As a kid, I was tormented for my red hair. Walking the halls in high school, people would holler “fire crotch,” “ginger pubes,” “carrot top” and whatever else their uninventive minds could conjure. As a result, I grew up resenting my red hair and the traits inherent to the MCR-1 gene: freckles, pale skin, forever clashing in oranges and pinks. Now, as an openly bisexual adult, I receive a different kind of attention for my hair—especially from men.
The hair I once desperately wanted to alter in favor of “Eminem-yellow” has become a unique selling feature, an added spice to your typical white boy. Unfortunately, how most choose to articulate this attraction can be jarring. “Ginger bush rocks!” and “You don’t shave that beautiful bush, do you?” are two common examples. Recently, I was asked, "Are you Ginger from Gilligan's Island?” It was a weak effort, but unique nonetheless. Then come the generalizations. I’ve been told redheads are nicer than other hair colors (which may be true—a condition of being teased), are well-endowed, and are superior lovers. All of these, of course, are unfounded. Appreciated, but unfounded.
I understand these messages are intended as compliments, and I do generally regard them as such. But as is common with appearance-based fetishization, this becomes a problem when the features overshadow the person’s identity and humanity. Choosing a redhead for his hair is like choosing a cereal because it has a cool toy in its box.
“It’s about extremes for me,” a date of mine said recently. “I like all types of men. But with redheads, there’s something so unique and special about them.” This is a quality Aaron Endre, a self-described “ginger enthusiast,” also shared with me. “Many people simply find this uniqueness attractive,” he says. “It's a rare genetic expression that people aren't used to seeing. For people who appreciate characteristics that set people apart, gingers are perfect.”
Being “special” is an expectation hoisted on redheads due to this genetic rarity (only 2% of the world’s population are ginger). While we do possess mutated genes and were once burned at the stake for witchcraft, the only documented traits unique to redheads are that we’re more sensitive to cold temperatures and we’re more efficient at producing vitamin D. Other than that, gingers are very normal.
King Henry VIII.
The genesis of ginger discrimination is rooted in the British Isles (to later be trumpeted by programs like South Park), which spread to the United States by way of the Irish potato famine. Since gingers are a proportionately larger percentage of the Irish and Scottish population (they comprise 16% of the international redheaded population), Anglo gingers have, for the last century-and-a-half, been associated with the lower-class. Prior to that, however, gingers were in vogue during monarchical dynasties when powerful gingers, namely the Tudors (e.g. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I), were highly visible.
While we’ve been received favorably and unfavorably in history, a common thread is the portrayal of ginger women as fiery objects of desire (think Jessica Rabbit, Christina Hendricks, Rita Hayworth). Currently, "redheads" is a popular category on Pornhub, and the one that reportedly gets people off the fastest. “I recently decided to dye my hair dark brown just for a change, and so many people were disappointed,” adult actress Violet Monroe tells me. “Some people liked it, but the majority were so into me as a redhead they asked me to dye it back. So I’m back to red!”
Only recently have redheaded men shared that same spotlight. This increase in redheaded males may have been boosted by the viral Red Hot 100, an artbook and campaign that portrays redheaded men as strong, proud, sexy, and confident individuals. Archie’s sexual revival in Riverdale and the admiration for Prince Harry may have also contributed to the redhead awakening.
Amidst this renaissance, the juxtaposition of being teased for my red hair as a child and it being coveted now that I'm an adult has proved mystifying. Standing out when you're a kid often seems like the worst thing, but now that I'm older, I've found it's drawn people toward me in an overall positive—not exclusionary—way. I can’t pinpoint what changed, exactly. Maybe I’ve matured, it could be that simple. But I know this for certain: Without marginalization, fetishism wouldn't exist, so it makes sense that a people who account for 2% of the world’s population are fetishized. Factor in that only 4% of the American population identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender and we become even rarer.
Fetishism isn’t going away anytime soon, and even if redheads stop piquing people's singular interest, another physical feature will take its place. So I've reasoned that, as long as the commentary is not too dehumanizing, I'll accept the attention and let my red hair burn bright.