Why It Sucks to Be a Redhead

A non-redhead tries to understand “gingervitis”


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Illustration by Chris Reed

I’ve never seen so many redheads in one place at the same time!”

That was my wife, Kimberly, fairly shouting to no one in particular, in the lobby of the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy after the screening of a documentary film called Being Ginger. The film’s director, Scott P. Harris, was on hand to answer questions and meet-and-greet at a nearby pub. A local group called the League of Extraordinary Redheads hosted the event. I had never seen so many redheads in one place at the same time, either. 

Full disclosure: I am not a ginger. I wasn’t even aware of the term “ginger” in this context. I learned that night that ginger is a common term for redheads in Britain, but only entered the lexicon here after a 2005 South Park episode called “Ginger Kids.” In it, Cartman rails against gingers in full-throated hate-speech; in order to teach him a lesson, his friends knock him out, bleach his skin, color his hair, and dab on a constellation of freckles. “I’m ginger!” he screams in horror when he wakes up. “Help me! Help me!” A doctor diagnoses “gingervitis.” Of course, in hilarious South Park fashion, it goes terribly — and politically incorrectly — wrong. 

So I’m not a ginger, but I have been married to one for 14 years, and I have had other redheads — both male and female — play significant roles in my life. Kimberly claims I must have a “thing” for them, but if I do it is very deep in my subconscious. I don’t remember ever being especially drawn to redheads, unlike my friend Glenn, who admits he fantasizes about them. I know the stereotypes, of course, but the redheads I have known were no more likely to be volatile or sharp-tongued or lusty than brunettes or blonds. I don’t recollect the kids in middle school ever teasing redheads any more than they teased everyone else for something or other. Frankly, red hair was not, at least consciously, a big deal to me.

But it is to Kimberly, and — as I learned at the screening — to most redheads. And not in a good way. My wife has extraordinarily beautiful hair; total strangers tell her so almost daily. In general, she now likes being a ginger, but that is a recent phenomenon. As a child she loathed her hair. So did most gingers, as the film confirmed. I learned a lot that night, primarily that having red hair induces mostly anguish. 

In the film — ostensibly about finding a girl who will date a ginger, but really about regaining a positive image of himself — Harris, now in his late 20s, describes being bullied so terribly by both schoolmates and teachers that his self-esteem is shot. Many in the audience murmured assent. Harris interviews women who tell him, to his face, how hideous gingers are. The audience chuckles in collective pain. Jokes about sunscreen kill in this room. And yet, when Harris’s roommate asks if he would ever go out with another redhead, he answers, immediately and definitively, no: “Gingers don’t date other gingers.” Uproarious laughter. Curious. 

I know Kimberly has, at best, mixed emotions about her hair. I always thought she handled any childhood teasing rather deftly; when kids called her Carrot Top, she would blithely respond, “Carrot tops are green, stupid.” Then she reminds me that, because she is the only redhead in her family, her older sister taunted that she was adopted. 

“But everyone who comments on your hair is envious,” I say. “Isn’t that nice to hear?” 

“I hate the attention,” she says. “People were always talking about my hair or touching my hair. I hated it.”

I think I am beginning to get it. Kids hate being different. Redheads are different. Therefore, kids hate being redheads. It’s simple math, really: The transitive property of gingervitis. 

Harris and Kimberly, and I trust many adult gingers, are better now. Maturing helps all of us deal with whatever makes us different. As his search for love continues, Harris falls head over heels for another redhead. Though she has a boyfriend, he realizes making the film has helped him understand and even accept his defining, albeit recessive, trait. “This has been very good for me, I think,” he says at the end. My wife has forgiven her sister, mostly. She is usually flattered by the compliments she gets these days. And now, somewhat distant from her late 20s, she worries more about her beautiful red hair slowly being overtaken by white, and wonders, gingerly, “Will I be pink?”

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