by Sarah Gottlieb
followed by Q&A
An unfamiliar sun is beating down, shining on my head so fiercely it is becoming hard to focus on walking fast enough. I step cautiously over stone and gravel as sand and dust swirl around my dirt-filled sneakers. I am hiking—or so I am trying—in the pit of the Ramon Crater in Israel, on a ten-day program called Birthright, a trip free to anyone of Jewish origin between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. I am nineteen. It’s about noon, and the sun is at its worst.
In the desert, I’ve fallen behind the rest of our group, tired. The group medic, an Israeli reserve soldier named Ohad, with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, is walking with me, struggling to maintain my slow pace. His job during our hikes, among other things, is to make sure no one in the group falls too far behind. Our tour guide makes sure to lead the front and Ohad makes sure to bring up the rear. I keep Ohad busy, though he doesn’t seem to mind.
“What do you call this color?” he asks. He is pointing at my head. Instinctively, I pull a hand up over my forehead. My hand burns for a second as I touch my head that is scorching hot from the sun. It takes me a moment to realize his question. Oh. He’s talking about my hair.
“Red,” I say.
He looks confused. “Are you sure there is not another word?”
“No, in English they just say red.”
“It is very beautiful,” he says. I feel myself blush, and say thank you, sure now that my face must be as bright as my hair.
I am not certain what made me blush this time. I had appreciated the compliment of course; I always do. But in my lifetime I’ve received an unusually large amount of attention because of my hair. Yet sometimes I do catch myself blushing, the heat to my face perhaps an odd mix of delight and embarrassment. Delight comes in the compliment itself; embarrassment sometimes follows in realizing that I have been noticed.
People look at my hair. I don’t like to think it is me that is looked at because I have never believed myself to be beautiful, or pretty, or anything really attractive. My hair, on the other hand, is beautiful. My hair is the only area of me, the only part of me both inside and out, that I have any confidence in. But still, being associated with a color all my life has proven difficult.
Red, a flashy and demanding color, is paired with stop signs and stoplights, blood, fire, and ideas of love—all begging calls for immediate attention. Red is a color for the bold, the brave, those who drive a red car, those who fearlessly wear a red dress. I am not bold. I stand out, but seldom by choice.
My hair is also red in a way that other red hair is not. Unlike most reds that might be considered closest to blond on a hair color spectrum, mine would be considered closer to brown, though it has no brown in it. In the winter, my hair sometimes becomes so dark that if I take a section out from way underneath and examine it closely, I am able to see purplish undertones.
My red hair has been my center since the day I was born. My mom has a story from my baby years she loves to tell. As she tells the story today, I imagine a cool orange sun beginning to set. Soft light sneaks between tall buildings, illuminating sparkling sidewalks and highlighting the glow of my hair.
I am too young to remember what the day truly looked like, but my mom tells the story something like this:
It was warm out, September or October, and I was four or five months old with a thick mop of curly hair. My parents had driven to Manhattan and had taken me with them. The three of us were on the corner of Fifth Avenue, right outside of Tiffany’s, when my dad stopped to use a payphone. He turned his back to my mom, who was holding the handles on my stroller. A stranger on the street suddenly stopped and peered into my carriage. She stood there cooing over me, and then another person stopped and looked.
Another, then another until there were more than twenty strangers surrounding the two of us. I can only imagine my dad’s shock, maybe panic, when he finished his phone call, turned, and saw the gathering around my stroller. And this was just the beginning.
As I grew up, I was continually greeted with admiration no matter where I went. “Wow, look at that color,” people would say, circling around me to inspect my head from all angles. “Amazing.”
I used to feel annoyed whenever someone complimented me. When it was just a word or two it was okay, but then there were the people who would stop and talk to my parents for a good ten minutes about my hair. Or worse yet, the strangers who actually bent down and started petting me, usually in the doorway of a restaurant or in the middle of a shopping center. Women would sometimes stop me and say that they’d tried to dye their hair red, but found it impossible to get my shade. “People would pay lots of money for that color,” they’d say. It’s true. According to the Toronto Star, in 2006, Americans spent $123 million on red hair dye, alone.
I’m always asked from who I got my color. “Is it from your mom?” strangers ask. They are puzzled by my dad’s brown-black hair and my mom’s hair, red, but not my shade. People are surprised when I explain how the shade really came from my Grandma Jackie, my dad’s mom. My mom says that the day I was born was the day Grandma Jackie’s hair started turning gray.
My siblings have it, too. By the time I was five, I had both a sister and a brother with red locks. They, like my mom, do not have my shade; my hair is much darker.
Despite my siblings and I not all having the same color, I’ve been told our trio looks good together. We did even more so when we were younger and were always within feet of each other. Younger photos of us together show small, smiling faces with pink cheeks shrouded by red hair. In one picture, my sister hugs me around the waist, her head touching mine, wavy strawberry-blond locks mingling with my deep red curls. My brother stands behind us, grinning mischievously, his chin resting between my sister’s head and mine. His hair is not as light as my sister’s, yet not as dark as mine, and we are a perfect portrait of colorful, arranged happiness.
Around the time I was five, my family began modeling. I went on dozens of “go-sees” as a child. The rooms were always old, small, inconspicuous buildings along streets of Manhattan. During the actual photo shoots, the buildings were bigger, brighter, and always stocked with tables spread full of food. As I was led to different sets and backdrops, wooden floorboards gently creaked under my sneakers. Sometimes, posing was fun. I was given crayons to draw with and candy bars to eat while cameras clicked in front of me. Before I could read and write, I graced the covers of Parent & Child magazine and could be found on boxes of bead kits.
Since I was young and we lived close to the city, it was easy for my family to make the trip into Manhattan. The modeling lasted only a few years, though, because my mom quit the agency, Wilhelmina, after they called one winter morning at five a.m. and told her to wake me up for a photo shoot in Central Park. Then in February 2002, I did my last modeling for Limited Too. The photo shoot was my attempt to get back into the business. At that time, though, with my siblings and I enrolled in school, it was far too difficult for my family to make constant trips into the city. More important, however, was likely the fact that I stood under five feet tall and had almost reached my full height. At twelve, even child models had to be taller to find work.
Then, too, I’d become too shy for modeling. This became clear to me the minute I stepped inside the Limited Too studio for the spring photo shoot. After I was led past food and makeup, I came upon a truly horrific scene. In front of the white backdrop, a photographer snapped away as two girls clad in bright blue and green danced around to a Britney Spears album. Somehow, when I’d begged my parents to let me try modeling again, I hadn’t thought about having to move around. The idea just hadn’t crossed my mind. Oh my God, I remember thinking as I approached the backdrop, my fingers finding my sweating palms, forcing my hands into fists. Am I going to have to dance in front of people?
Later, after five humiliating hours of staffers and models telling me to loosen up, I turned away from modeling for good. A couple of months later when I received the spring catalog in the mail, all I could see was how awkward I looked. There was one photo I did like: a picture of me, arm in arm with another girl, the two of us displaying the front and back of a graphic t-shirt. The girl was facing the camera, smiling sweetly; I had my back turned, my hair in a loose bun, red curls pointing in all directions. I liked how the focus on my side of the photo was on my hair, not on the rest of me. I was comfortable with that; I looked good with my back turned. My hair was, after all, the true selling point behind my modeling campaigns, even as I struggled to accept the fact that my color made me different.
Around the time I turned eleven, it began to bother me that I didn’t really know anyone else my age with red hair. I started looking for redheaded characters in books and movies. I identified myself with Madeline and Caddie Woodlawn, real and fictional characters who had my color. They were adventurers of some kind: Madeline tended to stray from the group and get in trouble and Caddie Woodlawn (a nineteenth century character) hated housework and often found herself outside with the boys. I now see what must have influenced me at that age to love the outdoors and to make trouble, two things I have come to recognize as stereotypical for redheads.
But what of the other stereotypes that came with being a redhead? A bad temper? Sometimes. Passion? Maybe. Stubbornness? Definitely, though I’m pretty sure I get that from my brunet father.
And then there are more physical stereotypes of being a redhead, something I realized when I was twelve and had moved on to middle school. In a class of three hundred, only three other redheads had joined my grade. These girls were redheads, too, but their hair was a different color, more orange than red. They also had light colored eyebrows and eyelashes, almost to the point of blond. My eyebrows and eyelashes were brown. Their eyes were also light, green (like my brother’s and sister’s) or blue. Mine are brown. And one girl’s skin was covered head to toe in freckles. While I had freckles sprinkled across my face and on my arms, I was hardly covered in them. Soon, I began to feel the expectations of being a redhead tagged onto my identity.
St. Patrick’s Day had become something of a funny holiday to look forward to, not that I ever remembered what day it fell on. In fact, the only memory before high school I have of St. Patrick’s Day is from when I was about five: one morning when my mom brought home green-dyed bagels from The Bagelry for breakfast. After eating one, I threw up green.
In high school, peers would come to class that day in emerald-colored shirts with hands wrapped around water bottles full of vodka and ask me why I wasn’t wearing green. “Aren’t you proud to be Irish?” they asked. “Show some spirit!” I wasn’t Irish, I would tell them, I was actually Luxembourgish and a mix of some other European countries nowhere near Ireland.
“What?” they would cry. “You’re not Irish? No way.”
Later, when I would tell my mom how I refused to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, she questioned me.
“You don’t have to be Irish to celebrate,” she said. “It’s kind of a universal holiday.”
“But then people might think I really am Irish,” I argued.
“Do you have a problem with the Irish?”
It took me some time to realize what my qualms were about wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. No, I didn’t have anything against the Irish. I realized that I liked being a unique redhead. While there are many more redheads in the world who also have no claim to Ireland, I liked that my hair color couldn’t be explained. I liked that it wasn’t tied to something obvious or tangible such as a country and couldn’t be expressed through a green shirt. My hair had its own story, and if I had to boycott St. Patrick’s Day to show it, then I would.
Just as people are surprised when I tell them I am not Irish, they are as puzzled when they learn I am Jewish. Reactions usually range from raised eyebrows to questions of, “They make Jewish redheads?”
I’ve gotten used to people questioning my hair when they learn I am Jewish, though I’d never questioned it much myself. This may be naïve of me, but I don’t see it as anything that strange. I know redheads to be a minority just as I know Jews to be a minority. Together, it would seem to me this would make for an even smaller minority, something that would explain why, in my lifetime, I’ve only met (aside from my own family) maybe two or three other Jews with red hair. Though I don’t see anything special about being a redheaded Jew, it would fascinate me to be able to trace where the red hair started in my family.
The week after my Bat Mitzvah, right after I turned thirteen, my grandpa suddenly passed away. I began to feel the sadness lasting into the months and years after his death. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I realize now that I felt somehow less innocent. In the Jewish religion, tradition holds that one’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah marks a child’s becoming a man or a woman. In today’s society, thirteen is hardly considered old enough for womanhood. I knew little then what it meant to be a woman, yet after my grandfather’s death I knew I no longer felt like a child.
After my grandpa died, I became critical of the certain world I thought I had known. I also became critical of myself. Everything appeared serious and felt like it carried more weight. Fitting in at school suddenly began to matter more than it ever had before. My hair, I felt, made me different. Because my hair was so much darker than the other redheads in my school, I didn’t even feel like I had anything in common with them.
What happened in the months after I turned thirteen seemed to hit at once. I lost almost all my confidence. Girls and boys in school were mean, scathing it seemed, and yet… I wanted to be like them. I didn’t want to stand out. They all talked the same way, wore the same things. I could get away with some of that, or at least try to, but my hair would always make me an outsider. My hair was not sleek and straight and blond or brown like theirs. I was a red, curly, frizzy mess. I couldn’t tan without getting sunburned first, and there were colors I couldn’t wear unless I wanted to completely represent the upper half of the rainbow: colors like orange, yellow, or fuchsia.
When I wanted to change my hair to blond, my mom absolutely forbid me. Now, I thank her for this. Even as badly then as I wanted to be accepted, I don’t think I really wanted to lose my color. My color had made me who I was, and even though I sometimes hated that person, I didn’t know how to really be anyone else.
Though my mom would never have allowed me to dye my hair, she agreed when I pleaded to let me get it permanently straightened, which boosted my confidence, for about a week. As my mom had warned, straight hair would not make me truly feel better or solve my problems. I had other issues, none of which she voiced, but issues that I knew to be there. There was my persistent acne, merciless even after years of dermatology appointments. There were my short legs. And then there was still my growing unease and sadness, something that would rapidly turn into a severe depression that lasted years.
As peers walked the hallways chattering and laughing, I made my way to class with my head down, books held tightly to my chest, sneakers squeaking as I dragged my feet across floors too clean.
After a year or so in high school, I settled for a while into a new me, a person I didn’t always recognize, but someone I liked better than my eighth-grade, thirteen-year-old self. I was still depressed, though, and I carried this lifeless, defeated person I did not know with me constantly. I wore oversize sweatshirts to school and tied my hair back and hid it in my hood whenever I wanted to melt into the walls, which was often. Hiding wasn’t easy. I was too aware of the attention my hair brought me; I could feel its mark as though it were a large, single flame burning through me. In my unrelenting state of self-consciousness, I began to take note of all things red and the different meanings found in the color.
Red, an emotional color, comes in dozens of shades. The color was first introduced to the crayon color spectrum in 1903. Crayola claims that “personality traits” for this hue are hot, energetic, loud, and powerful.
Red can take on other meanings, as well. Recently, Crayola surveyed thousands of children: “If courage were a color what would it look like?” They answered scarlet. In an effort to support children fighting cancer at St. Jude’s hospital, “scarlet,” a shade of red, has been replaced by “courage,” the newest name added to the 64 Crayola crayon box.
Red is a color I see almost every minute of the day; unavoidable, as my eyes often glimpse my long hair whenever I look sideways or down. In high school, I often felt confused and unsure of how I should carry myself. I was rarely energetic or loud. I certainly never felt powerful or courageous.
I became used to the names people would give me for my hair. Carrot-top, they’d call me. Rusty. Ginger. Or sometimes, just Red. My identity revolved around my hair, and so I constantly cared for it. When I was sixteen, I learned to blow-dry my hair sleek after a shower. I paid attention to the style, played with bangs and layers and angles for a few years. Friends always wanted to play with my hair. During lunch, they’d often stroke or plait it into long braids. Girls I didn’t know asked me what kind of shampoo I used and where I got my hair cut.
Eventually, I ditched the oversized sweatshirts and most days let my long hair fall around me. I realized the power my red hair gave me and I began to love and appreciate it. My hair was the item most complimented and now, beginning to peek through the thick, muted veil that had enclosed me in my depression, I started to take in more of the world again, and also the pressure to perfect my hair each time I washed it.
Today, I take up to an hour to blow-dry my hair. I spend so much time washing and blow-drying that I even plan my showers around my weekly schedule. I tell my family in advance when I plan on styling my hair so they know at what hours they’ll be allowed to use the bathroom again. They’re used to it. My friends, on the other hand, are still baffled when I, at times, require two hours notice before going out. If nothing else about me looks or feels right, at least I can count on my hair to look good. My hair gives me character; it allows me the confidence to acknowledge myself a person worthwhile.
There was a period in high school when everyone began to tell me I looked like Lindsay Lohan. It was a compliment, and I secretly loved the comparison. After all, everyone had thought she was beautiful. Before Lindsay came along, redheads weren’t recognized much in the media for being beautiful or sexy—at least as far as I knew. She was the only celebrity I ever followed. I watched how she cut her hair and I wore the colors she wore. Her growing fame gave me some confidence, knowing suddenly that maybe I didn’t need a more traditional hair color to be considered attractive.
After Lindsay’s movie career began to take off, she dyed her hair blond. This shocked me; it was almost as though she’d taken offense against me. Why would she do such a thing? I thought back to middle school and how I’d once considered dyeing my hair blond. I realized I would never be able to do it, especially not now. Who would I be without my hair? I imagine hardly anyone would think I was the same person. I decided Lindsay Lohan was beautiful anyway without her red hair. Me, I wasn’t so sure.
I would not know myself without my hair. There is a part of me that is terrified to lose my color, or worse yet, lose my hair completely. This thought has not yet fully come to surface because I know I am still young and healthy, but with each passing year, I feel the issue slowly inching closer to the front of my mind. I do not know what I will do with myself the day my hair beings turning gray. The idea is one that even now I am having trouble acknowledging. Red hair dye is available, yes, but I’m not sure I will ever find my exact shade in a bottle, or even if I will want to. I like that it is natural.
Even after my own hair turns gray, the Oxford Hair Foundation has predicted that by the year 2100, redheads will either have become extinct or extremely rare. Though the company’s claim is currently being debated, the idea bothers me nonetheless. I know the gene for red hair to be recessive, yet I somehow cannot imagine my children not having red hair. I cannot imagine a world without red hair.
It is past noon now and the Israeli desert is sweltering, drawing my attention to my hair again. Is it frizzing? Will I have to wash it? I’m not sure if there will be a point to that since tomorrow we will only be in the desert again, for the next day our group will arrive at the location where Sharon, my best friend since middle school, will introduce us all to her aunt and uncle. They will greet her excitedly, and then they will turn to me.
“Ah!” Sharon’s uncle will cry, smiling, staring. “Gingy!”
“That is the word,” Ohad, the group medic, says, suddenly behind me. “Gingy. That is what you call it!”
“Gingy?” Someone else, an American, asks behind me. “Like Ginger?”
The color of my hair finds itself in my cheeks again as I unconsciously move my hands up to touch my locks. I will always blush, and in these moments, I will always know how lucky I am for my hair.
Sarah Gottlieb works in Florida as a video producer and editor. She also writes freelance for a variety of platforms. Sarah earned her BA in writing and communication from the University of Tampa, where she graduated with honors and received the Journalism Student of the Year title.
Q: What did you discover about yourself while writing this piece?
A: I discovered how much I could learn by just taking time to reflect. At the start of this piece I had only two or three small ideas. Immediately those ideas snowballed into a lifetime of thought and emotion once I pushed everything else aside and allowed myself to focus.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I’ve ever been given—and I’ve heard it more than a few times—is to just start. That is, stop trying to come up with the perfect idea and just begin typing.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: As soon as I have an idea, I write as much as I can in one sitting. I shut everything else out, usually three to six hours at a time. I try not to edit or filter. A day or two later I come back and start revising.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: Until I move to a bigger space, I’m limited to keeping only a dozen books around. The works I find myself underlining about once a page are the ones I hang on to. I tend to stack according to how much I’ve scribbled inside (the more scribbles, the closer I put within reach).