There’s a mistake on my driver’s license. I’m listed as a blond, but I got my license when I was 16 years old and a full-fledged ginger. My natural hair color is strawberry blond, and this fell through the cracks somewhere between me doing my driver’s test victory dance and filling out DMV paperwork, but I don’t think it happened on accident. I’m not a redhead at heart and have never liked the clownish, perpetually greasy locks cascading down my back.
Of course, my look had to come from somewhere, and I wasn’t dumb enough to choose it for myself. A Catholic from New Jersey, my dad was 100 percent Irish. My mother, a lifelong Californian and former beauty pageant finalist, comes from a long line of Romanian Jews. I hit the jackpot by getting my mom’s towering height and willowy, sylphlike body type, but was unfortunate to inherit my dad’s pasty skin tone, freckles, and red hair. I was the only one out of my Irish grandmother’s thirteen grandkids to sprout red hair, and while a lot of adults told me that the difference made me “special and pretty,” it actually made me a pariah in my own family, and as a social outcast at school, I didn’t need to feel like a weirdo among relatives, too.
At the end of the third grade, my teacher bought each student a book that reminded her of that particular child. I eagerly awaited the novel distribution for weeks, certain I’d receive something thrilling such as “Matilda,” a story about a precocious, magical avid reader, or hilarious like “The BFG.” When she finally arrived at my table though, she dropped Judy Blume’s “Freckle Juice” onto my notebook, sending my classmates into hysterics and me into full-mortification mode.
I’d been raised to say “thank you” and demonstrate graciousness, but my educator of a year had just reduced me to my appearance and provided more ammo for bullies. Weren’t adults supposed to know better than that? Not her, apparently. So I expressed disgust — at my teacher for being clueless and highlighting the very attribute of mine that my classmates loved to laugh about, at my parents for refusing to let me wear a blond wig to school (I was only allowed to do this on outings to the mall, where I of course raised many eyebrows), and at my peers for being intolerant and cruel. Most of all, I despised Ms. Hamilton, but she wasn’t alone in pushing me to embrace my physical differences. Grown-ups were the only ones who treated me with kindness, but it enraged me when they’d argue that I was lucky to have red hair.
“Do you know how much money people pay to look like you?” my blond, ex-model mother would say.
“They can have my hair for free,” I’d respond. ” I hate it.”
But because I was just “so blessed” to look like a freak among my blond and brunette classmates, my parents forbade me from getting highlights. I’d spend hours outside every day, praying that the sun would lighten my stringy hair. It never happened, so one day I dumped hydrogen peroxide on my head, waiting for the fiery tint to disappear. It worked instantaneously, but faded within days. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only ginger who wanted different DNA. Two years ago, I met and high-fived “Stuff White People Like” writer Christian Lander, who agreed life as a redhead is anything but smooth sailing.
“We’re actually mutants, you know,” he said, adding that us redheads are going extinct. I’m okay with that, as I don’t want my future children to be prime candidates for skin cancer, called “soul-less,” or fall victim to “Kick a Ginger Day” attacks. It wasn’t until I became the victim of constant bullying that my mother agreed let me do it the right way and get blond highlights, and soon after I adjusted to the look, I felt at home.
As a child, I wanted nothing more than to spend my days at the pool and running around with my friends. I did this a lot in Los Angeles, where I spent the first nine years of my life, but with limitations. During camp trips to the waterpark, I was required to wear a shirt over my swimsuit. If you’ve ever tried to swim with a shirt on, you know it hinders the whole experience and prevents you from playing any type of water sport. For a little kid, that’s the end of the world. Let’s not forget that I also had to lather on SPF 50 sunblock every hour, a task that can be tough for a hyper elementary-schooler to remember. The more I hung out in the sun, the more I became sunburned, or worse, freckled. At the insistence of my parents, the daycare center assigned a supervisor to watch me at all times, making it impossible for me to be a free-spirited youngster. My peers tore through the pool and engaged in all sorts of water games while I dipped my feet in the shallow end, doing all I could to dodge the buzzing bees zooming through the air. Unlike the other campers, I couldn’t escape the potentially deadly bugs by throwing my whole body into the water. It was too uncomfortable with clothes on.
The problems didn’t stop at communal swimming areas, either. Hats weren’t allowed at my southern California private school, but I had to wear one to protect my scalp. Teachers often scolded me for it until I yanked off the itchy fabric and revealed my hair color.
“Redhead,” they’d say, turning on their heels. “Got it.”
But I haven’t always eschewed my half-Irish roots. Like most people, I experienced a grungy, haggard phase in college, when I went on a four-year hiatus from highlights, gained twenty pounds, and ate 800-calorie scones five times a week. It was both liberating and disgusting to care so little about my appearance, but after graduation, I knew I needed a semblance of professionalism to land a job, so I grew out my bangs, broke up with blueberry scones and late-night snacks, and got full blond highlights again. I visit the salon every two months or so now, and little satisfies me more than being referred to as “the blond girl” by strangers or new people.
Ideally, a person with my delicate features would live his or her life in Seattle, where vampires hide out and the sun doesn’t shine, but nothing about that fits my personality. Having gone to college in blazing hot Arizona and spent the first eighteen years of my life in the Golden State, I need extreme heat to be happy, and sadly the sun is more destructive than beneficial to pale faces like me.
A California girl in all senses of the term, I should have been born a blond who bronzes easily, and while I can pass for a yellow-haired girl at certain angles, there’s no denying my vulnerable complexion, quite possibly the worst part of the ginger package (aside from hearing gross genitalia jokes every once in a while). I can continue purchasing highlights a couple times a year, but nothing is worse than literally feeling uncomfortable in your own skin.