Anne Shirley was the redheaded heroine of my childhood. She hated her titian hair and longed for the raven color of her bosom friend Diana, but I was envious of it. Her red hair was synonymous with accepting a dare to walk the ridgepole of a roof, tying for first place on the entrance exam to Queens College, and talking herself out of every possible awkward situation. She was outspoken, smart, ambitious, and she married the fictional man of my dreams, Gilbert Blythe. I wanted to be just like her, but, sadly, my natural hair color was plain brown – as far from fiery as you could get.
Have you ever heard a successful writer say she always knew she would grow up to write? Or a teacher who could look back and think of times she patiently helped kids her own age learn how to read? I had the same sentiments about being a redhead. On the outside I was your average brunette, but on the inside I was a raging ginger.
I studied abroad in southern Spain for a semester in college. The mixed southern European and north African blood that inhabited Seville produced olive skin, brown eyes, and dark hair. I had a different look. People had to shield their eyes from the reflection of the sun off my gleaming white body if I dared to bare my arms on a warm winter day. Freckles spanned the bridge of my nose, covered my arms shoulder to fingertip, and multiplied in droves during a single afternoon at the beach. Anyone walking down the street in Seville immediately knew that I was an outsider.
During Easter break that semester I visited a friend studying in Ireland. I walked off the plane in Dublin, took one look around at the ruddy skin and auburn heads surrounding me, and thought I have found my people! I pictured myself wandering out on the moor, walking among the actual heather flowers that are my namesake, sheep grazing in the distance, hair blowing in the wind. My brown hair was magically transformed into a dark red, complementing the vibrant green hues of the countryside. Only with this slight alteration was the picturesque scene complete.
I found my first gray hair in high school. By college friends commented on the surprisingly large number of silver strands woven within my still brown hair. At 27 my 80-plus year old grandfather commented that I should start dying my hair. That was all I needed to hear. The white streaks were dyed immediately to match the original average brown color.
Over the next few years I started asking the hairdresser to slowly add a little “warmth” to my hair. It evolved from a true brown to a mixture of hues, the perceived color dependent on the light. Then, three years ago, after seven long years of spending too much time and money to have my hair professionally dyed, I picked up a box of Garnier’s Medium Golden Brown Mahogany from the shelves at Target. I followed the instructions and 30 minutes later I was a true redhead for the first time in my life. The yearning that had been simmering inside of me all those years was finally expressed to the world!
I’ve learned that red hair provokes regular commentary. A co-worker jokingly observed that I could be his granddaughter’s mother because of our matching locks. A doctor gave me a lecture about using sunscreen because my skin must burn easily “with all that red hair.” Strangers make references to my hair color at least once a week. They are positive comments casually slung into the conversation, but this never happened when I was a brunette. No doctor ever warned me to use sunscreen because of all the brown hair crowning my head.
Two years ago I started working at a financial services company. One of the first compliance tasks was getting my fingerprints taken for the FBI. During the intake the administrator recorded my physical description. She looked me over. “Caucasian, blue eyes, red hair” she stated out loud as she entered the information into the computer.
“Wait.” I interjected. “I don’t really have red hair.”
“It doesn’t matter what it was originally, if it looks red now, that’s what we put into the computer.”
I smiled. If my red hair was on record with the FBI, then it must be real. My childhood dream had finally come true. I was officially a raging ginger.