When Distinctive Is Desirable: The Advantages of Red Hair
From attention to attraction, there are benefits to being different.
Posted September 6, 2020
In most areas of the world, redheads are a memorable minority. Exotic and unique. Yet apparently, an appreciation of the benefits of red hair, like fine red wine, improves with age. Research reveals how early experiences of stereotypes and stigma can evolve into healthy self-esteem, and career success.
50 Shades of Red
As with other hair colors, there are a variety of opinions and stereotypes about red hair. Redheads are viewed as everything from temperamental,[i] to smart and successful. But for many redheads, a self-appreciation of their uniqueness occurs over time.
Druann Maria Heckert and Amy Best studied the perceptions of redheads in connection with labeling theory.[ii] They conducted interviews with 20 natural redheads ranging in age from 11 to 37, using labeling theory to examine their perception of having red hair as well as their experience of social stigmatization. They recognized a variety of redhead stereotypes including, among others, being Irish, hot tempered, intellectually superior, weird, and for women—wild.
They noted that as children, redheads often receive negative treatment leading to lowered self-esteem, feeling different, and being cognizant of being the center of attention. Nonetheless, Heckert and Best noted that over time, redheads come to appreciate their hair color, transforming negative experiences into positives, by coming to appreciate how red hair has shaped their sense of self.
Among the respondents in the study by Heckert and Best, redheads of both genders agreed that red-haired women are stereotyped as sexy. Quoting one woman, redheaded females are viewed as “spitfires.. .a little wild, self-assured, sexy.” A 36-year-old male offered his opinion that a red-haired woman is stereotyped with having a “fierce, fiery personality, like an untamed heroine in a romance novel.” Another woman described “a mystique behind red hair, it’s intriguing.”
Do redheads like being different? Some certainly do. Heckert and Best note that one of the females in their study noted, “People like my hair, and I like the attention.” Another admitted the attention she received was so important that she did not want to share. In her words, “We like to be in the spotlight. I like to be the center of attention. I like to be the only redhead.”
Heckert and Best note that in every case, notwithstanding personal preferences or stereotypes, red hair attracts attention. Whether participants liked or disliked the focus, being the recipient of this attention shaped their sense of self.
From Different, to Positively Distinctive
Heckert and Best note that one important experience shared by the redheads in their study was the ability to transform a negative childhood/adolescent experience into a positive adult attitude. Describing the transformation as paradoxical, they note the very characteristic which sparked negative treatment during younger years came to be appreciated as an adult, as an essential aspect of positive self-identity as a redhead. Explaining the rationale from their description of the trajectory, they suggest perhaps it stems from the reality that children value conformity while adults value individuality.
From Stereotype, to Success and Status
In addition to shaping sense of self, red hair may actually spark status and success. In a study investigating the link between hair color and CEO selection, Margaret B. Takeda et al. acknowledged the well-documented reality of hair color stereotyping, both in jokes and in psychological literature, including the redhead stereotype of being “competent but cold, or often with a fiery temper.” [iii] Seeking to test this stereotype (as well as that of other hair colors) on professional success, they analyzed the hair color of CEOs of the top 500 members of the London Financial Times Stock Exchange.
They found blondes to be underrepresented in corporate leadership positions in the United Kingdom (UK), while redheads, although representing a small percentage of the UK population, were over-represented as having been selected as leaders of some of the UK’s (and Europe’s) largest, wealthiest companies. Takeda et al. note this finding was not unexpected because of the stereotype that redheads are perceived as competent, even if not particularly likeable (remember these are stereotypes, not reality).
In the bigger picture, all of us are subject to stereotypes based on our individual traits—especially when it comes to a highly noticeable trait such as hair. Taking the time to examine and embrace the character behind the color is the best way to understand others, and accept ourselves.
[i] Weir, Susan, and Margret Fine-Davis. 1989. “‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘Temperamental Redhead’: The Effect of Hair Colour on Some Attributed Personality Characteristics of Women.” The Irish Journal of Psychology 10 (1): 11–19. doi:10.1080/03033910.1989.10557730.
[ii] Heckert, Druann Maria, and Amy Best. 1997. “Ugly Duckling to Swan: Labeling Theory and the Stigmatization of Red Hair.” Symbolic Interaction 20 (4): 365–84. doi:10.1525/si.19126.96.36.1995.
[iii] Takeda, Margaret B., Marilyn M. Helms, and Natalia Romanova. 2006. “Hair Color Stereotyping and CEO Selection in the United Kingdom.” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 13 (3): 85–99. doi:10.1300/J137v13n03_06.