Better Dead Than Red

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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.

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