It was the same thing every day. I waited at the corner of Freeman Road and Eisenhower Circle for the bus, watching my breath turn to white puffs in the cold Midwestern air. I bounced on one foot to warm up, then the other, and willed the bus to come closer. I boarded and made my way towards my usual spot in the back. I sat down, unzipped my purple jacket, and waited for it.
“FIRECROTCH!!!!!!!” Adam Lipowski yelled into his hands behind me.
“Hey, Adam,” I said.
And so it went for two years. Adam’s daily pronouncements on the color of my pubic hair didn’t really bother me. But I never quite got what was so funny about it. His hair was brown; I would have been surprised if his carpet didn’t match the drapes. But between Adam’s ripostes and Gilbert Blythe, it didn’t take long for me to understand that, to everyone else, redheads are a foreign breed. We don’t make sense.
I was born with a strip of red hair that my parents liked to fashion into a Mohawk until it finally reached the rest of my head. My father’s grandfather had red hair, and someone on my my mother’s side must have—it’s a double-recessive trait, meaning it has to be passed along on both sides. But the combination of genes is so rare that only around 1-2% of the people in the world end up with it. And the thing that some people think of as uniquely beautiful is the same thing that sets middle school kids apart from their peers at precisely the time they want to blend in.
In many ways, ours is a society that doesn’t know what to make of redheads. Redheaded women are often portrayed as lusty—Jessica Rabbit, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island—or androgynous—there’s a whole Tumblr devoted to the latter. Our patron saints are often not even real redheads themselves. Emma Stone, Christina Hendricks, and Amy Adams are all naturally blonde.
I wouldn’t assert, as Jacky Collis Harvey does in her book Red, that anti-redhead bias constitutes “one of the last great social prejudices.” Redheads are mostly white (though not all—there are plenty of redheads of color), and we enjoy the privilege that goes along with that. I have never, to my knowledge, been rejected for a job or from an apartment because I have red hair. But I have been asked by total strangers at bars about my pubic hair. I have had people I don’t know say I must be fiery, ask if I had a soul, comment on my pale skin. “The first best thing you can be is skinny and tan,” Lauren Kramer pronounced to our swim class my sophomore year of high school. “Second best is fat and tan. Then skinny and pale. The worst is fat and pale.” It was a ludicrous rubric, but all I could think to myself at the moment was that I could only ever be third best. Harassment of redheads is low-grade and persistent, an annoying hum you manage to tune out and laugh at most of the time.
Disdain for redheads is nothing new. Although I’m sure he didn’t know it, Adam Lenkowski was taking part in a centuries-old tradition that seeks to place redheads outside of normal society. In the 5th century AD, Saint Jerome said the act of trying to dye one’s hair red “presaged to the person who sought it, the fire and red flames of hell.” In some traditions Judas Iscariot has been depicted as a redhead despite a lack of Biblical or historical evidence because red hair was associated with duplicitousness. Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s disciples, has been painted with red hair because she was rumored to be a prostitute—another rumor with no basis in the historical record. Jonathan Swift wrote in Gulliver’s Travels that “the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, and a 19th-century book about criminal women posited that fully 48% of criminal women have red hair. For the record, the only thing I’ve ever stolen is an ice cream cone from Whole Foods, and it was completely and the insistence of my auburn-haired sister. (“When red-headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn,” Mark Twain famously said, or he didn’t.)
A multitude of theories exist as to why people are wary of redheads, and they vary from the anti-Semitic—the Biblical Esau had red hair, so some associated redheadedness with Jews and deplored both—to the anthropomorphic—foxes have red hair and are cunning, ergo redheaded people are cunning. (Foxes are also adorable and have four pairs of teats, yet no one has ever asked me why I only have two breasts. People choose what they will.) As we went from a society that valued paleness for its class association with not performing labor in the sun to a society where leisure meant spending time outside and developing a “healthy” tan, redheadedness and its attendant pale, freckled skin became qualities that people started to wish away. What was desirable when Queen Elizabeth ruled—when Lauren Kramer’s rubric would have been flipped on its head—was no longer sought after. Instead, my high school peers spent hours getting their punch cards validated at strip mall tanning salons. They placed little heart stickers near their hip bones, to show their prom dates the intimate places where they weren’t tanned. The exception to the rule.
There was a time when each summer brought with it a fresh set of hopes that I, too, could get tan and finally catch the attention of a boy I liked, or at least wear a crop top without someone claiming that my pale stomach was blinding them. I wanted to “lay out,” the formal name for sprawling in the sun until you turned bronze. I wanted to put Sun-In in my hair to bring out its natural blond highlights. Instead, I ended up with pink shoulders and weird orange streaks in my copper hair. My parents handed over the sunscreen and I dutifully applied it the rest of the summer, until next June rolled around and I thought, maybe this time…
It’s never happened. I’ll never be tan, and I’ll always have red hair, and it’s been at least ten years since anyone called me firecrotch. It hasn’t been a particularly hard-fought battle, to be honest—I figure that everyone has something they get teased about, and red hair has been my very light cross to bear. Perhaps it’s the older women who tell me I have beautiful skin, or the hairdressers who remind me that “people pay to get your natural hair color,” or perhaps it’s just the chill wisdom that comes with age.
Whatever the case, I’ve learned to love my hair, to always wear SPF 30, and to hope that perhaps someday I’ll have little redheads of my own. People remember me easily; women compliment me on the color of my hair and it makes my day. I make sense, is what I want to say.