The exhibit was fairly crowded, and we slowly made our way through the sea of people without speaking to anyone… until we saw this one family. A mom, a dad, two little kids. They were total strangers, just like everyone else in the room. But my sister and I smiled at the kids, and the mom made a friendly, jokey comment to my mom. When we continued on our separate ways, we were a little happier than we’d been before.
The difference? It was another family of redheads.
I experience this Redhead Sisterhood phenomenon all the time. I live in New York, The City of Not Making Eye Contact with Strangers, but when I see other redheads walking down the street or waiting on the subway platform, I always smile at them. I often count the redheads in my subway car, trying to determine if we really comprise 2-6% of the U.S. population. When I meet a bunch of strangers, I immediately feel a stronger connection with any other redheads in the group; my sister says she feels the same way. I’ve always loved reading about redheaded heroes and heroines: Pippi Longstocking, Anne Shirley, the Weasleys, Tamora Pierce’s Alanna. When I find out an author I like has red hair, it makes me gleeful. When I meet redheaded men—a very infrequent occurrence—the first thing I always think is, “WOW, our children would have AMAZING hair.” And I don’t even intend to HAVE children.
It seems ridiculous. It’s just hair. I’m pretty sure blondes and brunettes don’t feel immediate kinship with their hair twins, nor do people with curly hair or bangs or pixie cuts.
But here’s the thing. Meeting another redhead is kind of like meeting someone from my hometown. I instantly know that we have some shared history. If I find out someone else grew up in Evanston, Illinois, chances are she went to my high school and hung out at Kafein, the cool coffee shop, on Friday nights. Chances are she spent an inordinate amount of time wandering around Old Orchard Mall and had her prom at Navy Pier. And those things connect me to her, no matter how small they are. By the same token, there are a number of experiences that are unique to redheads. As children, we constantly get touched by complete strangers on the street and in stores. Old ladies approach us and tell us about how their hair used to be the same color as ours. It is absolutely impossible to disappear into a crowd, which can be terrible if you’re shy, like me. People we haven’t seen in a decade recognize us instantly by our hair and approach us with open arms, putting us in the incredibly awkward situation of having no clue who they are. We have to put on sunblock to go outside for ten minutes in the summer, and when it’s a hundred degrees, we feel like we’re going to collapse from heat stroke about five times sooner than everyone else. We worry about the day we start going gray and this piece of our identity starts slipping away. And other redheads know these things without being told.
I know a lot of you are thinking, “But that’s only true of NATURAL redheads. What about people who dye their hair red?” So let me say a word about artificial redheads—we’ll call them arties for short. I fully admit that every time I see a redhead, the first thing I do is determine whether it’s real or not. I am extremely good at spotting arties. My sister says she points them out to her friends so that they, too, can learn the subtle differences between real and dyed red hair. She also says it bothers her when she sees people trying to “pass,” like they’re infringing on our territory. But it doesn’t bother me at all. Just like some people feel they’re born into a body with the wrong gender, lots of people are born with the wrong hair color. If you feel like a redhead, I think you should be one. Go for it. Dye your little heart out. In some ways, it’s almost better, because arties aren’t just on my team by default—they chose to be there.
So I salute you, redheads of all shades, whether you were born with the MC1R gene or not. And I have extra sunblock if you need some.