Redheads and Assumptions
I am, among other things, a redhead. Because I am a redhead, I am subject to a slew of assumptions by other people that I possess certain characteristics. As a kid, people assumed that I was hot tempered, quick to anger, mischievous and scrappy. I always stood out in a crowd. I couldn’t get away with anything. Someone could always say, “The redhead did it!” I was picked on because I looked different from the other kids.
I hated my hair.
For as long as I can remember, when I went to the dentist I always had to ask for extra Novocain. I was a real wimp when it came to pain, and any medicine I was given to deal with pain seemed too weak to help ease my discomfort. “You redheads so sensitive,” the dentist would mutter as I raised my hand over and over to indicate that he was inflicting intolerable pain. This was supposed to be our secret, special signal for him to stop. He never stopped. Even when I waved my hand like a kid in a classroom who desperately wanted to be called on because they knew the correct answer, he didn’t stop. I’d continue my futile gesturing and he grumbled about my lack of fortitude and my redheadedness.
I hated my hair.
Redheads sunburn very easily. Smothered in Coppertone and wearing my dad’s white t-shirt over my bathing suit was the only way to make it through the summers on the beaches of Far Rockaway where I grew up. Even with all of that protection, a summer never went by without major sunburns and massive skin peeling. Remember using Elmer’s Glue when you were kid? If it got on your hands and dried just enough to arrive at the perfect peeling point you could amuse yourself by peeling it off of your fingers in sheets. Well, my sunburnt skin was like someone had poured Elmer’s glue all over my arms, legs, face, and back, but added the elements of pain and itching. It was not amusing.
I hated my hair.
The maddening thing about assumptions, however, is occasionally there is enough factual evidence to back them up. Sometimes this can be a good thing.
For example: after a lifetime of being accused of having a low tolerance for pain because I wanted the attention and redheads are sooooo dramatic, some studies have shown that redheads do indeed, have a lower pain threshold than brunettes and blondes. In addition, after years of being accused of “drug-seeking behavior” because I would request more Novocain, stronger medication or need to refill a prescription more quickly than the doctor anticipated, studies have shown that redheads have a high tolerance for the beneficial effects of some anesthesia and pain-killing medication. When these findings were published, I felt vindicated. After a lifetime of false assumptions that I was a hypersensitive, attention- and drug-seeking loser, followed by reprimands that if I just bucked up I would be fine, I was told that it was not some character flaw or personality disorder. In fact it wasn’t my fault at all. It was genetic! I felt like mimicking a redheaded rooster and crowing from the rooftops, “It’s not my fault… it’s my hair!”
I hated my hair.
On the other hand, there are no data, that I know of, supporting the assumption that all redheads have fiery hot tempers or are difficult children to raise; yet these assumptions and stereotypes persist.
But here’s the thing: it never crossed my mind to change the color of my hair. My hair color is as much a part of me as any other genetic trait I was born with; as much as my green eyes, my height, or my body type. And certainly if I dyed my hair I would still have a low pain threshold and a proclivity for really bad sunburns.
Recently I had a phone interview with a woman from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to discuss the Get Healthy Philadelphia campaign that includes a target goal to “Stop Childhood Obesity.” I knew that the overall goal of the campaign is about supporting healthy food and exercise habits for children and adults, and to address cigarette smoking as well. The reason for the interview was to explain why emphasizing Stopping Obesity instead of Health for all Philadelphians is contraindicated and results in stigmatizing fat children and adults. I wanted to explain the Health at Every Size® philosophy and introduce her to the work that ASDAH is doing. I wanted to emphasize that correlation is NOT causation and that high blood pressure and cholesterol levels are found in thin people as well as fat people. I wanted to make sure to point out that a thin person isn’t necessarily engaging in healthy lifestyle habits just because they look thin, and that there are healthy and unhealthy people of all sizes for a variety of reasons.
Most of all I wanted to eliminate the assumptions about obesity and health that are ingrained in our culture.
I obsessed over how I would approach the subject in an accessible and convincing way. I literally had no idea what I was going to say until the minute the conversation began and this was my opening comment:
I am a redhead. Redheads sunburn very easily. People who sunburn frequently have a higher incidence of developing skin cancer; but you don’t see any campaigns to Wipe Out Redheads. You see Skin Cancer Prevention campaigns because redheads are not the ONLY ones that get skin cancer. Even if a redhead dyed his or her hair they still have the innate characteristics that make them vulnerable to sunburns and skin cancer.
The rest of the interview was effortless and we ended with plans to follow up with more information about HAES and ASDAH. I hung up the phone feeling great about the whole experience.
I love my hair.