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Redheads and Assumptions

September 12, 2011

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.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. vesta44 permalink
    September 12, 2011 2:44 pm

    Totally awesome that you took something you saw as a negative and turned it into a positive, something you could use to get through to someone to change how they view fat and health. Kudos to you!!!

  2. Patsy Nevins permalink
    September 12, 2011 5:36 pm

    I am also a redhead with a low threshold for pain & a propensity to sunburn, & so was my mother. Her doctor told her years ago that redheads are more sensitive to pain, that we are more likely to have a bad reaction to some medications, etc. And I also had a pitched battle years ago with an insensitive dentist. However, I still love being a redhead, maybe even more now at 62 with no grey hair & no noticeable wrinkles.

  3. Lady of the Lab permalink
    September 12, 2011 6:02 pm

    Awesome! I’m glad you could make the analogy and it sounds like it worked very well in the interview. Redheads represent!

    • September 12, 2011 9:32 pm

      Thanks “Lady” and I like how your acronym is almost LoL! 😉

  4. September 12, 2011 9:13 pm

    There are redheads on my dad’s side of the family. My late MIL was a redhead. Though I have brown hair, I burn like a true redhead. I have one copper haired son, who is a huge hit with all the ladies, young and old. The older ones swoon over his hair. My older son’s hair goes reddish blond in the summer. I LOVE redheads.

    And the way you explained things to the public health woman was fan-fing-tastic!

  5. September 13, 2011 5:11 am

    Red is hot these days. I have been thinking of dying mine red. Good article!

  6. Anji permalink
    September 13, 2011 6:52 am

    I know what you mean on the sunburn issue; even living in Scotland I’ve been burnt nearly every year of my life; if I go abroad somewhere hot I have to be SO careful. Just back from Spain and for the first holiday ever did not get burnt because I applied layers of suncream after getting badly burnt in the north of Scotland (yes, really) earlier this year!

    I’m not sure what to make of the studies showing that we may have a lower tolerance for pain; it’s really hard to compare people’s pain. However there may well be something in it and I hope that any redheads suffering will be noticed and given help insead of being labelled crybabies.

    I too hate the way people assume we’re hot-tempered; I am one of the most patient, docile examples of a doormat found in naure (though I’m working on being less of a pushover); even when something really angers me I tend to rage silently.

    Great article, look forward to reading more!

    • Anji permalink
      September 13, 2011 6:53 am

      *nature, damn stuck “t” key!!

  7. September 13, 2011 10:20 am

    Great post and excellent comparison. And judging by the long-term efficacy of weight loss, I’d say most genetically fat people can sustain their thinness about the same length of time as genetically red-headed people can sustain their hair dye.😉


  8. September 13, 2011 4:55 pm

    Interesting. While I agree that being a redhead as a chile sucks (kids are cruel!) and I hated my hair up until my adult life, the pain thing was never mentioned or experienced by me. I actually think I deal with pain exceptionally well (8 hour straight tattoo session included) and have never been accused of being too sensitive (though that is BS no matter who is saying it to whom). What I hate is the “feisty” thing. Oh redheads are so feisty, fiery, hot tempered, etc. UGH! Can we not just be people with a different color hair? It’s all so silly.

    • September 14, 2011 7:24 pm

      Silly indeed! And sometimes, unfortunately, as stereotypes can tend to be, really hurtful!
      Thanks so much for your comment!

  9. TeresaBG permalink
    September 14, 2011 4:02 pm

    Well said! Great blog! And wow, quick thinking on your feet. I love the analogy you used. Brilliant!

    • September 14, 2011 7:25 pm

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting Teresa BG!

  10. September 14, 2011 6:13 pm

    I’m a red-head too, including celebrating the yearly Lobster Fest and Flake of the Week competition with my Mom (who’s more of a brunette, but also burns like cinder).

    I’m hot-tempered, quick to flash but slow to show it, and pretty much have an insanely high pain threshold (according to the chiropractor who put my slipped collarbone and two dislocated ribs back in without anesthesia just six weeks ago), except when it comes to the dentist. I’d love to just have general anesthesia every time I have to visit there (which may be because I’m kind of afraid of his profession).

    I also have the Redhead Curse aka freckles everywhere. Even on the inside of my elbow. And dark green eyes. We should open up a Redhead Society here! Us reds are dying out after all.

    That aside, great article and great way to introduce HAES. Please let me steal it for further confrontations with image-obsessed lawyers?

  11. September 14, 2011 7:22 pm

    Yes Nell, steal away! Glad you enjoyed the post

  12. September 16, 2011 6:45 pm

    Yes! As a readhead I am totally down with this analogy. Well put.

  13. September 18, 2011 9:43 pm

    The thing about redheads getting angry easily always made sense to me. When someone repeatedly tells you you have no soul because of your hair color or that you’re an ugly freak for something you were born with, you can get pissy fast!

    And I always ask doctors for extra/stronger medication because I’m so sensitive and they never give me anything strong enough.:/ Had my wisdom teeth taken out and the doctor only gave me Tylanol 3! Sooooo annoying.😦


  1. Five for Friday :: Enough Edition | Nourishing the Soul - A forum on body image and the effects of eating disorders

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