Photo by Arturo Holmes/FilmMagic, FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images and Doug Peters/PA Images via Getty Images

How real redheads feel about the latest viral hair trend

Copper tones are everywhere, but for many natural gingers, it meant years of rejection.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
28 April 2022, 7:00am

Photo by Arturo Holmes/FilmMagic, FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images and Doug Peters/PA Images via Getty Images

Unlike makeup, hair trends have distinguished themselves by leaving almost as soon as they arrive. Chunky highlights? Lived and died within Dua Lipa’s album cycle. The mullet? Like the buzz cut, we barely met her. Claw clips, once omnipresent, are now few and far between. Whatever the style, it’s been seen, done – likely worn by Bella Hadid – before imploding in a flash of Instagram ubiquity. Until red hair.

My first memory of the latest viral hair trend was FLETCHER. Scrolling my Instagram feed at the top of 2020, I stopped dead at a selfie of the pop princess with copper-coloured tresses — convinced I’d happened upon an unintentional upload of myself. Two years on, my direct message inbox filled with photos of Kendall Jenner at Paris Fashion Week; “Literally thought this was you,” read every accompanying message.

Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Barbie Ferriera, Kaia Gerber, Sydney Sweeney and I share nothing in common except the exact same hair shade that I was born with, a colour that I have, for most of my life, felt almost irrationally possessive over. Natural redheads make up approximately one percent of the global population; they reportedly have a bizarrely high tolerance for stinging pain, and require more anaesthesia during surgery. All this might foster camaraderie among natural redheads, but possibly nothing builds a group bond quite like widespread childhood rejection.

“Humans are tribal in nature, meaning that identifying in a group gives us a sense of identity,” says clinical psychologist Aleksandra Drecun. “It also simultaneously creates inclusion with others who are like us and exclusion with those who are different from us. This can occur on a subconscious level and on a conscious level that leads to stereotypes such as ‘blondes have more fun.’”

Redheads ostracised as children might find society’s recent embrace of their hair colour triggering, Aleksandra thinks. This, of course, is not unique to redheads, but relatable to all who might’ve been bullied for features that have recently become “fashionable” (read: big lips or freckles). It’s rare to meet a redhead who hasn’t experienced some degree of discrimination.

“I joke about being appropriated all the time, but never seriously,” says Auckland-based jewellery designer, Lochie Watson. “[It’s just] our whole life we're told it's a bad thing or unnatural — we never got a ‘choice’.”

At high school in New Zealand, people would often substitute Lochie's name with synonyms for “orange.” During that time, a popular national radio station implemented an annual “Hug a Ginger Day” (pronounced geeng-ah, naturally), encouraging people to greet redheads with unsolicited hugs — presumably to offset their treatment for the rest of the year. I was 14 years old, and remember faking sick from school. For the next two years, I dyed my hair brown.

“I was around 11 when my views on my hair changed because of some name calling,” says Madi Stubbington, an Australian model based in New York City. “As soon as I was allowed, I began to dye my hair brown or add blonde.”

“The culture at large also plays a role in how we see ourselves based on our appearance,” Aleksandra explains. “If our culture places value on a particular way of looking or expressing ourselves; we will subconsciously try to conform to those ideas. We want to belong, and receive validation that we are worthy of love and value.”

New York model Zoe Head buzzed her red hair off in high school. The 23-year-old explains she wanted to disconnect from a physical feature that “so strongly” contributed to people’s perception of her. “It’s grown back now, but perhaps that was a rejection of others' prescribed importance of it… There were a few brave young boys that mustered up the courage to ask if the carpets match the drapes. I say treat these situations as learning opportunities.”

The colourist tasked with taking Kendall auburn — the shade debuted on Prada’s AW22 runway — was born with a similar colour. While New York-based Jenna Perry notes she was “picked on a lot” growing up, she’s now excited to see the colour trending, attributing the shift to a post-pandemic proclivity toward “standing out from the crowd.”

“I think that after the few years we’ve had, everyone is ready for a bold change,” Jenna shares. “A redhead is typically the only redhead in the room. One of my clients actually said she had never gotten hit on so much in her life after becoming a redhead.”

After years of rejection, many natural redheads experience a whiplash effect when they mature into adulthood. In pop culture, redheads’ genetic rarity often makes them targets. In Perfume: Making of a Murderer, an antagonist murders young redheaded women to bottle their scent. In the Charlie’s Angels trilogy, an assassin obsessively snatches and smells red hair. Then there’s Joan Harris of Mad Men (played by Christina Hendricks), Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic or Eyes Wide Shut. Lurking the corner of every club, there is a copper enthusiast ready to ask, “Is that your natural hair colour?”

“Physical features that may have been bullied while growing up can be fetishised later in life because they deviate from what we consider to be ‘typical’,” Aleksandra says. “The appeal of a fetish is oftentimes connected to its uniqueness — the brain is attracted to novelty.”

Though that novelty seems to be on a steady decline. When reaching out to redheads for this story, I was surprised that almost all maintained the colour unnaturally. Those born with red hair have also felt the effect of an expanding population of redheads. Lochie claims women will stop him in the street, citing his resemblance to Ed Sheeran or Prince Harry. Madi Stubbington assures she owes much of her modelling opportunities to her hair colour; she even appreciates the era her hair wasn’t in vogue.

“I think having red hair has made me more sensitive, yet self-aware and open-minded,” she claims. “The bullying in my younger years possibly contributed to my sensitivity to other’s feelings and my own.”

“These days I identify as very sure of myself and who I am, this might come from having thick skin from tolerating a lot,” Lochie echoes. “You're going to know I'm ginger, and I'll learn about people based on their comments if any. I guess it's nice to see people embrace it, maybe it'll remove the stigma that still exists for redheads.”

For her part, Zoe Head welcomes an uptick in red hair. While she’s grateful that her red hair helped her build resilience, and a successful career, “gatekeeping” the colour doesn’t make her any more unique. “In the end, dying your hair is an easily accessible form of self expression and fashion, and I don’t want to keep anyone from that. I would rejoice with any ginger sister or brother for rocking those orange locks, whether they were born with it or not.”

At this rate, self-confidence might come much sooner for the next generation of redheads. As we become an increasingly cosmopolitan society, extreme ethnic markers like red hair may begin crop up naturally in different racial groups — increasing social acceptance. “Society shifting towards inclusiveness means we will find beauty to come in many variations, rather than a fixed standard that most of us cannot attain,” Aleksandra says.

Whether you’re a redhead from birth or the bottle, there’s a sense of community that comes from the colour. The trend might not make it to summer, but regardless, ‘it’ girls around the world have done the lord’s work for insecure redheads everywhere frantically pausing mid-scroll. Maybe, sometime soon, red hair will cease to be my defining feature, but I’m not sure I want it to.

“Honestly, I feel so lucky in the fact that it’s so rare,” Zoe says. “We all have our little things that set us apart. Being born with red hair feels like a gift.”

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