Roots by Julianna Marchant  As a redhead, I’ve received some off-color comments about my hair. I’ve made peace with the unavoidable moniker “ginger,” or “ging,” and as a girl, I dodged the insults that were sometimes flung at redheaded boys growing up. I was, at least once, victim to most of the red hair stereotypes popularized in that episode of South Park, though—teased that I didn’t have a soul, melded into the same entity as one of my coincidentally redheaded close friends, asked if the carpet matched the drapes. While annoying, these comments are ultimately harmless, usually delivered tongue-in-cheek. There is, however, one irksome question that still raises my translucent eyebrows: “You have such great hair! Is that your real color?” This one I usually get from envious middle-aged women in hair salons, but occasionally from friendly train passengers, waiters, pedestrians, cab drivers, Starbucks baristas, etc. If my reaction speed were quicker, I’d reply, in the words of Chandler Bing from the sitcom Friends: “Thanks, it is. I grow it myself.” But instead, I affirm that it’s real and thank him or her sheepishly. I’m thrown by this one. Is it a compliment? A genuine inquiry about my genetic makeup? If that’s the case, I can’t help but think, um, duh, isn’t it obvious? Or is this question spiteful, a subtle lament from the inquirer that they hadn’t lucked out in the hair department like me? Coming from older people, perhaps it is a praise of my youth? Or maybe this person is secretly saying, “You look like the type of person who would dye their hair.” Does such a person exist? These are paranoid interpretations of a question that is probably asked casually, admiringly. But it makes me wonder what hair color really says about a person. Naturally, I looked to redheads first. Our fiery locks have been revered and reviled in equal measure throughout the course of documented cultural history—a pendulum of public opinion that swings as frequently as our allegedly volatile emotions. All the redheads you remember, real or fictional, likely have at least one personality trait commonly associated with red hair. Perhaps the most iconic redheaded muse in classical art is the Roman goddess Venus, of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, immortalized on a canvas during the height of the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century. Traditionally, Venus is seen as the goddess of love and sexuality in Greco-Roman mythology, the embodiment of female charm and seduction. Several aspects of the painting underline her sexual character—her nudity, her demure stance, the roses that surround her. But nothing in the mythological literature suggests that Venus has red hair. If making Venus a redhead was Botticelli’s intellectual choice, existing conceptions during the Renaissance of red hair as a symbol of passion and libido tie in to the subject matter perfectly, not to mention the fact that she uses her hair to cover her crotch. Or perhaps it was a famous redhead, Simonetta Vespucci, known as the most beautiful woman in Florence during the Renaissance, who alone inspired Botticelli to paint her likeness again and again. Perhaps her red hair was a purely aesthetic call. Her long golden curls are arguably the focal point of the painting; the bright color stands out against her pale skin and the teal ocean backdrop. We cannot know. Either way, Botticelli’s rendition of Venus permanently dyed the goddess’s hair red in everyone’s minds. Later in nineteenth-century England, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters, poets and critics who wanted to reform art by returning to the intricate detail, intense colors and complex compositions of the early Italian Renaissance, created works that predominantly featured redheaded women. Subjects of Pre-Raphaelite paintings were mostly women in well-known poems and literature, including Helen of Troy and Mary Magdalene, and many had a mane of bright red hair. These were women from literary works ranging as far back as Dante Alighieri’s poem La Vita Nuova to Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Since there was really no common theme or setting among the paintings, it might be assumed that the Pre-Raphaelite fixation with red hair was an aesthetic one. The painters were deeply interested in the portrayal of color, and since their primary inspiration was the natural world, red hair was a physical phenomenon that translated into artistic beauty. To the Pre-Raphaelites, hair color was qualified by the stroke of a paintbrush. In the realm of mortals, Queen Elizabeth I of England was famously a natural redhead. It seems more than ironic that the Elizabethan era is widely considered the golden age of English history. Sixteenth-century England, largely due to Elizabeth’s reign, saw another great cultural renaissance, between Shakespeare, international exploration, a healthy economy, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the acceptance of Protestantism. But with its most famous redhead in a position of supreme power, it was a particularly great time to be a ginger. Hair dye became fairly common. English noblewomen went to great lengths to mimic the Queen’s look—they dyed their hair a light auburn color with a mixture of saffron, cumin and celandine. As she never bore children, Elizabeth was commonly referred to as The Virgin Queen. She herself celebrated her chastity as a virtue, and it even inspired a cult-like following in the portraits, pageants and literature of the day. That purity was reflected in the appearance she popularized: lily-white skin, rouged lips, modest dress, and red hair. Thus the Queen’s red hair came to symbolize virginity in Elizabethan England, an interesting departure from the fabled Venus about one hundred years prior. Perhaps in this time period an adventurous assumption of the authenticity of one’s virginity was the authenticity of her hair color. My favorite redhead of all time was not a real redhead. Even though she was a faux, I still love Lucy. Like Queen Elizabeth, Lucille Ball’s hair became the most recognizable part of her image as an all-American actress and comedian in the 1950s. Ball first dyed her brunette hair to the iconic flaming red for a film in the 1940s in order to set herself apart from other actresses. After gaining success from the hugely popular sitcom I Love Lucy, Ball became known as a comedian for her goofy humor and ridiculous antics—qualities that were only reinforced by her eye-catching hair color, as well as her caricatural eyebrows and bright red lips. For Lucille Ball, dying her hair red was a career stunt that worked. Her hair caught everyone’s attention. Is that why many women dye their hair—to stand out in a crowd? Beyond red hair, colors not offered by the human gene pool are sometimes wildly popular in hair-coloring salons. One of the first pioneers of the artificial hair color was 1930s sex symbol and film actress Jean Harlow. Towards the beginning of her career, Harlow was picked by Howard Hughes to be his leading lady. He had her publicity director come up with a moniker for the novel hair color that people wouldn’t forget: platinum blonde. She was a sensation; the term bombshell was first used to describe her. She accredited her success entirely to her hair, once saying that without it, “Hollywood wouldn’t know I’m alive.” Such daring beauty came at a cost, though. Harlow used actual bleach to dye her hair—a mixture of peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes that she was subjected to weekly. The toxic combination may very well have contributed to her kidney failure and early death at 26. After her, though, many celebrities followed suit, most notably Marilyn Monroe. These women were universal sex symbols who rocked strikingly unnatural ‘dos, but they undoubtedly stood apart from the rest, thanks to their extreme beauty procedures. Perhaps the common denominator for all these women and their memorable hair color is their youth. In the mind of the observer, bright or bold color is synonymous with health, vigor, and life. I’m young, only seventeen. My hair has darkened over the years, but I’ve only ever been a redhead. It’s an inextricable part of my identity; I really think my life would be different if I were a brunette or a blonde. All the compliments, cliches, scrutiny and singularity have influenced the way I perceive myself. I even think to some extent I’ve become a mellow, sarcastic person in spite of the conventional image of the intense, fiery-tempered redhead. That’s what scares me about growing old—the aging process is, for better or worse, a great equalizer. All the idiosyncrasies you’ve developed throughout a lifetime of a defining color, sooner or later, are washed out in a sea of gray. Will I be sad, or can I find solace in the fact that my character transcends the color of my tresses? Will my red hair leave a mark that won’t fade over time? I don’t know if I’ll dye my roots once they start to gray. But my redheaded mom is fifty-one and still chemical-free, so I have hope. Works Cited Karlin, Lily. "Why Lucille Ball Was More Revolutionary Than You Think." 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