Red Hair, Don’t Care! On Reemerging into a Gawking Public

Red Hair, Don’t Care! On Reemerging into a Gawking Public

 

As 2021 has now gotten officially rolling, with all the drama expected after the historic year of 2020, we may find ourselves braving the outdoors just a little more than before. We may not think it much safer than before, but knowing the end is not entirely in sight we are learning to live the life we must going forward.

 

As I find myself reemerging from the nearly 11 months of basic quarantine, I find that the hardened skin that I built up over the years as an urbanite has been shed. Now, all that is left is sensitive, unblemished skin, so that every would-be normal thing scrapes over my being like nails on a chalk board. Every loud voice on the street, every honk of a taxi, every subway announcement. But I am adaptable, I always have been. I grew up moving around and through that learned to deal, I learned to deal with my uncomfortableness and adapt to new surroundings.

 

However, I noticed something very peculiar about this particular new skin. Not only had my urbanite skin been shed, but my ginger skin as well. Meaning, any comments, stares, unkind words, or uninvited touches were all 10 times more upsetting or flustering than they were before. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder why I had to build up that skin in the first place and when it started. As a person, and particularly as a female person, with red hair, I had developed the tough skin of, well, a redheaded woman. I was used to the back handed compliments, the stares, the horrific fetishisizing pick up lines, the colour specific cat calls, and the evil eyes from other women. But now? Now I am used to being alone with my husband who once got me a birthday cake reading “Red hair don’t care!”. So, needless to say, I have been spoiled by my own isolation from the outside world.

 

It’s an unfair thing that redheads, men and women, have to build up a very particular hardened skin to succeed in this world. However, the world holds it’s trials and tribulations for all of man, we just happen to have the rarest (there are only 2% of us in the whole world! This makes us the silent minority here).

 

Going out into the city, my city, I am now reintroduced to attention. Stares from across the street, cars honking just get me to look at the drivers inside, calls shouted over masked faces such as “hey, firecracker!” Or “what up, big red?”. The more explicit calls I will keep to myself. But the most remarkable thing of all, is the reaction I seem to provoke in those I never would have expected. As I strolled along the upper east side one day, fully not expecting to stand out, I noticed eyes... eyes everywhere. And they were all on me. Adults, well trained, grown, successful adults, staring at me like toddlers in a grocery store. At least when a toddler stares in a grocery store its endearing, they are learning, their little brains taking in all the information about their outside world and all the different humans as they can. As I looked around the mildly busy (for NYC) streets, I noticed that I couldn’t see another redhead. From my point of view, I felt like the only one in the city. In that moment, I felt danger for my person, my identity, my presentation. I felt like a highlighted word on a barren page. Everyone looking, everyone staring unabashedly — even as I stared back — seemed like they wanted to take something from me, from within me. What that was I don’t know. As I looked back into their staring eyes I for once could not pinpoint the feeling behind them. Was is aggressive, was it curious, was it disgust, was it wonder? I emerged from my moment of shock along the streets and pulled myself up taller. If they were going to look, I was going to give them something strong to look at.

 

As I thought more and more about my experience on the streets of my own city, and the wide eyes that followed my every move, I couldn’t get the idea of a small child wondering at a new person in a grocery store or mall out of my head. A person who doesn’t look like mommy or daddy, and is therefore a completely new discovery, and the wonder and fear in those formative moments. Was this what was happening to the populace at large? After being stuck inside for nearly a year, surrounded by family and only people who look like them, were they, in some way, rediscovering a redhead in the wild? Unless they had a redhead in the family, which is very rare, their exposure to seeing that colour on someone’s head in person would have been very minimal. Does this explain the unabashed gawking? Perhaps.

 

Perhaps there is a renewed hostility as well. On one particular recent occasion I went to get lunch with a friend and then indulged in a pedicure. On this one outing I had at least 5 separate comments about my hair, two of which were rather hostile. Most hostility I have experienced and am experiencing now is from other women, basically yelling at me that my hair isn’t natural. On this most recent occasion I was at a checkout counter, when I got the common “I just love your hair colour!”. I have lost my ability to respond to this properly and find myself stumbling over my words. Do I just say thank you? Do I say it’s natural? I had forgotten the hostility that response is sometimes met with. So, of course, I went with it. “Thank you! It’s natural!” I said bashfully. I was immediately overwhelmed with three additional women who all work there telling me that it definitely wasn’t, that there was no way, etc, etc. This assumption of lying always throws me for a loop.

 

One woman, with short cropped, rooty bleached hair, a full face of carefully painted makeup, and a very distinct raised brow was particularly skeptical and aggressive in said skepticism. I was with a friend who backed me up and reacted to the strong negativity with affectionate humour, “hard to be believe, but she’s magical!”. Eventually to end the stronger attacks on my genetic identity, I frustratedly pulled off my hat, stating I can prove it, and parted my hair to show my roots (or lack there of). The painted woman raised her brow even higher and solidified a deep glare, and with nothing more than a growl of “mmmm”, walked away.

 

Though these women may have thought their reactions were a compliment, I did not feel complimented. Instead I felt vulnerable, debased, and defensive. The tough life-as-a -ginger skin I had built up had been shed by the comfort of home and self-isolation, and the lack of redheads in normal people’s daily lives due the same thing had made them hypersensitive to the image of one. Putting these two human experiences together is tough. And it’s going to be tough for a while as we re-emerge together. As redheads, we may  have to re-emerge with some grace. Knowing, admitting, and accepting our own uniqueness is more important than ever for our own well-being. We are going to shock, startle, amazing, and even upset with our very presence. The pandemic didn’t make human beings sensitive to the colour red, they always have been, for example - at my old job, after giving a great tour of my school to a parent, she openly said “well, you are just lovely! I never thought I’d ever like or trust a redhead”. But the pandemic and isolation have made humans more sensitive to differences, and variants. So, to survive whatever may come of that, we, as the fiery two percent of the world, must embrace it, and give others grace. Sometimes we just can’t help it if our brilliance blinds. As for me, I’m going to wear my AG hat with pride this winter, through all the newly gawking eyes.

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