Clare Wiley is a journalist covering lifestyle, wellbeing and culture. Her writing on everything from identity to relationships, body image and activism can be found in Vice, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, Stylist and plenty of others. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
I have a confession: I love being ginger. These days I will graciously accept the generous compliments of strangers in club bathrooms and humblebrag to hairdressers that yes, this is in fact my natural colour.
But it wasn’t always this way. When I was little, having auburn hair and pale skin was cringe-worthy – even in Ireland, home to a sizeable proportion of the world’s redheads. From being teased in the playground to the sun-induced outbreaks of freckles, for me, being ginger was a source of shame.
Just two per cent of people worldwide have red hair. Blue-eyed redheads like me, are even rarer. And depending on which Buzzfeed lists you believe, redheads don’t go grey, have more sex and can produce their own vitamin D.
But those fun facts weren’t much comfort in my teenage years, when I was (affectionately?) nicknamed Big Red, to my eternal mortification. Later came the taunts from drunken cat-callers, bellowing after to me to enquire whether the curtains match the drapes.
To my mum’s unending horror, throughout my teens and early twenties I would dye my locks every colour I could think of. At first that just meant a slightly darker shade of auburn (imaginative). Then I went through a period of bleaching a small strand at the front so I could dye it everything from vivid purple (more Quality Street tin than Insta-worthy unicorn) to punk green (pale and sickly-looking).
When I eventually realised that cheap home dyes weren’t really going to conceal the ginger, I went through a series of increasingly outlandish haircuts. I basically tried every style there is – or at least, every style Carey Mulligan has ever had – from bobs and fringes, to layered shoulder cuts and a variety of undercuts, not forgetting, of course, the ill-fated pixie cut which prompted a friend to greet me with ‘Alright Justin Bieber?’
These striking women – who are impressive for more than just their hair – helped me to see that my (relatively) unique hair colour is something to be grateful for.
Slowly though, things around me – from celebrities to music – began to shift, and it caught my attention. This was circa 2007, and while I was getting my first few journalism jobs out of uni, Kate Nash appeared with her fiery crop and DGAF attitude. There was Florence and the Machine, with her wild, red-hot mane and free spirit. Along came Jessica Chastain’s classic chestnut locks, and, later, the stunning Emma Stone.
It gradually dawned on me: is being a redhead cool now? These striking women – who are impressive for more than just their hair – helped me to see that my (relatively) unique hair colour is something to be grateful for.
As I neared the end of my 20s, I grew my hair out, the bleach-damaged bit along with it, and stopped dying it. (I kept the undercut though, that’s just good sense for thick hair). At the risk of making me sound properly old, these days I love to see Gen Z girls growing their gorgeous ginger locks out long and being proud of their hair.
Being ginger is hardly the biggest adversary to overcome, but accepting and learning to love the thing I was once teased about has been an important part of my overall path to learning to love and appreciate my body.