Seeing red(heads)

Oversexed and under-souled?

The MC 1R gene displayed in its various incarnations
The MC 1R gene displayed in its various incarnations

Every few years we hear about it, the imminent extinction of a mammal much coveted and long misunderstood. In recent years, it isn’t an exotic animal, but one that lives near us, one we may see every day: the redhead.

A 2007 study from the Oxford Hair Foundation predicted persons possessing red hair—colloquially known as gingers—may well go the way of the pink-headed duck as early as 2060. Although this hypothesis has since been refuted by several experts, the prevalence of the rumor serves as a reminder of unique place redheads hold in the public consciousness.

I have been doing my part to bolster the ranks of the redheaded since I was 15, at which time I locked myself in the laundry room with a box of Clairol and emerged an hour later with some pretty convincing ginger tresses.

It was a spur of the moment decision, and it stuck, due not in small part to the attention lavished on me in my new redheaded incarnation. As soon as the cloud of ammonia lifted, it became clear my hair would never go unnoticed again.

Those who fit the ginger bill can range in pigment from deep brick reds to bright copper to brassy orange. Certain animals also fall under the redheaded genus, including cats, orangutans, squirrels and foxes.

Adam Chippindale, an associate professor in the Queen’s Biology department, explained the biological origins of red hair, which were discovered only recently, in 1997.

“It is caused by a mutation that alters the gene on chromosome 16, called the MC 1R gene,” he said. “There are a number of different mutations that occur in the MC 1R gene, which can cause a reduction in the amount of true melanin and pheomelanin.” Pheomelanin determines the amount of pigmentation in our skin, hair and eyes, he said.

“We all produce pheomelanin but in redheads there’s more deposition of [it] in the hair cells,” Chippindale said.

Because the gene variant that determines redheadedness in individuals is recessive, the likelihood of a ginger child being born to non-ginger parents is very small, but not impossible. Only 80 per cent of genuine redheads carry the allele.

The allele is also tied to the genes that determine skin colour and whether an individual has freckles, causing a predisposition for palor and sun spots among the ginger-tressed.

Recent dubious scientific research, as well as advertisements by various hair colouring manufacturers have popularized the rumour that the recessive gene may disappear within the next hundred years.

But Chippindale said gingers and their friends shouldn’t worry about their impending extinction.

“It’s extremely improbable,” he said. “Even if redheads had very low fertility for some reason, the fact that it’s a recessive gene means that it’s very difficult to eliminate from the population.”

In fact, the National Geographic article often cited in support of the extinction theory stated “while redheads may decline, the potential for red is not going away.”

Further odd and ginger-centric research suggests—likely errroneously—that redheads have a lower tolerance for pain, compared with other hair colours.

Red is the rarest hair colour on the planet among both humans and animals. While the highest population of redheads can be found in Scotland (13 per cent) and Ireland (10 per cent), the world’s population of carrot tops is thought to be between two and five per cent—not counting, of course, those of us blessed with a good colourist. As previously mentioned, natural red hair is often accompanied by pale skin, and freckles. Along with this comes a sensitivity to light, a tendency to burn easily when exposed to UV rays and an unfortunate predisposition for being picked on at the playground.

Although elementary school mocking may have hurt some feelings, it hardly compares to the treatment of redheads throughout history. The ancient Greeks reportedly believed that gingers became vampires in the afterlife and in Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages, redheads were associated with witches and werewolves and were often persecuted and even killed as a result. And yet in spite of—or perhaps because of—its mysterious and mythical nature, red hair has also been an object of glorification and beauty in art and literature. Mary Magdalene, a Biblical figure commonly associated with sin and desire, is often painted with long auburn hair and Titian, a Renaissance painter in the 16th century, was so fond of painting red-haired women that his name has become synonymous with the hue. Sylvia Plath alludes to the hair colour’s alluring powers in her 1962 poem “Lady Lazarus:” “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.” Hollywood has also contributed to the redhead myth in depicting those of the ginger persuasion, particularly women, as hot-headed, sassy or lascivious —think Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy or Julia Roberts as the feisty ginger prostitute in Pretty Woman. Jonathan Swift satirized this belief in Gulliver’s Travels, saying, “It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.”

In Still Life with Woodpecker, a novel by Tom Robbins, redheads are described as the children of the moon, a race thwarted by the sun and addicted to sex and sugar.

Popular children’s characters, such as the fiercely independent Pippi Longstocking, the plucky Little Orphan Annie or the unabashedly curious Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, have also championed the idea of the little red-headed girl as spunky and spirited.

Although there are no immediately available statistics on red hair at Queen’s, the naturally small demographic of redheads at the University have enjoyed a much higher profile in the past year in the wake of a certain rhapsodic tribute to red hair.

Queen’s student and proud redhead Sally Guy, ArtSci ’10, told the Journal in an e-mail that she has been compared to Queen’s most famous redhead, as well as many others. “People seem to think I look like pretty much any famous redhead in Hollywood; people tell me I look like Nicole Kidman, when she is clearly a whole BMI category lighter than me and about seven feet taller,” she said.

“I was once asked if I was Lindsay Lohan in an airport, and yes, I have also been [called] ‘Rojo Caliente.’” Love them or hate them, for gingers, their hair colour is undeniably a conversation piece—which may explain why redheads everywhere seem to find their identity so inextricably tied to their hair colour. It’s enough to give a redhead, even a counterfeit one, an identity crisis. Guy agreed.

“Basically, people seem to notice me first as a redhead and second as ‘Sally,’” she said. But with regards to the still prevalent discrimination against ginger kids, she remains optimistic. “Hopefully Prince Harry can marry some redheaded hottie and change it all around for us.”

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