What makes a redhead a redhead? My adventures in haircolor.

So, I’m a redhead.  I wasn’t born this way but I consider myself a redhead nonetheless. I’ve had my hair some shade of red, from strawberry to deep russet, for well over 20 years now, which should give me at least honorary entre to the club by now, I would think.

I wasn’t always a redhead, of course. I was born a blonde, that kind of super-fine blonde hair that is destined to darken over time. And darken it did, leaving me a dishwater brown by my teen years, a color I found most undistinguished.  Let the color experimentation begin!

Sun-in hair color

Sun in promised so much more than it delivered

My initial attempts at livening my tresses began, as with many other teenagers in the ’70s, with that amazing product “Sun-In”.  It was simple – you sprayed the magic potion through your hair, went out in the sun and bingo, your hair turned blonde. In actuality, it was simply a high-powered peroxide mixed with a conditioner and a bit of scent. Like Axe for boys, Sun-In brought with it dreams of sun-kissed locks and hunky boys eager to run their fingers through them. For most girls, this product produced a color closer to screaming yellow-orange than sun-bleached surfer hair but I was lucky and managed to get a yellowy sort of color that approximated the typical ‘suicide blonde’ of that era.

My first experience with the stuff came during a family trip to Hilton Head Island over spring break in 8th grade. I had it all planned out: I’d head out of town for the week and use my time constructively – lay in the sun, get a bitchin’ tan and blonde hair and come back transformed. Life would be changed (bifocal glasses and tendency towards geekyiness aside, this was sure to work.) Naturally, if a little Sun In was good – a lot of Sun In was better. I sprayed the hell out of that shit every day and quickly went from my mousy brown to screaming-yellow-zonker yellow.  Top that off with a QT-based tan (my Irish skin just isn’t capable of the bronze I had in mind) and I arrived back in Michigan looking much like a straw-headed Oompa-Loompa.

Let’s pause here a moment and imagine the bemused expressions on my parent’s faces when they’d see me off to the pool each morning and I’d come back in yellower and oranger each afternoon.  Okay, that’s done.

Back at school, my sense of triumph and glamour lasted till exactly second hour, when I ran into my friend Josie, who had spent her vacation in Florida with her family.  She was an authentic shade of deep bronze and her hair – much darker than mine – was lightened ever-so-slightly by the sun, streaking her dark locks with shimmers of deep red.  And the boys were hovering like flies.  *Sigh*  I did have one moment of triumph, however, when I ran into another friend, Sandy, who exclaimed how jealous she was that Sun In “worked” on me – she’ d had an unfortunate bout with orange herself the summer before.

A few weeks later, the other side effect of Sun In became apparent: roots!  But that’s a story we all know well.


That's me on the left, pearls and all, with my 80s partner-in-crime Lynn on the right.

That’s me on the left, pearls and all, with my 80s partner-in-crime Lynn on the right.

The years flew by and I continued to play with my hair.  Merely flirtations, mind you: a few streaks here, a bit of lemon juice there.  Nothing serious, nothing too committed.  This all ended, of course, with the convergence of two big events: my enrollment in beauty school and the arrival of the New Wave era.  Right around when I found myself with access to many chemicals and surrounded by folks just dying to play with them, the culture around me encouraged such experimentation.  I flirted with frosts, colors and the rest before finally throwing up my hands and going full-on platinum.  Now I’d found what I was looking for!  It was attention-getting, looked fine with my white skin and Souixsie Souix eye-liner and damaged my fine hair just enough so it would do most anything I wanted it to.  The 80s were my time.

My time in platinum far-outlived the 1980s, truth be told. I wore this style long into the early 90s, sometimes accentuating with streaks of pink, blue or burgundy.  Well, I did have a 1 month period where I decided a deep brunet would be nifty – but the dark hair and my pale skin had folks asking me if I felt okay allt he time and my mother shipping me off to the doc for blood tests, sure I was anemic. A month later, I as back to blonde.  My constant goal during this time was the extermination of every bit of yellow that might show up on my head. This meant shampooing most days with a special purple concoction that neutralized yellow into the whitest-white (or sometimes, the faintest silvery-lavender).   How I kept a single hair on my head with all of the constant (every three weeks!) bleaching, I’ll never know.

Finally, I got sick of the whole thing.  The constant root vigilance! The money spent on bleach, toners, conditioners (to keep my hair from breaking)!  I was over it and ready for something with less maintenance.  But what to do?

Well, here’s the thing.  I may not have bona fide red hair but I do come from good redhaired stock.  My mom was a natural red.  Thick, curly, gorgeous auburn red.  Everything I didn’t have, dammit.  While I couldn’t get the thick or the truly natural waves but, thanks to our good friends at Clairol, I could approximate a lovely ginger.  Took a bit of doing at first – red doesn’t stick so well on bleached out hair but eventually the bleached bits grew out and some semblance of a uniform color came back to my head.  I flipped back and forth between red and blonde for a few years before finally settling down in the red zone right around 1992, when I met my husband.  Strange to think he’s never known me as anything but a ginger.

So here’s my question:  is a bottle redhead really a redhead?  I come from redhead stock, it’s true, but my color is not my own by any stretch.  It is however, a big part of my identity after all these years.  My husband has long referred to me as “the redhead” – as in, “you’ll have to ask the redhead if we’re free Saturday”.  My children have always known me in this color.  Most of the people in my life now have also always, or at least for a very long time, known me in red.  I feel like a redhead.  There was this one guy I used to work with who, even though I quite liked him most of the time, had this irritating habit of pointing out, usually in front of others, that “it’s not like you’re a *real* redhead, Teri”.  Not sure why this was important for him to point out, but he did.  But this guy notwithstanding, I feel like a redhead, ergo, I am red.  As I get older, I’ll likely have to fade back to a graceful strawberry but for the time being, I’m rocking the ginger and loving it.

My burmese cat coco enjoying life from her favorite POV

My burmese cat coco enjoying life from her favorite POV

What about you?  Tell me about YOUR hair.


3 thoughts on “What makes a redhead a redhead? My adventures in haircolor.

  1. I think if peope PERCEIVE you as a redhead, which is what they see, then yes, you are a redhead. Nobody perceives Obama as a white person, although he’s just as white as he is black as far as genes. And I LOVED your sweet 80s pearls. What a waver.

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