I was born a redhead, but these days when people ask if my hair is natural I’m not sure the honest answer is still ‘yes.’ I started dying it shortly before my thirtieth birthday when my once fiery locks began fading a sort of washed-out auburn shade. At first, I was in denial about this sad sign of aging. I convinced myself it was seasonal, as my hair always darkened a bit in the winter, but when summer rolled around and my hair was still drab, I had to face the fact that youth wasn’t the only thing time was robbing me of; it was also trying to steal my identity.
As a kid, I could never really decide if my red hair was a gift or a curse, but one thing I was sure about: it certainly made me stand out. I spent my childhood in Asia, too, where redheads are about as common gun racks and pick-up trucks. Sometimes I think I can imagine what it might be like to be a celebrity (minus the money, great wardrobe, and lavish lifestyle, that is) if only because I was practically hunted as a child. There was the staring and pointing that followed me everywhere, but strangers used to touch me, too — all the time. Someone once told me it was considered good luck to rub the hair of a redhead, so in lines, at restaurants, in crowded stores, people would reach out and pat me like I was somehow familiar to them — a child of old friends, perhaps — and not just some random kid waiting in line for a Happy Meal.
To make matters even stranger, neither of my parents have red hair. As a kid, I was convinced I’d been adopted, not just because my parents were brunettes, but also because they’re giants (6’ and 6’4”, respectively), while I was such a diminutive, little thing (even as an adult, I still stand almost half a foot shorter than my mom). Despite my maternal grandfather’s red hair, it seemed unlikely at best that I could be a biological offspring of the family, so a favorite activity of mine was guessing which redheads on TV and in the movies were my real mom and dad. They had given me up to pursue their dreams, I reasoned, a trait I romanticized above all others.
As a teenager, while I finally accepted my parents as the real McCoys, I had more trouble accepting my hair. I wasn’t all “Anne of Green Gables” about it — it wasn’t like I hated myself for it or anything, but I was definitely keenly aware that none of the popular kids had red hair. The girls who always dated the cutest boys, the ones who ended up on the Homecoming Court year after year were blond and brunette and tan. They didn’t burn in the sun like I did and their faces weren’t dotted with countless freckles. It wasn’t enough anymore to be different, what I really wanted was to be pretty.
So it’s ironic, really, that as soon as I started appreciating my hair as attractive — sexy even — it began fading. I credit the onslaught of redheads in pop culture over the last decade for my radical self-acceptance. Actresses like Julianne Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Amy Adams, and most recently, “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks have done for redheads what Google has done for cyberstalking. They popularized red hair, made it cool to have crimson locks…but at exactly the same time I had to start paying for mine. Shortly before I started coloring it, I asked a stranger in a store if a particular pink sweater I was thinking of buying clashed with my red hair. “You don’t have red hair,” she replied. “It’s really more strawberry blond.” I didn’t buy the sweater that afternoon; I used my money to buy my first dye job instead. I still think of myself as a natural redhead, though. After all, I haven’t forgotten my roots.