There was a time when I hated my hair. According to my mom, when I was a baby, people always commented on how beautiful my hair was and would lean into my stroller to touch it. In elementary school, I never really thought about it, but through middle and high school, I was embarrassed by it, even ashamed. I wasn’t brave enough or rebellious enough in middle school for hair dye, but I used Sun-In in vain. If I got any compliments on my hair at all, it was always from elderly people, and I clung onto those with an iron fist. And this was long before the whole “ginger” thing came about. Fortunately, I was never tormented about my hair, but occasionally people would ask me, stupidly I thought, if I was born with red hair, as if I was once a blond and it turned red in the sun. Or they would ask me if my hair color was real. Occasionally, I even got the dreaded “Do the carpets match the drapes?” question. When they asked that, I was equal parts mortified and shocked at their ballsiness. I never had a quick-witted retort at the ready, so I would just ignore the question, as if I hadn’t heard.
It turned out that all I needed was a boyfriend to help stave off those feelings of inadequacy. Everyone I was friends with wanted a boyfriend in high school, but not everyone was fortunate enough to have one. So if I did, I reasoned, then I must have some appeal, despite the red hair. In college, I was teased by my roommates about my pale skin, freckles, and skinniness, but not my red hair, and again I didn’t have too much of a problem receiving attention from the opposite sex, so while I didn’t see it as a virtue, I knew it at least helped me stand out. Really, it took all the way into my thirties to realize that there was no masking my red hair. Every once in a while I would highlight my hair, or—once—dye it what was supposed to be brunette but came out a blackberry shade. My hair refused to hold any other color. It rejected even the best hairstylist’s efforts and brazenly shone through, screaming, announcing itself like stubborn graffiti that refuses to be painted over. So now I leave it alone. I let it grow long and wild. I let it demand to be seen, whether appreciated or not.
What does it say about me that it took me so long to accept my hair for what it is? My friend Lisa, referring to The Reddleman in Hardy’s The Return of the Native, said “Beauty and ugliness work in the same ways, I think, and pose some of the same questions.” When I consider that statement, I realize that is how I feel and have felt about my hair: that my hair is both ugly and beautiful. If nothing else, it certainly is provocative. And provocativeness can ignite both feelings of contempt and admiration. As for me, I have become comfortable with my hair being a part of who I am — maybe not the sole defining feature but an extension of my personality, the part of me that won’t be tamed.
Redheadedness is the stuff of legends and myths, associated with such things as witches, vampires, and even aliens, which has caused some problems for redheads throughout history. Even though most cultures have evolved past such fanciful thinking, my own hair remains divisive, with people either loving it or hating it. But for me, this hair of mine is indifferent to any objections or praise; it has taught me to be indifferent, too. People might call me a redhead, but I know I am not. After all, you can’t paint an entire picture with just one color.