsica, if you walk past a redhead an old custom is to spit, while in Denmark a red-haired child is considered fortunate. Television ads have also played with the subject: a woman, ridiculed at school for her ginger locks becomes a flame-haired siren in an advert for straightening irons. Dublin Zoo caused controversy back in November when it offered free entry to red-haired children in honour of Orangutan Awareness Week. There was outrage as many accused the zoo of discrimination, or “gingerism”, while others praised the initiative (to keep it fair, non-redheads who dressed up as orangutans also got free entry).
I have two little boys, one is a dark like his dad, but our youngest, less than a year old, has developed a soft crown of vaguely ginger hair. There’s a ginger gene in there somewhere, his aunts all have glorious copper tresses, yet the amount of sympathetic looks and gentle commiserations I’ve received already are at best surprising and at worst, downright rude. For us voluntary redheads, it takes commitment to stay that way. Red pigment in hair dye, even the most permanent, leaches from hair follicles at the slightest encouragement. Fading can only be prevented with regular trips to the colourist. Being red takes time and money. Staying red means avoiding swimming pools, sunshine, saunas and for mercy’s sake, don’t buy white towels. It means accidentally staining the arms of your glasses orange, and it means having ears the colour of mandarins at least once a month. It’s work.
As women, understanding who we are is inexorably linked to our hair. Make-up, clothes, and hair colour allow us to express our identity. Some might argue that paint and dye are camouflage, or deceit, but truly they are just another way for us to tell those around us who we really are. A woman who chooses not to colour her hair is doing exactly the same thing, sending a message about herself: that she is herself - raw, natural and unapologetic.
For me, my adventures in hair colour began around the same time I shed the braces from my teeth, and about ten pounds of puppy fat from everywhere else. After years of self-loathing and youthful angst, I felt like a real person. And then, when I turned red, something just clicked. I found a reserve of self belief I never knew I had, the colour allowed me to be on the outside how I felt on the inside. Perhaps that’s why I always come back to it. Maternity leave allowed me a certain level of excessiveness - my hair wasn’t just flaming red, it was screaming ginger, and I loved it. I get why Vivienne Westwood has tangerine hair - she understands, to the ninth degree. Now that I’m back at work, I’ve turned the volume down for fear of blinding my co-workers and it feels a little like I’m turning my back on something… Being red is complicated - it declares your allegiance to a tribe of women who do not fall easily into clichés. Anne of Green Gables understood. Sylvia Plath roared her approval. And for now, my roots may be growing, but inside it goes all the way to the bone.