[Firstly, I realise that I haven't posted for months and am now posting something completely unrelated to fiction (the main focus of this blog), but this is something I've been thinking about a bit recently, and my blog seemed the best platform for a long piece of writing! So, here goes ...]
It was 2003 when I first realised that my natural hair colour was a problem. I was 13, and had spent the day at an ice rink in Plymouth with two friends. We weren’t really there to skate, of course: as we went to an all-girls school, any trip out into the world meant an opportunity to meet boys. Though we weren’t brave enough to actually strike up a conversation with any of the boys at the ice rink that day, my friend skated up to a group of lads and passed them a note with her name and phone number – yep, we were classy. That night, when we were in our sleeping bags on my sitting-room floor, the boys called her. Overt flirting ensued. I don’t remember much of what was said, other than there was talk of meeting up, and my friend asked if the two girls who had been with her that day could come too. The boy’s reply hit me like a bucket of icy water: “Only if the ginger one puts a paper bag over her head first.”
Ouch. I cried in my sleeping bag later that night, while my friends slept beside me. Like most 13-year-old girls, I was sensitive about my appearance – I couldn’t just tell myself the boy was an idiot. Before then, I’d been vaguely aware that ginger hair wasn’t something coveted by my schoolmates, but secretly I liked it: it made me special, it was different. In the novels I devoured, ginger characters were the jokey sidekicks or the fiery tricksters, often sidelined but never ridiculed. That night, however, I suddenly understood that my DNA made me officially ugly, and that my teenage experience was going to be different to that of my friends. That sounds overdramatic, but, in fact, I wasn’t wrong.
Over the next few years, comments at school increased, until I got them on pretty much a daily basis. There were the girls I barely knew who would come up to me and ask, “Why don’t you dye your hair?” (I remember telling one of them “My mum won’t let me”, to which she replied, “Just tell her you don’t want to look like such a freak!” before clapping her hand to her mouth and giggling “Oops, sorry!”) There was the group of popular girls who briefly toyed with making me their project, trying to get me to go to their houses so that they could dye my hair (and eyebrows, and eyelashes … I’m one of those gingers). There were the friends who sympathetically said “I feel so sorry for you”, “I’m so glad I’m not ginger”, and “You’re quite pretty for a ginger person”. There was the repeated question, “Does the carpet match the curtains?”
It wasn’t bullying in the traditional sense. I wasn’t unpopular, and a lot of the kids who said these things were otherwise friendly towards me and, I think, liked me. My class at school was small and tight-knit, and I was fond of nearly everyone in it – I didn’t blame them. It was just accepted that “ginger” was synonymous with “ugly”. Many of the comments weren’t even directed at me: for instance, there were girls who fretted loudly that their blonde dye had made their hair look “a bit ginger”, while their friends reassured them that it hadn’t. These remarks hurt just as much as those aimed deliberately at me. I never let on, though. If anyone said something negative about my hair, I would laugh and quickly change the subject. Sometimes, if a friend defended me, the perpetrator might reply “Lorna doesn’t mind, do you, Lorna?” and I would say no. Looking back, it seems spineless of me not to have stood up for myself, but it felt as though to challenge people would make me seem even more of an outsider. Plus, in my head, they were right: I was hideous. I was the one at fault, not them. My self-esteem plummeted. I believed I was less important than those around me, my opinions and feelings less valid. "Ginger" felt like my whole identity, eclipsing everything else.
I began dyeing my hair when I was 14, initially with wash-in-wash-out stuff, and then with semi-permanent dye. At the beginning, I used a darker shade of auburn, before moving on to brown. My mum hated that I was doing this. We used to argue about it, and I would lie and pretend I hadn’t dyed my hair when I very clearly had. One day, I came home from school to find my secret supply of home-dye kits spread across my bed, in the same way that other mums might expose their teenage daughter’s hidden stash of cigarettes or condoms. She would tell me my obsession with my hair was silly, that I shouldn’t be so concerned with my appearance; I would reply that it wasn’t me who had a problem with how I looked, but other people. Older relatives tutted at me for “spoiling” my hair, but I didn’t care: for the first time, I resembled those around me, and a few people at school told me I looked much better for hiding my natural colouring.
When I was 16, I moved to a larger, co-ed school for sixth form. Dyeing my hair shortly before my first day there, I was determined that my new schoolmates would think of me as a brunette. That illusion didn’t last long. During my first week, I discovered a note in my pencil case that simply said: “ROOT HAIRS”. Semi-permanent dye tends to quickly wash out at the roots, and I’d been rumbled. I started using dark brown, permanent dye every time I washed my hair, but it still somehow wasn’t enough to hide the orange. A boy in my drama class asked me why I didn’t dye my hair, not realising that I already did – that it was much less ginger than it would be naturally. I remember this incident because I was tired and, for once, let my guard slip, allowing myself to look a bit upset. The boy said “Are you crying? But, come on, you must be used to hearing this kind of thing ...?”
That was a common refrain: You must be used to it. In other words, they couldn’t help that I was ugly and that they were compelled to comment on it – it was my responsibility to grow a thicker skin. Hmm.
Being around boys brought other challenges. I remember, for instance, overhearing a guy getting teased by his friends for kissing “a ginger girl” at a party, while he protested that her hair hadn’t been ginger and, anyway, he’d been really drunk. Another group of guys sent me an email from their mate’s account, pretending to be him, hyperbolically describing my “ginger beauty” in words that dripped sarcasm. On top of this, if I ever learnt that a guy fancied me, aside from being incredulous and immediately too shy to speak to him in person, I would tell myself that his feelings would change if he discovered my true hair colour. At 16/17, I desperately wanted to feel attractive, but it seemed impossible.
Ginger-related comments became frequent at that school, and I developed physical reactions to them. If I was in the common room and overheard the G-word, my heart would race and my hands would shake, and I’d find an excuse to leave the room. This escalated to the point where I would react in the same way to the word “hair”, just in case it led to disparagement of gingers. Consequently, I was unable to talk to anyone about it all. I’d always had quite a self-deprecating sense of humour, but I couldn’t joke about my hair colour. The subject was too painful. In my final term of sixth form, I ate most of my lunches alone in the library, and avoided social events, in case the topic of hair was mentioned. Of course, these years of my life weren’t all bad: I still had some fun times and made friends, but I always felt ashamed and apologetic about the way I looked. My mum spoke to one of my teachers, who “had a word” with me, asking if I was OK and if it was true that people had said nasty things. I denied everything and said I was fine. What could he have done, anyway? It’s not like he had a magic potion to turn me blonde.
In general, teachers were ignorant of the situation. Being ginger seemed to be one of the few remaining things that it was allowable to tease someone over, and teachers turned a blind eye to any comments they overheard, in a way that they wouldn’t have done had the comments related to weight or race or any other physical aspect. Some of them even joined in: I remember an English teacher using “ginger” as a negative description in a poem he wrote, and a history teacher jokingly condoning the way Hitler treated redheads.
In case anyone who wasn’t at a UK school in the early- to mid-2000s is reading this and feeling baffled, let me assure you that this attitude was not unique to the two schools I attended, but seemed to be ingrained in teenagers across the country. OK, there were some ginger pupils at my school who didn’t feel the need to dye their hair: perhaps I was more sensitive than them. Then there were others who, like me, went brunette. Compared to many, I got off lightly: there have been awful cases of teenagers in the UK committing or attempting suicide due to being bullied over their red hair. Then there was the infamous “kick a ginger day” inspired by an episode of South Park, which led to a lot of schoolkids being attacked (this occurred mainly in the US and Canada, so perhaps it isn’t just a UK-based problem after all. Fellow redhead Amber McNaught has blogged about it here). Nicola Roberts of Girls Aloud fame has spoken publicly about the hate she received over her hair colour and how it affected her mental health, but in general it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about – or, if it is talked about, gets treated as a joke.
Things got infinitely better when I started university. Suddenly, I rarely seemed to hear any negativity about ginger hair, and, although strangers still occasionally yelled things at me in the street (this was usually done by men, and was often something like "ginger bitch"), I felt much better about myself. By the time I turned 20, I’d stopped dyeing my hair altogether. The Lorna of today doesn’t deserve (or want!) any pity: I’m very happy and lucky, with good health, a wonderful husband, supportive family, lovely friends, a nice house, and a job I like. It’s been years since anyone said anything bad about my hair (not within my earshot, anyway!), and I like it again now – in fact, I wouldn’t want it any other colour. I can talk about being ginger easily, without having a panic attack, and can look back on that difficult period in my life with detachment. The only annoying thing I still encounter is people telling me, “You’re the spitting image of *insert literally any red-headed female celebrity here*” – half the time, the woman they mention has a completely different face shape, eye colour, and body shape than me, but because we both have ginger hair we’re apparently indistinguishable.
I realise this has been a bit of a self-indulgent “poor me” rant, but I do have an aim in mind, I promise! I’m not sure what the situation is in schools nowadays. In general, it seems today’s teenagers are more tolerant, and there’s less pressure to conform to physical ideals. Having said that, the results of a Google search for “ginger suicide” (see my earlier link) indicates that there’s still a dangerous problem. Every day, I see people doing fantastic things to raise awareness of mental health, of discrimination, of bullying. Body positivity is having a moment, right? It’s made me wonder if sharing my experience can help raise awareness of something which, I think, still needs more acknowledgement. Please do let me know in the comments if you've got a similar story.
I know there are people out there who have compared “gingerism” to racism. This, in my opinion, is ridiculous. Ginger people haven’t historically been kept as slaves or mass-murdered or treated as second-class citizens without rights. Please, let’s keep things in perspective: if gingerism is the size of a tennis ball, racism is the moon. However, it is something that deserves to be recognised as a problem and taken seriously. My cousin’s five-year-old daughter has beautiful curls in a richer, more vivid red than my hair. I hope she will never have to hear negative things said about them, and that, if she ever does, she won’t feel like she has to treat it as a joke. So please, let’s talk about this a bit more. Let’s make gingers one of the groups of people we’re kinder towards.