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In Celebration of Redheads

by on November 05, 2019 4:30 AM


A little less than 25 years ago our daughter was born at Florida Hospital in Orlando. The first of our two children, the birth was out-of-the-ordinary in many respects. 

As an in-vitro baby she was watched closely from the moment of her conception. My wife suffered from periodic high blood pressure, developed pre-eclampsia at the end of the pregnancy and we received a false positive (but common) result on an alpha-fetoprotein test. At 40 weeks my wife had what was thought to be a Bell’s palsy which necessitated an induced labor so she could undergo a CAT scan to rule out a stroke. This was after going through the entire pregnancy unmedicated and planning for a natural birth, which went out the window when the neonatologist explained “death is not an option” and our daughter needed to be born so my wife could be correctly diagnosed. 

They administered Pitocin and magnesium sulfate and after breaking her water they required an epidural so she felt minimal pain to keep her blood pressure down. After over 15 hours of labor the obstetrician used a vacuum pump to bring our daughter into the world.

When our wonderful baby girl arrived, she had an overall orange coloring. Since I had never witnessed a birth before I assumed that everything was as it should be and that orange was the regular tone of newborns. Then someone – a nurse or the doctor – announced, “What a beautiful redhead!” 

And I thought, “A redhead?!” My wife was blonde as a child but darkened with age, and has one sister who had a little red tint as a child. I have brown hair and one aunt on my dad’s side with red hair, but otherwise no one else. 

Of the many out-of-the-ordinary aspects of our daughter’s birth, she not only beat the odds of arriving (most in-vitro procedures at that time had a 25% success rate), but she also managed to combine recessive genes from both sides of our family and get a hair color she shares with very few people on the planet.

Which is why today, November 5, 2019, we are happy to celebrate National Redhead Day and our fabulous redheaded daughter.

And the first thing you learn with a redhead is the answer to the all-important question: how does one get to be a redhead? (Not counting using hair color, that is.)

According to the National Institutes of Health, there is a gene labeled MC1R which provides instructions for making a protein called the melanocortin 1 receptor. Variations in the MC1R gene cause differences in skin and hair color and certain special genetic variations are most common in people with red hair. What that means is only 2% of the people in the world have red hair. However, there are countries with larger percentages of red hair – both Scotland and Ireland are reported to have over 10% redheads in their populations. But because the United States has a larger population overall, the U.S. has the most redheads of any country. 

So it’s pretty special to be a redhead. In 2015, author Jacky Colliss Harvey wrote the book “Red: A History of the Redhead” that traced the history of red hair through the ages. About her own red hair she comments, “It is, with me, as with many other redheads, the single most significant characteristic of my life. If that sounds a little extreme to you, well, you’re obviously not a redhead, are you?”

One of the other interesting details about red hair is that it’s typically thicker than brunette or blonde hair so they have fewer strands of hair on their head – 90,000 versus 140,000 and 110,000 respectively. Although you would think that might speed up washing, our daughter assures us this is not the case.

Many redheads such as our daughter also encounter instances of redhead-based medical thinking. When they undergo procedures, the nurses and doctors attending to them are concerned how the anesthesia will affect them because they are redheads. (Studies have shown a genetic trait in people with red hair also results in them being more sensitive to pain and requiring more anesthesia.)

There are many celebrity redheads in today’s pop culture – Prince Harry, Emma Stone, Ed Sheeran, Amy Adams, Rupert Grint and, of course Elmo. And Lucille Ball set the standard for previous generations of redheads. 

However, not all is rosy on National Redhead Day. Redheads get teased for being fiery, feisty, hot-headed, and quick-tempered. Many redheads have experienced prejudice or discrimination in their lives in one form or another because of the color of their tresses.

A common nickname for redheads, “ginger,” is usually construed as a positive term in this country. However, that’s not the case in other countries, as exhibited by a “South Park” episode titled “Ginger Kids” that debuted in 2005 and eight years later supposedly inspired "Kick a Ginger Day" at Wingfield Academy in Rotherham, a large town in England. The “South Park” episode has a character who claims that all gingers have “gingervitis” and that they are disgusting, inhuman, unable to survive in sunlight and have no souls. Although the episode ends on a positive kumbaya-style note, that message apparently didn’t take hold with the group of teenagers across the ocean. 

Social media snubbed redheads for years with one of its most popular methods of communication – emoji. While there were over 2,500 emoji for all sorts of people and things – and even some potty-humor ones – it wasn’t until last year that redhead emoji were finally released to the world by the Unicode Consortium. 

And it was only a few short years ago that the New York Police Department had to issue a message to sergeants and lieutenants in Manhattan that harassment of fellow redhead officers would not be tolerated. It seems that although the NYPD has a racially and culturally diverse workforce, a large percentage of the officers are of Irish descent and some say they’ve endured years of ridicule over their red hair. 

So today, National Redhead Day, is a day to celebrate the unique and wonderful aspects of being a redhead. If you are a redhead, take the day to stand a little taller, shine a little brighter, and smile a little wider. And for the rest of us, when you meet a redhead today, congratulate them on their special genes and wish them a wonderful day to revel in their rare and exceptional hair.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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