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On Hairism

Most of you know that I have red hair. Bright red but not quite clown-like and now a bit more white than I’d care to admit. In spite of my dear parents’ best efforts, I grew up hating my hair because everyone else seemed to hate it to. But I couldn’t figure out why.

If you don’t have red hair or if you grew up in a time after the passing of the Hair Equality Protection Act (HEPA), maybe this won’t make sense, but my hair was a constant source of pain to me. I dreamed of being a brunette because I wanted hair that would blend in. I dreamed of being tan, instead of pasty white with freckles. Someday I’ll probably have skin cancer as a result of the dozens of times I tried to lay out, thinking that all I had to do was get the freckles to fill in and I’d have normal skin. (Early signs of genius, I think.) All I ended up with was second degree burns for skipping the Uval.

When I was an adult my father finally admitted that my own paternal grandmother didn’t like me because she didn’t like red hair. I was relieved to finally know that it wasn’t all in my head.

From the time I started school I was incessantly mocked for my hair and freckles. I guess being only 2% of the population was enough to be some odd kind of minority worthy of scorn. I was called “carrot top” and “fireball” and whatever else people could think of. As a young adult I was told “you’re really pretty…for a redhead” and “I never pictured myself with a redhead” and equally unanswerable “compliments.”

I used to compete in the Miss American pageant system. Two different times I was told by judges (who are not supposed to talk to contestants) that I was only considered for a runner-up position because redheads had no chance at nationals. I was first runner-up to Miss Orem in 1985. The first runner-up to Miss Provo was also a redhead. We were both in the top 10 at Miss BYU that year and both told by a judge that “redheads are more attendant material.” By that time it was almost laughable. At least we had each other to roll our eyes at.

If you’ve ever read/watched Anne of Green Gables you can get a little bit of the feel for the general distaste people seemed to have for “us.”

When my parents filled out the adoption forms before I was born (in 1964) on featured the following questions:

  1. Would you be willing to adopt a child who is handicapped?
  2. Would you be willing to adopt a child of a different race?
  3. Would you be willing to adopt a child with red hair?

I swear.

With all the Obama fever and racial talk going on today, I want to be sure you understand that I’m not saying the treatment I got for being in the hair minotiry was as bad as being part of a racial minority. I have no idea how bad it was compared to things I didn’t live through. I just know that it was, to me, this utterly baffling thing. Why would the color of my hair make me unacceptable to so many? What did I have to do with my hair color anyway?

If nothing else, that experience made me aware of something at a fundamental level. It helped me understand that while we do (and must) judge, that there are some very definite areas that should always be utterly outside the realm of judgment.

{ 22 comments… add one }
  • facethemusic January 24, 2009, 11:23 pm

    “I guess being only 2% of the population was enough to be some odd kind of minority worthy of scorn”

    I think you should demand reparations. :tooth:

    Would you be willing to adopt a red-head??? What kind of craziness is that?
    The whole thing seems so bizarre to me because I always WANTED red hair– no kidding.
    I thought it was so different and beautiful.

    I get that kids would tease– not that they SHOULD– but they tease for all sorts of things–generally anything “different” or not as common– big nose, ears that stick out, acne, “four eyes”, being overweight– etc.

    But why ADULTS – even granparents, would have a problem with red heads is simply beyond me.
    Very strange….

  • spande2 January 25, 2009, 12:48 am

    Great article, Alison. You sound like Anne when she’s complaining about the treatment she receives because of her red hair. As you know, my hair is “strawberry blonde”. It doesn’t seem to fall into the same category as “red”. Some people have called my hair red, but I never got teased about it. I do remember being teased about the size of my hips, to the point that I never wanted to be anywhere in public where people were behind me and I was standing up. πŸ™‚ But most people seem to like my hair (or pretend to anyway). I remember one old man who reached out to touch my hair and said: “It’s so beautiful. I just wanted to see if it was real.” Why the disparity between strawberry and red?

  • Alison Moore Smith January 25, 2009, 12:16 pm

    Tracy, by about the 2nd year in college I decided I liked it–no matter what anyone else thought. It made me stand out and so, whatever.

    In auditions the red hair was almost always a liability. Directors don’t think redheads live in families UNLESS everyone in the entire family has red hair. (HELLO! It’s usually a recessive gene–that’s why there are so FEW of us!) But it was helpful for getting cast as Fiona in Brigadoon (duh). I was also typecast as the “bad girl” or the villain. THEY can have red hair. Cinderella is NOT a red head. The stepsister just might be. (But the stepsisters are more fun anyway.) Even in church plays I was always something like this: The Gift, Nikki, the girl with a past.

    Kristin, I don’t know why the difference, but if I sound like Anne, I’m good. :bigsmile:

    Caleb’s hair is strawberry-blonde-ish (in the sun) and I think it’s divine.I remember about a year after I married, a redhead won Miss Teen USA or something and we were so excited. It was like some kind of follicle ceiling had been broken. It has gone in and out of style over the past few years, but it no longer seems to have the stigma it once did.

    Oh, and Tracy, I was also chubby and wore glasses as a kid. We call that the triple threat.

  • TheWallruss January 25, 2009, 5:02 pm

    Alison, I have never seen you in my life. However, now that you say you are a redhead many things are explained. Your firecracker personality. The fire in your conviction, the authority in your comments, your ability to kill or heal with a word and I am sure with just a wee look of your eyes. I mean no disrespect here in fact just the opposite. I tip my hat to you and offer a warm smile of acceptance and appreciation.
    Please let me say this here, blonds and brunets are a dime a dozen. A woman with coal black hair like the ocean on the blackest night can stop me in my tracks. However a true redhead is a joy to behold. A stunner with no equal to be sure. I know you need no pep talk now, overcoming adolescences and arriving where you are now, but I will say it anyway. You hold your head up proud and show the world what they wish they could have but will only dream of.

    You have made my day today. I am smiling from the inside out because of you today.

    Thank you.

    Wally πŸ™‚

  • Michelle D January 25, 2009, 5:05 pm


    Alison, if you took out the pageant info and the grandparent comment, you could be talking about me. I am glad that my family always accepted my red hair as just part of me, like my blue eyes. (Of course, I had other siblings with blue eyes but none with red hair.) I was never an orangish redhead, but my red hair started turning auburn as a teenager, brown in my 20s, gray in my 30s. I look back now, and wish I had appreciated my hair color more when I was younger. But the “carrot top” and other comments about the hair, freckles, pasty white skin, etc take their toll on children. I HATED my hair and freckles and being genetically super thin. As a child, those are the three things I always said unhesitatingly that I would change about myself if I could. These physical characteristics contributed to my lack of self-confidence as a child and teenager. When I needed vision correction in jr high, I actually worked off the difference in cost between glasses and contacts. I refused to add “four-eyes” to the teasing I received. Kids are so fickle and they can be so mean. Yet there are so many more important things to worry about! I wish I would have understood that better back then. But it’s hard for kids to have the perspective and maturity to let go of such hurtful or teasing comments – or to not say them in the first place.

    My second son inherited my red hair. I am glad that he has never felt negatively about his hair. He just accepts that it is part of how he looks, and enjoys being different from most people. When he was little, one of the YW in our ward always rubbed his head – she said rubbing red hair was good luck! He hated that, and always tried to duck his head. But I am extremely grateful that he has the confidence and self-acceptance that I lacked at his age.

    Whether it’s hair color, race, or many other differences, unfortunately some people just seem to follow the tendency to make fun of or disparage that which is different.

  • Alison Moore Smith January 25, 2009, 7:42 pm

    Wally, what a huge lift that was. But I have to share a secret with you. The ONLY reasons redheads have tempers is because they get asked over and over and OVER if they “have a red-headed temper.” Try as you might, at one point you just snap.

    Michelle, give me a hug. I did have the orange hair. Not the absolutely shocking, flaming red hair, but bright orange, never to be mistaken for anything else.

    I agree that it’s hard for kids to understand there are more important things. I’m not sure how they can. Teasing and ridicule and mocking almost always make places seem unsafe. And when school and church–and anywhere with peers–seems unsafe, you’re missing one of those lower essentials of human survival: love, community, acceptance.

    Why do we do that to each other?

  • Rachel January 25, 2009, 9:33 pm

    *edited to fix html*

    My dh very much dislikes red hair because every redheaded woman he knows well has lived up to the stereotype, his mother, his sister, my mother included. When we found out our second baby was a girl, he “threatened” to leave her out on the doorstep (he also said he could do without having a girl). When the possibility of her being born with red hair came up, he said for sure he would then. She wasn’t, but it still took until our little girl became a little girl for him to come around to liking her (he’s a great dad, of course he loves her, but she’s a girl), and then we had our third child and he was a redhead. Poor man! (Although so far, he hasn’t seemed to have a problem with it . . .)

    I have to say even with the red hair gene on both my side and my husband’s, I never really expected to have a redhead. But I can say without a doubt I’m so glad I do! He’s still new, but I love his beautiful red hair, and it makes me happy when his aunt, uncle, or grandma holds him and they match. His coloring is distinctive, otherwise he would look exactly like his siblings; I love that he has his own look.

    Posted By: Alison Moore SmithIt was like some kind of follicle ceiling had been broken. It has gone in and out of style over the past few years, but it no longer seems to have the stigma it once did.

    This also makes me happy! And I’ll ditto everything TheWallruss said, too!

  • Ray January 26, 2009, 8:53 am

    I thank God I am not as the rest of you – carrot-topped, anger incontinent, freckled, perverse. I thank God he made me above your lowly state, able to worship with head uncovered – unashamed of my mortal disability. Go make your own synagogue; I own this pulpit.

    (Not you, Michelle. Just the red-headed heathens. You’re beautiful. Really. Love you.)

  • facethemusic January 26, 2009, 9:24 am

    HA! You kill me, Ray!

    Please let me say this here, blonds and brunets are a dime a dozen. A woman with coal black hair like the ocean on the blackest night can stop me in my tracks.”

    Oooooh– how poetic!
    Okay– so I just have to say here, that I have coal black hair. (And Tracy bows to the crowd)
    Of course, these days, the roots are no longer NATURALLY coal black.
    I owe that to Nice & Easy #123. :tooth:

    I’ve always received compliments on my hair… people saying how they wish they had my hair, saying things like “Do you color it? It’s SOOO dark and beautiful.” For 38 years the answer was “No– it’s natural.” M husband says it was the first thing he noticed. But as I said earlier Alison, I always wanted red hair! I even tried to go auburn once– (since I’d actually look pretty stupid with red hair, considering my skin tone)– I thought that auburn would work.
    It ended up looking more purplish. Ick!

  • Alison Moore Smith January 26, 2009, 9:27 am

    The rameumptom lives on! πŸ™‚

  • Lewis_Family January 26, 2009, 9:51 am

    Sadly, I am in the dime a dozen category, and with dark brown eyes ( poo brown we always called them ) instead of the beautiful light brown of others… well that sinks me lower in the ranking to like a nickle a dozen :cry::cry::cry:

    PS, I had many a crush on boys with red hair and my hubs has red in his beard ( when he grows it out to the inch that I let him πŸ™‚ ) so no red hang ups here.

  • TheWallruss January 26, 2009, 8:21 pm

    I am a wee concerned that I may have offended the blonds and brunets here but I do assure you all that no offence is offered. I know that each and every one of you do have your own unique qualities that make you beautiful and special.
    If I may quote a man of yesteryear that only the oldies will recognize. “Wonderful, Wonderful.”

    And to Lewis_Family please do not feel “Poo Brown”. Dark brown eyes hold a magic all their own. Turley.

    To facethemusic you mention poetic. I am deeply tempted here to post a poem that I have written that should brighten your day and that of Lewis_Family. It is called “Desire”. It is about a woman with dark brown eyes and coal black hair. But I would only post it with your permission.

    Wally πŸ™‚

  • Lewis_Family January 26, 2009, 10:09 pm

    Ha, I wasn’t offend, so worry not πŸ™‚ I had a boy once tell me I had “moon eyes”… never understood what that meant, but worked for me ( I was 15, so seriously, any line probably would have flattered :bigsmile: ) But yes, my dark brown hair has auburn/lighter brown highlights (natural kind, not from a dye ) in it that the sun catches… easier to see in the summer, and that always made me feel “special” about having brown hair.

  • nanacarol January 26, 2009, 11:24 pm

    Oh, how I wanted to be a red head!!! isn’t that so funny, especially after all you have said Alison. I never realized that red heads had it hard. Then I prayed I would have red headed babies—no both kids were dark brown. So now I pray for red head grandkids. Kiar has come the closest with the last one. There is hope!

  • mlinford January 27, 2009, 1:57 am

    I have a red head. We rant and rave about my son’s hair constantly.

    My daughter also has streaks of red, and I gush over that.

    And my sisters and I were just gushing over our gorgeous red-headed niece.

    (Do you think it’s still such a taboo thing?)

    I think kids pick on whatever is different.

    But the adults and the adoption and the beauty pageant stuff makes me sick.

  • Sharron March 2, 2011, 3:36 am

    I love kids just in general. I also love my two children and my grandson. But I must admit that I am a redhead and I had hoped
    to have a redheaded child. I would not trade the two I have at all
    they are great and beautiful just the way they are. But something inside me just always wanted to be the redheaded Mom of a redheaded child but no such luck. So then I hoped my grandchildren might be redheads since it seems to skip a generation for us. But so far that has not happened either. But mygrandson is perfect just as he is too.
    All of them are very beautiful children. However, I tell you if their was a list to adopt a redhead I would sign up asap cause I sure do think they are cute. Freckles and all.
    Any body know where the sign up sheet is?

  • Alison Moore Smith March 2, 2011, 8:55 am

    Sharron, what a great comment. (Oh, except that I guess preferring redheads is hairist???) πŸ™‚

  • Hedgehog May 5, 2015, 1:43 am

    I always wanted red, red hair, like my dad’s mum and sister, and who were utterly gorgeous; his was copper-coloured. But I guess my mum just didn’t have red hair genes. Several of my sister’s kids are red-heads though. And my youngest brother also has red-headed children.

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