There’s a joke that does the rounds every now and then about “gingerism” being the last acceptable form of prejudice. It’s one of my favourite ginger jokes (and I’ve heard them all, many times) – because for once, it’s actually true.
I, like about 10% of people in the UK, have ginger hair. Not fake neon red hair; just plain ginger. I was born with a fair amount of it sticking straight up like an orange loo brush, and it just kept growing like that – although thankfully gravity kicked in and it eventually started growing down, rather than up. I love it now. But life as a ginger wasn’t always easy.
School was by turns annoying and upsetting. There was only one other ginger girl in my class, and for five solid years, all our teachers mistook us for each other on a daily basis. Apparently our only defining feature was the fact that we had red hair. Never mind the fact that we were totally different people with totally different faces, interests, and lives – we were ginger, and that made us interchangeable. I learned early on to respond to both her name and my own, and gave up trying to correct them. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.
After all, the teachers weren’t deliberately mocking us. At least, I assume they weren’t, although I wouldn’t put it past some of them. The deliberate, and often cruel, mocking came mostly from the boys’ school next door, whose pupils would take great pleasure in yelling insults and ginger jokes through the chain-mail fence that separated our two schools.
My own brother – a pupil at the school next door – really got in on the teasing. For years, he thought he’d been lucky and dodged the ginger gene that clearly ran in our family. His hair was thick and brown, and he really, really took advantage of that fact. But then puberty hit, and he grew what can only really be described as an electric ginger beard, and promptly shut up. I, meanwhile, am still laughing.
Unfortunately I couldn’t rely on everyone who ever teased me growing a ginger beard, so I had to find other ways to cope. And one of the most effective I found was to go in for some self-mockery.
If I cracked the ginger jokes about myself before anyone else had a chance to do it, then my would-be tormentors lost interest pretty quickly. After all, what was the point in mocking someone who was already in on the joke? That wasn’t going to have any impact. It’s the same logic that Fat Amy uses in Pitch Perfect, and I’m here to tell you that it works in the real world as well as in films about acapella singing troupes.
But when I wanted a more dramatic solution, 13 year old me decided that there was only one thing that I could do and that was to dye my hair and get rid of the entire problem. Unfortunately, I immediately found myself dealing with another problem – the lovely shade of brown I’d picked turned a strangely murky browny-green on my hair, and my friend’s application wasn’t that great, meaning there were still patches of ginger shining through. Then it started to grow out and I had a lovely stripe of bright orange root right down the middle of my head.
I wasn’t put off, though. I’d found a solution, and I was going to stick with it. I just needed to get better at applying hair dye, and then no-one would ever tease me again. And so, over the next few years, my hair was every colour I could think of. Bright blonde. Black. Auburn. Bright red. Purple. A strange yellow colour that was meant to be “golden blonde” but didn’t quite work. Basically, if it was anything other than ginger, I went for it.
But, strangely, I wasn’t out to totally deny that I was ginger. Whenever I met someone new and they asked what my natural colour was, I always told them that it was “BRIGHT GINGER” – just to hear them tell me that it couldn’t possibly be that bad.
I used to boast that I hadn’t seen my natural hair colour since I was 13, but at age 27 I finally decided to give in and see what it actually looked like. I’d love to claim that it was due to some new-found self-confidence, but really it was because I’d dyed my hair so much that it was starting to snap off, and I was more scared of ending up bald than ending up ginger.
And that’s how I discovered that all the people who told me my hair couldn’t be that bad were actually right. In fact, it’s not just “not bad” – it’s pretty nice. My natural hair is far more distinctive than any of my out-of-a-bottle colours ever were. It looks absolutely brilliant when teamed with green clothing. Or blue clothing. Or any clothing I want to team it with, really, because who cares about the “rules” of what redheads are and aren’t supposed to wear?
So, instead of hiding my hair behind layers of dye, I’ve decided to be ginger and proud. After all, if Emma Stone can do it, why can’t I? Sure, I still hear the ginger jokes, but I don’t let them get to me anymore. I know they’re not actually based on anything other than ginger hair apparently making you an easy target, and that if I don’t pay attention to the jokes people will stop making them. So now my ginger hair and I shine like a lovely orange beacon, and my hairdresser has stopped telling me off for destroying my hair for no real reason.
It just took me a really long time, and an awful lot of L’Oreal Feria to realise that the hair colour that suits me best is the one I was born with.
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Image: Laura Callaghan