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Better Dead Than Red


by Leola Dublin

My friend Jillian* called me last week with the latest crisis involving her 9-year old daughter.

“Can you talk to Megan*?”

“Sure, what about?”

“She wants to be a blonde. She hates her hair.”

“But Megan has gorgeous red hair. It suits her perfectly! Why does she want to be blonde?”

“She thinks blonde hair is prettier. She’s convinced boys won’t like her because of her hair. Oh, and her freckles.”

“Well, what do you want me to tell her? What have you already told her?”

“She isn’t listening to me any more. She said I was a hypocrite for telling her she could be anything she wanted to be, but then changing the story when she decided that what she wanted to be was blonde.”

“Oooh. That is definitely your child.”

“I know she is, and I love her, but right now….”

“Alright Jilly, I’ll call her after school tomorrow”

I hung up the phone flabbergasted. Maybe mothers of redhead girls experience this regularly, but this was new for me. I grew up dreaming of a heedful of auburn tresses. All of the heroines from my favorite childhood books had red hair. Nancy Drew, Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables, and even Madeleine had red hair. Even though Eloise, the girl who lived at the Plaza hotel, was always in black and white, I inferred from her spirit that she was also a redhead. And, Junie B. Jones, the star of her own series of books was a redhead too. Why on Earth wouldn’t Megan want to revel in the joy of being a redhead?

Though I lacked the words, even as a child, I associated red hair with a fiery spirit that couldn’t be crushed. The redheads that I discovered in fiction were smart girls who kept things lively. For those blessed with russet, titian, or auburn hair, there was never a dull moment. The only blondes that were memorable didn’t seem like the kind of girls I wanted to be my friends. Goldilocks seemed to lack what my very Southern mother referred to as “home training.” Who went into someone else’s house and messed around with their stuff? There was also Susan, the girl with the “boing-boing” curls in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. She seemed to be utterly lacking in adventure to me. She would never want to practice being a ninja, or ride dirt bikes, or climb trees with me. These character flaws assured me that we could never be friends. As a child, I seemed to thrive on what I called adventure. Adults typically called it mischief, but I did not have a boring childhood.

Anticipating my call to Megan, I started to think about what had changed in the 25 years that had passed since I was her age. I thought about this blog, about my own observations, and about what I have learned in my research. Suddenly, Megan’s desire to be blonde didn’t seem so crazy. Even Barbie, originally a reddish blonde, has abandoned the red and gone platinum. Our society has very narrow definitions of feminine beauty. While they are beginning to include more variety, we are still a culture that worships blondes. This is not to say that blonde girls cannot be beautiful. What I am stressing is that we need to help our girls resist the message that only blonde is beautiful or that having blonde hair is all you need to be considered beautiful. Unfortunately, the how of this is tricky. How do adults offset the media blitz that our children are exposed to? Logical appeals don’t mean anything to a 9-year old. They are often ruled by feelings. If Megan doesn’t feel that boys will like her unless she is blonde, then explaining Judith Lorber’s work on the social construction of gender is pointless. She isn’t going to watch one of Jean Kilbourne’s excellent films and suddenly understand that privileging blondes is part of the sordid partnership between patriarchy and the media. She won’t care. She is a 9-year old girl. She wants to be liked, and she wants people to think she is pretty.

As promised, I called Megan. I made up some reason for calling her – I saw something that made me think of her. She’s a smart kid, but she is still a kid. After a few moments, she got right down to the point.

“Do you think I would look good blonde?”

“I think you look good just the way you are, doodlebug.”

“Yeah, but do you think I would look better with blonde hair?”

“No, baby, I don’t. First of all your eyebrows wouldn’t match. Secondly, it would wash you out. You would look really pale. People might think you were sick. Or that your mom wasn’t taking care of your nutrition.

“Well, I want blonde hair and my mom says no. Can you talk to her?”

“Sure, honey. I can talk to her. But why do you want to have blonde hair?”

“Because…because it’s better. I don’t know why, I just do.”

“Ok Meggy, I’ll talk to your mom for you, but she is going to need convincing. Your mom is pretty smart. You’re going to need something better than ‘I don’t know’.”

“Well then what should I do?”

“Let me do some thinking, and I’ll call you when I have a plan.”

I haven’t called Megan back with a plan yet. I have a couple of ideas, but they sound crazy – even to me. My favorite (for the sheer insanity of it) is to convince Megan that hair dyes are unsafe for girls her age and to suggest that she asks her mother to buy her a high quality blonde wig in an age-appropriate style. That way, she can wear it around the house to see how she likes the “new” her. If she really likes it, then she can wear it to school and see what kind of reception it gets. My guess is that the kids will FREAK OUT and she will come home ready to be a redhead again. At least for now.

I’m appealing to The Girl Revolution community for suggestions.

Anyone been through this and want to share some ideas?

Photo Credit: People Magazine: “It makes you develop your personality. Because you don’t conform, you have to find different ways of expressing yourself,” Nicole Kidman says about growing up with red hair.

955 replies
  1. Anlina says:

    A high quality wig is not an insignificant expense. Even a decent costume wig is going to run $50+ and probably won’t look real. I also kind of doubt that a 9 year old who is already self conscious about her appearance is going to want to wear a wig to school. Even if it looks right, wearing a wig feels really different from your own hair – you feel conspicuous because you’re very aware of this thing on your head, even if to everyone else it looks fine.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimenting with hair styles and colours – her motivations are more concerning than the desire to dye her hair. I’m kind of sad that a 9 year old girl is already worrying about changing her looks to get boys to like her.

    What is the goal in your discussion and negotiation here anyway? Is it to head off self-esteem and appearance issues, or is it to avoid letting her dye her hair? They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are quite different.

    If you want to convince her that red hair is beautiful maybe show her pictures of female role models (attractive celebrities who are also worth admiring) with red hair, talk to her about valuing herself etc. Maybe giving her a chance to experiment and learn to appreciate her natural beauty is the way to go.

    If you want to convince her that she doesn’t really want blond hair, you could use one of those online services where you take a photo and can try on different hair styles, or take her for a consultation to a stylist who will tell her that blond won’t work with her skin tone and will tell her how beautiful her hair is. Hearing it from someone who isn’t mom or a family friend might be more convincing.

    Anlina’s last blog post..Mixed Cats: Cats Know Various Things

  2. Tracee says:

    Good points and good questions Anlina.

    I’m a big fan of changing my hair. Color, cut, style, etc. Our hair also changes as we age. It’s just fun. Two years ago Ainsley and I went with pink streaks. I usually keep highlights in. It’s an easy change. A quick pick-me-up in the spring when I feel an urge to experiment how I want to change.

    We are who we are – until we grow.

    I’ve gone red. I usually go more blonde. It’s a physical change, but it’s not permanent like plastic surgery. Hair grows back.

    Buy her a Hannah Montana blonde wig and let her experiment with herself in the bathroom mirror.

  3. Anna says:

    Nine?! This makes me sad. When I was ten I did ask to dye my hair for the first time, but that’s because my 16 year old brother was dyeing his blue and green – so cool, at that age. My mother told me that I was allowed to dye my hair any color I wanted – when I was 16, and I had to pay for it. I was a junior in highschool before I finally did dye my hair; one of my friends did it for her How-To speech (red, ironically). I then dyed it several other colors before shaving my head completely. Very liberating, it was.

    I don’t know if she’ll listen, but my first thing would be to say that if the boys don’t think she’s pretty with red hair, then they’re not worth her time – she should never have to change herself to suit a boy! And after that, I would actually talk to her mom like you promised. Why is mother against it? Damage to hair, self image, expense?
    Logically, it’s dye. It’s not going to hurt her. But if her hair is anything darker than a strawberry blond, she’ll need a pro to color it, which will run her $50+, depending on how much hair she has. Maybe she’ll reconsider if she has to pay for it herself. If her hair is darkish, she’ll also need to go back every few weeks to have the roots touched up. I doubt that’s something she’s prepared to maintain.
    Also, if Jillian colors her own hair, Megan might just be following what her mother does to stay beautiful.

    It seems a bit young, but realistically – there’s a lot worse she could be asking for. It grows back. I’d (tell her mother to) let her do it when she’s ready to pay for it herself. And has enough saved to get it fixed if she hates it.
    I would, however, ask her to talk about it more. Did someone say something to make her think this, specifically? Would she be satisfied with something less drastic; a great cut or highlights? (It seems abrupt for you, buy maybe mother’s been dealing with it for months?)

    Anna’s last blog post..New Catalog

  4. Tamara says:

    Red-haired women are often the most beautiful that I see. I have nice dark curly hair, but I have tried to dye it red numerous times; it never takes. Sigh.

  5. PhDiva says:

    Great comments, all. Some answers (and hopefully I’m not leaving any out). I am not sure what the particular comments were that sparked Megan’s request to go blonde, but Jillian and I suspect that it was related to the preparations the class was making for Valentine’s day. You know…the who are you going to ask to be your valentine kind of nonsense that matters so much when you are 9.

    Jillian doesn’t color her hair. She keeps it cut, and goes to a salon that does a great job on her hair. This is also the salon that cuts her daughter’s hair. For our small town, it is a pricey place, but their hair always looks fantastic.

    I don’t know how much really good wigs cost, so that might be prohibitive, and I didn’t think about the feel/discomfort. I do like the idea of a Hanna Montana wig, although I am not a big fan of HM at all.

    I think what bothers me so much is that at 9, she is already convinced that the only way boys will like her is if she dyes her hair blonde – in essence, changing who she is so that boys will like her. This, to me, seems like a one-way trip to disasterland. Tracee’s earlier post about Rihanna, and women in abusive relationships really made me think about this. I don’t want Megan to be a girl who thinks that problems in relationships are always her fault, and can only be solved if she does the changing.

    I think if she had asked for pink streaks, or some fun colors, just to jazz things up, I would have no problems nudging her mom into approval. This just feels different. Plus, I just don’t think its safe for kids to use grown-up hair dye. I’ll admit that I don’t know any facts about adult hair color products and safety for kids, but it seems like if it were for kids, there would be kids on the boxes. Or there would be kid safe dyes. I get a weird Jon Benet Ramsey kinda feeling thinking about dying a 9 year old’s hair blonde with stuff made for women who want to cover their gray. Again, this might just be me.

    I like the idea of having Jillian take Megan to the salon and doing a consultation, and also getting a quote. Tell Megan she has to pay for it. And make sure she knows how often she will have to go back in to cover her red hair as it grows out. Maybe the thought of forking over that much money will change her mind.

    Keep the great comments coming, and I’ll check in with my beautiful redheads to see what’s happening on that front.

  6. Kim says:

    There is a computer software program, (probably several by now) where you scan in a picture of yourself and you can try different hairstyles, cuts, etc. I have never used it but have wanted to, just for fun. I think there is a free one on Ivillage.

    This might be a good place to start, while continuing to dialog with her about the subject.

    When my oldest daughter was 9, (now 31) she began writing in her “Ramona Quimby” diary about how she couldn’t stand herself because she thought she was fat.

    Kudos to you and your mission to help young girls fight our society’s projection onto them!

  7. Margaret says:

    Oh dear…my 7 year old 1st grader brought up the ‘going blonde’ conversation last week. We live in a town where roughly 50% of the student population is Nordic, and white-blonde. My daughter has gorgeous light brown hair that gets beautiful blonde highlights in the summer. But it’s ‘different’ than most of the kids in her school.

    I fret over this stuff because I can’t help going back and forth over whether this is typical kids-wanting-to-fit-in or if it’s a girl-trying-to-change-to-please-others/boys.

    I’m keeping an eye on this entry to see what valuable advice comes from the readers!

    Margaret’s last blog post..A slice of college life on an historic day

  8. Tracee Sioux says:

    One of my readers just sent Leola photos of a bunch of gorgeous and stunning red heads to pass on to Megan. Maybe Megan just needs exposure to some awesome fiery redheads to feel good about her unique attribute. Great idea Ashley!

    I totally agree PhDiva it depends where it’s coming from. If it’s coming from a “I’m not good enough” place then it needs a more serious response. It needs more attention.

    If it’s a flitting, passing thing then a HM wig will answer the question for her for under $15. It’s also still in the category of “dress up” and pretend. Which is a healthy place to keep this type of thing for a 9-year-old. A real wig would be very Jean Benet weird and so would truly letting her bleach her hair out at a salon.

    Maybe she just needs to stand in the bathroom mirror and ask what it would be like to be a different girl, have different hair? Who didn’t do that?

    I’d say I’ll start letting Ainsley make real changes in junior high, around 12. Hair strikes me as a change without a lot of deep permanent meaning. A healthy experiment and a cheap way to express one’s self. It’s also a pretty safe place to allow a little rebellion.

    Course my son has a mohawk. My hair is currently very short, “sophisticated” and “together.” My husband shaves his head bald. Ainsley has a very short bob w/old highlights and wants all her beautiful curls cut off.

    I like expressive hair.

    Tracee Sioux’s last blog post..Better Dead Than Red

  9. Leslie says:

    Just Remember that it’s only hair, it will grow back and she should do it if she has a better answer than because.

  10. that girl says:

    Leslie, I disagree…I wanted my hair permed in 1st grade – my mother buckled from the pressure me and my aunt (the hairdresser) put on her…looking back at those awful pictures, I wish my mom had stood her ground and told me how beautiful I was naturally and we weren’t going to change a thing until I was a teenager!

    that girl’s last blog post..Boy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oING!!!!!!!!!

  11. Tracee Sioux says:

    The Perm! I forgot about The Perm.

    My mother totally made me do the perm. For a long time I could never figure out if I had straight or curly hair b/c of the dang perm. And the constant harassment not to brush my hair and that stupid pick!

    Wouldn’t it be hysterical if I made Ainsley get a perm? LOL!!!

    Tracee Sioux’s last blog post..Wash My Brain Out With Soap

  12. Danielle J says:

    Both my husband and 18 month old daughter have red hair. My husband has mentioned on several occasions that being a red head as a kid is tough. Children seem to think that it’s a reason to tease. I honestly don’t get it. Everyone tells me what beautiful hair my little one has and I totally agree! But it saddens me that one day she too will be upset about her hair. I think if the time comes that she wants to dye it then I will go with the suggestion of having her save up her money and pay for it herself. After all it is just hair and will grow out, but I would cringe to see her beautiful red hair changed to another color.
    Red hair is absolutely gorgeous, sadly though I don’t think children see it that way. They just see it as something different.

    Danielle J’s last blog post..What Would You Choose?…

  13. Alex Elliot says:

    I always thought it would be cool to have red hair as a kid, but a friend of mine in college told me how she was teased because of her hair. She really hated it. I think if this were my kids, I would try to find out a little more about the motivation. Is she being teased or just feeling like she would like a change? For example, I like adding highlights to my hair because it’s a change and I think it looks nice. Normally I would say it’s just hair and it grows back. Because of her age though, I would try to come up with an age with her where if she still feels this way she can dye it. For example, maybe say that if she still feels this way at 9.5 or ten than she can change it.

    Alex Elliot’s last blog post..My Son’s "Haircut"

  14. Connie :] says:

    I’m 19 and I’m a natural red head. I’m latina and am the only one in my family with very fair skin and auburn hair. I remember when I was in elementary school I wanted to dye my hair black so badly, cuz all my family and friends had dark hair and I just wanted to fit in. My parents of course didn’t let me. They told me my hair was beautiful and that so many people out there pay so much money to try to get hair like mine. As I got older tho I grew to appreciate the uniqueness of my hair. :] I would never change it now, I love it very much. And so does my boyfriend. 😀

    I hope you can get Meagan to see that red hair is beautiful. I know kids can be mean and make fun of those who stand out. But I’m sure when she gets older she’ll love her hair too. You just have to show her that its special and unique.

  15. Helen says:

    I’m the only girl I know with red hair and although some people are rude, others have said that my hair makes me memorable, different, individual etc, a far better quality to have than beauty as a child. Say boys should only be friends until you start your period.

    Above all, until she can get a better answer than “I don’t know”, say no. Maybe once she’s realised that she only wants blonde hair to conform, she’ll think differently.

  16. alcye says:

    I would die for red hair, I love it! You should make a list of all these quotes and give it to her then she’ll see how much everyone else loves her hair

  17. Zoe says:

    Thats really sad. i have naturally red hair and at 13 i can understand what she is going through but it’s important to let her know that changing herself for boys is a downwards spiral and that if they don’t think she is beautiful how she is that they aren’t worth her time.

  18. Tracee says:

    What about the other girls Zoe? How much influence does what the other girls think is beautiful have to do with how we feel about ourselves?

  19. Shannon says:

    I’m a red head. I hate my hair-now heres why.
    Kids are cruel. They make fun of the littlest things-like the color of your hair. And you act like you don’t care-but when you get to highschool you really start to care again. It’s not fun when you can blind people because your hair is so shiny-there’s not much fun about being a red head actually… And then there’s the pale skin that usually comes along with it-and all the freckles. You grow up thinking youre not pretty. That you’re a freak. And personally I wish that when I have kids-they don’t have my “curse” as I call it. I don’t want them to be “gingers” or “fire crotches” it’s not fun. I can understand why other girls wouldn’t want to be red. Sometimes I wish that people would notice me for more than just my hair-especially when that’s my least favorite thing about myself. But that’s all people notice. It’s annoying. And guys do like it-but that just means they’re looking at your physical body and not your heart.
    I don’t want to be a “Ginger” anymore. In fact I NEVER wanted to be a “ginger”

  20. Tracee says:

    Shannon, this is probably not the P.C. thing to say, but I’m going to give it to you straight. This is a problem you have the power to solve through chemicals.

    Go to a medium pricey salon. (Do not trust Walmart or Cost Cutters or you will end up with Orange hair.) Tell them you, like Nicole Kidman who was also a natural redhead, now prefer to be a blond. Don’t go Barbie Platinum Blond, ease into it subtly to avoid more teasing.

    Be prepared for this will be about maintaining blond hair every six weeks so you’ll need a job. But, if you hate being a Ginger as much as you say you do – well, I bet you’ll think it’s worth it.

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