Red is the hair colour of the season. In fashion magazines worldwide, crimson clichés abound: Hollywood has succumbed to “scarlet fever” and starlets are “painting the town red.” Model Coco Rocha and actress Scarlett Johansson are two of the latest to turn red. But they are only following in the wake of faux-red trailblazers like Amy Adams, who swears there was “a definite shift in [her] life” the moment she “decided to go red.”
Hollywood stylist Robert Hallowell—whose latest gig involves keeping CSI star Marg Helgenberger’s copper hair shining on set—cautions that, of all the bottle-bought shades, red is the most finicky. “It’s so hard to get it right,” he bemoans. “It can be so I Love Lucy orange. Or it can go to the bluey, dark red that is sort of ’80s.” That, of course, is not a problem for the two per cent of the world that is genuinely red. But while Hollywood is turning more titian-friendly, another place appears increasingly threatening to redheads: the dentist’s chair.
According to a recent study, redheads are twice as likely to avoid the dentist as people with other hair colours. The discovery, says Daniel Sessler, chair of outcomes research at the Cleveland Clinic, began with “a persistent urban legend in the anaesthesia community that redheads were difficult to anaesthetize.” Curious, Sessler decided to test that claim. His findings reinforced what dentists had thought to be mere folklore: that redheads require “a statistically significant” extra dose of general anaesthesia to get the same pain relief as a blond or brunette (20 per cent more). The same proved true for local anaesthesia. But the final step was applying those discoveries to the world of dental care. It was no surprise, says Sessler, to find that redheads are “considerably more anxious about going to the dentist,” where local anaesthetics are commonplace—so anxious that many opt out of going entirely. “Redheads are more sensitive than other people to certain kinds of pain,” Sessler affirms.
Jeffrey Mogil, professor of pain research at McGill University, disputes Sessler’s claim. He argues that redheads are in fact more sensitive to anaesthetics and less sensitive to pain. The diverging conclusions may reflect the different ways in which pain was measured. The hapless redheads in Sessler’s research were exposed to thermal pain; Mogil used electric shock. But the discrepancy does not negate a consequential finding: that red hair has something to do with pain sensitivity in the first place.
Red hair usually results from a mutation of the MC1R gene, on chromosome 16. The mutation can go unexpressed for generations, but when two mutant genes collide—one from each parent—red hair is forged. The idea that these mutant genes may be a problem in the domain of pain is one of a series of new findings that offer a bleak outlook for redheads everywhere. This summer, an Australian study linked red hair to Tourette’s syndrome, a childhood-onset neuropsychiatric disorder that results in motor and vocal tics. Hair colour may also influence marital status: Sessler found divorce to be more common in redheads—an observation that he warns could be “spurious.” But no claim heralds the grim fate of the redhead more clearly than the one made by the Oxford Hair Foundation: that, in 100 years, they will be all but extinct.
It’s a prediction that might be welcomed in some parts of the world: notably the U.K., where a virulent discrimination against redheads—known as “Gingerism”—persists. This uniquely British brand of bigotry has existed for generations; as the old English proverb goes: “Do not let the shadow of a redheaded person fall upon you. It might give you bad luck.” But it rose to the fore in 2003, when a 20-year-old was stabbed in the back because of his red hair—an event the BBC described as the first “serious anti-red-hair hate crime.” It was news again in 2007, after a family of six gingers in Newscastle claimed they had to move homes five times because of hair-colour-related abuse. In the midst of it all, the BBC asked: “Is gingerism as bad as racism?” (The article opened with a joke. “What’s the difference between a terrorist and a redhead?” “You can negotiate with a terrorist.”)
Indeed, the intolerance holds a surprisingly visible place in British society. A few years ago, Conservative MP Patrick Mercer sought to defend racial name-calling in the military. His apology: “A chap with red hair, for example, would also get a hard time. A far harder time than a black man, in fact.” (Mercer was later dropped by his party.)
Some say the precarious position of the U.K. redhead is linked to the old, atavistic hostility between the English and Scots and Irish. They claim that red hair to some signals a Celtic background (up to 13 per cent of Scots are redheads and up to 10 per cent of the Irish have red hair). But even in Canada, a Vancouver teen made headlines last year after starting a “Kick a Ginger Day” campaign on Facebook—inspired by a South Park episode in which there is an uprising against redheads. On the announced day, a number of children were beaten up by pupils, and dozens were sent home from school.
A few years ago, author Marion Roach went on a two-year journey to discover the origin of these preconceptions—a journey which culminated in a book: The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning, and Sexual Power of Red Hair. “I’ve had historians tell me that the Vikings started it,” she says. “Because the Vikings, many with red hair, raped and pillaged their way across the U.K.” But she admits that notion is hard to trace. “But what I did find is that in every culture, at some point in history, there’s been a fear and a hatred of redheads.” Judas, the Biblical figure who betrayed Jesus, started being painted with red hair in the ninth century. And Shakespeare had his villains don red wigs. But the most “stunning” display, says Roach, is captured in a mural of Adam and Eve at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral: “Eve, when she’s happy and frolicking, her hair is gold. And when she’s getting thrown out of the garden, when all you see is God’s large arms directing her out, she’s cowering under the weight of her long, red hair.”
Scientists used to think that red hair emerged when Homo sapiens arrived in Europe 40,000 years ago. But then in 2007, DNA retrieved from Neanderthals suggested that at least some were redheads. That means the ginger gene could be over 100,000 years old. What this shows is that red hair may once have conferred a biological advantage. Notably, redheads can produce high concentrations of vitamin D under low light conditions, something that helped ward off rickets in light-deprived northern Europe. Jonathan Rees, who discovered the red hair gene, argued that for it to have thrived, red hair must have been a desired trait.
What’s clear is that an interest in red hair—the science, history and aesthetics—is in vogue. This winter, Charlotte Rushton will publish Ginger Snaps, a photo collection of redheads. For the U.K.-born, red-haired photographer, the publication will be a sort of vindication. Rushton says that growing up, she was subjected to a relentless stream of taunting—or “ginger-baiting”—which “bordered on molestation.” Moving to California, she was astonished to learn “Americans love red hair!”
Redheads, in turn, are riding this wave. The icing on the cake was this summer’s fifth annual Redhead Day in Breda, Holland. The celebration, with 3,000 gingers, was organized by Bart Rouwenhorst, an energy consultant and amateur artist—and a blond. “So many people came to this event,” he explained, because “people with red hair feel related to other people with red hair.” Popular events on the day included: a fashion show with 50 red-haired models, lectures on red hair science and a group photo shoot.
And about that pesky problem of imminent extinction? A host of pro-red websites have sprung up. “Sav[ing] the Redheads,” outlines Redhedd.com, is “a two-step process, and imperialistic to the very core. The first step is to intramarry. The second is to intermarry.” But what spurred this new fetish? Boredom among the Hollywood elite, perhaps. Marion Roach has a different idea: “We’re just much more comfortable with powerful women than we ever have been.” The quintessential sass-talking redhead, Roach says, is “the ultimate representation of the powerful woman.” Now, with any hope, redheads will be around long enough to enjoy this new-found veneration.