Well, listen up, stud,
Your life’s been wasted
’til you’ve got down on your knees and tasted
A red-headed woman …
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “REDHEADED WOMAN”
Augustin Galopin was a French man of letters, of philosophy, and of medicine. By 1886 he had published more than twenty works on subjects ranging from cremation to feminine hygiene. The health and well-being of the female sex was clearly a matter of great concern to Dr. Galopin, who from his writing it is very easy to imagine as a dapper Fernando Rey type, strolling along through the Luxembourg Gardens, savoring the smell of the horse-chestnut flowers (which, according to the Marquis de Sade, smell of spunk) and tipping his hat to any particularly jolie dame who happened to catch his eye. This was the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec, after all. It was also the city in which Dr. Galopin let loose his Le Parfum de la Femme upon an unsuspecting world.
Le Parfum de la Femme is a winning mix of folk wisdom and high-blown science, spiced with anecdotes and Dr. Galopin’s own observations and musings. He informs us for example as gospel truth that a plant, the Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia), has often been observed to kill serpents—Aristolochia is remarkably toxic and possibly carcinogenic, but its anti-serpent properties are unproven, to say the least—and he then notes as an aside what sounds like a proper empirical scientific observation: that if you have been handling female toads, and place your hands in water, male toads will rush to them. Galopin claims that he is a materialist, hence all is to be proved by experiment and observation, which makes some of his assertions more than a little hard to take. While assuring us that exposure to tobacco provokes St. Vitus Dance, or chorea, and masturbation in children, he also claims to have broken the addiction to tobacco by substituting coffee and sugar (which for the anxious parent hardly sounds like an improvement). And then there are his views on female odor.
Galopin believed, rather charmingly, that each woman, classified by skin and hair color, had her terroir, like a wine, and gave forth a specific bouquet of scents. For example, women with chestnut hair, so he assures us (those chestnuts again!), give forth an odor of amber. Perfumiers do recognize a type of scent classified as amber. It’s chiefly composed of vanillin and labdanum, a plant resin.81 The good doctor may have meant this, as vanillin was a creation of the late nineteenth century, but as Galopin uses the term, and in the context of the passage paraphrased above, it seems more likely that he was talking about “amber” as shorthand for “ambergris.”
Now ambergris, for those who have not sampled it, has an odor so strong it’s as if the human nose doesn’t know what to do with it. It is salty and marinelike with base notes that are, frankly, fecal. To put it bluntly, if the sea emptied its bowels, the result would smell like fresh ambergris, and unsurprisingly, too, when you consider that this extraordinary substance is produced as some mysterious digestive aid in the stomach of sperm whales. Once it has aged and oxidized, however (which can take years—ambergris is soft and waxy and it floats, and ideally, once voided by a whale, would spend those years bobbing about in the ocean), its smell sweetens, although it never quite loses that animal tang of the midden, to something subtler and, for want of a better word, hormonal. It is impossible to smell ambergris and not think of sex. Its special value to the world is that it is an excellent fixative and carrier of other scents, making them last much longer, hence in an age when the science of artificial perfumes was in its infancy, it would have been much more commonly encountered than it is today. But according to Dr. Galopin, this was the natural scent of women with chestnut hair. “And some women with that hair color, who have very white skin, exhale a soft odor of violets from most of their sebaceous glands.” Then “when they are hot … the coquettes pretend they don’t know the ravages their perfume molecules make in the brains of those who breathe them in.” The little minxes, shame on them. And that, you might imagine, would be the end of the matter; simply another pseudoscientific myth about red hair. You would be wrong. Redheads do smell different. Or rather, if you have red in your hair, anything applied to your skin is going to smell different from the way it will smell on anyone else.
The biochemistry of the human animal, as modern science is starting to unravel its secrets, is more complex and more fascinating than anything even Dr. Galopin might have imagined, and to those in the field it must sometimes feel as if every discovery yields up yet another mystery. Biochemists and geneticists are in something akin to the situation of explorers, attempting to understand the layout of a lost city in a jungle. Each starts in a different place. Each has a piece of a map. Gradually the main roads and byways and connections both expected and unimagined begin to emerge. And in the case of the boulevardier-biology of Dr. Galopin, the most surprising claims, the oldest of old wives’ tales, can prove to be entirely correct.
Much of this, particularly for us layfolk, lies at a level of microscopically complex science that can best be dealt with by employing the principle of “Don’t Worry About It.”82 We do not need to be capable of understanding, at a glance, the information that MC1R is a seven-pass G-coupled receptor located at chromosome 16q24.3 (although it is pleasing to have what you might call our red hair’s postal address), or indeed that it is part of family of genes, from MC1R to MC5R. What is of interest here is the list of biological functions along with hair pigmentation in which these genes play a part. Among them are adrenal function; responses to stress; the fear/flight response; the pain and immune response; energy homeostasis (the body’s chemical regulation of its use of energy); and sexual function and motivation. Briefly, all these fundamental functions of the human body are different for redheads from those of blonds or brunettes as a result of redheads’ uniquely different biochemistry, the consequences of which have all fed into the stereotyping and societal and cultural attitudes evinced toward the redhead for centuries. And while these differences are far more than skin-deep, that is where we start.
We all, on the surface of our skin, have a microscopically fine film known as the skin mantle. It acts as a barrier to bacteria and other contaminants, and on those possessing the gene for red hair it will very often be more acidic than on the skin of a blond or brunette. This is why any scent or cologne will smell different on a redhead from the way it smells on his or her non-redheaded girl- or boyfriend.83 Nor does scent last as long on a redhead’s skin as it does on that of a blonde or brunette, causing Dr. Galopin to bewail the fact that in the heady days of the first artificial perfumes, redheads used so much synthetic scent and products so concentrated “that they asphyxiate all those who approach them.” The havoc redhead skin wreaks on the products of the perfumier’s art is strange enough, but it also suggests another reason, one with a flawlessly scientific basis, for the perceived sensuality of the female redhead: pheromones. Those same sebaceous glands whose “perfume” molecules so disordered Dr. Galopin, and which secrete the skin’s acid mantle, also produce pheromones, most generously from those parts of the body that still retain our original covering of hair, that is, the genitals and under the arms.
Pheromones—messages in a smell, basically—are an invisible Morse code by which we share signals about our general state of health, and our receptiveness to a mate, unwittingly and with the whole of the world around us, twenty-four-seven.84 If, on a redhead’s skin, the scent from a bottle can be so transformed by the chemicals produced by their sebaceous glands, I suppose it’s possible that redhead pheromones also differ, uniquely, from those of blondes or brunettes, and send forth some secret message of their own. There are endless articles on endless websites dedicated to promulgating the idea that redheads have more sex than blondes or brunettes, that sex with a redhead (inevitably a female redhead) is somehow “better” or more passionate, and that part of this derives from a redhead’s particular bouquet. It has become a literary device. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the antihero of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume (1985), commits murder to capture the scent of a redhead:
Her sweat smelled as fresh as the sea-breeze, the tallow of her hair as sweet as nut oil, her genitals were as fragrant as the bouquet of water-lilies, her skin as apricot blossoms…. The harmony of all these components yielded a perfume so rich, so balanced, so magical, that every perfume Grenouille had smelled until now … seemed at once to be utterly meaningless.
Aristide Bruant, a cabaret singer and friend of Toulouse-Lautrec (he is the man in the red scarf in the artist’s famous Ambassadeurs poster) contributes this, from his 1889 song “Nini Peau d’Chien”:
She has soft skin
And the scent of a redhead
That gives you the shivers.
Before either of them there was Charles Baudelaire and his beggar-girl, the “Blanche fille aux cheveux roux,” whose body, dotted with freckles, “has its sweetness.”85 (The beggar-girl of the poem, with her dark chestnut locks, was painted by Baudelaire’s friend the artist Émile Deroy around 1843–5. You can see her portrait in the Louvre.) And if we smell different, might we taste different as well? I have no idea, but The Boss seems to think so—and he would be a man to know.
We need to talk about sex.
The psychiatrist Charles Berg was a Freudian of the old school. To give you a flavor of his writing, from The Unconscious Significance of Hair (1951): “The Christmas tree has been associated with hair and with father’s penis. We see Father Christmas (with his long beard) taking off the tree penises, which he benevolently gives to children. At the feast, the phylogenetic successor of the old totem feasts, his penis is eaten in the shape of an appropriate symbol—turkey or goose.” (I promise I am not making this up.) Part of The Unconscious Significance of Hair deals with case studies, one of which, as related by Dr. Berg, includes a dream told to him by a young male patient, in whose psyche Dr. Berg was rooting for any number of unacknowledged neuroses. In this dream, the young man was sitting on a bus, and putting out his hand to touch the red hair of the woman sitting in front of him, experienced what Dr. Berg describes as intense pleasure, and which you or I, if we wanted to be equally euphemistic, might term a visit from Lady Lilith. In other words, an erection, if not an ejaculation. And why? Because the young man had recently succeeded in convincing his girlfriend to let him remove her underwear (this was the 1950s, let’s not forget) and on first seeing her pubic hair, had been delighted to discover that it had a reddish tint. Dr. Berg, I suspect, was not a fan of the redhead (according to him, redheads had “a supernormal capacity for rheumatism, chorea and TB,” as well as “detumescence”) and he notes nothing significant, unconscious or otherwise, in the young man’s reaction. You or I might beg to differ. In fact I’ll hazard a guess that the reason for the young man’s delight was that, however respectable his girlfriend might be on the surface, this was proof-positive that in secret, and known only to him, she was hot stuff.
What does red hair mean? Not what does it mean for a redhead, but what does it mean for everyone else? Above all, what is this mysterious connection made with such constancy between redheaded women and sex? Or, to quote the writer Tom Robbins, in a favorite paean of redhead prose, “How are we to explain the power these daughters of ancient Henna have over us bemused sons of Eros?”86 We’ve already speculated that red hair could have indicated to a mate that you would bear healthy children, and not die yourself in the process. Dr. John Cook, writing for the Ladies’ Magazine in June 1775, offers this: “Red hair is not so agreeable, though this I can say, such women have the finest skins, with azure veins, and generally become the best breeders of the nation.” Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty here: what does it mean when you’re naked?
To begin with, phaeomelanin, the chemical that colors red hair red, also colors those parts of the body chosen by Nature to stand out as pink. That is, the nipples, in women the labia, and in men the glans of the penis. Set against a redhead’s normally pale skin, a naked redhead, male or female, is thus flashing a set of sexual super-stimuli at their partner, doubly so when aroused, when the coloring in these parts of the body deepens. (I am also told that again, due to the pale skin, when a redhead reaches orgasm, the skin flush is particularly noticeable and gratifying.) Could this be another reason why, to quote Grant McCracken, red hair in a woman is seen by (male) society as promising “sensual delights of extraordinary proportions”? Redheads are rule-breakers, rebels. Grant McCracken again: “We cannot rely on them [female redheads] to embrace stereotyped qualities of femaleness—sweetness, docility and politeness…. We imagine them ready to give vent to what we keep harnessed.” This notion has been around for centuries. Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels of 1726, has the red-haired members of his imaginary race the Yahoos being “more libidinous and mischievous than the rest.” Red hair is a warning flag: here comes trouble. Sexually, this is a charged and potent mix. Redheads are different, so redheaded women, perhaps the thinking goes, might do things other women won’t….
There is of course a difference between the perceived and the actual experience of being a redhead, which one might liken to the difference between pheno- and genotype—except that where sex is concerned the two are not so easy to separate.87 Does a partner’s expectation affect sexual behavior? I would say yes, most definitely. If cultural attitudes toward your hair color give you license, as it were, to be articulate and confident in bed, will better sex result? Without a doubt. Will you be happier and more confident in your own sexuality, if you anticipate eliciting a positive response from your partners? What do you think?88
Then there is the part played by pheromones. There are good reasons to believe that we have retained body hair under our arms and around the genitals because the hair helps disperse pheromones into the air, and in the case of a redhead, one of the messages those pheromones is carrying is health. Again, this is a highly desirable quality in a mate, but, sadly, it has nothing to do with the red hair—red hair is simply the signifier; it’s the pale skin that makes the difference, and the ability to synthesize vitamin D.
Most of the vitamin D we need is made in the skin, in response to exposure to UV radiation. The farther north you go, however, the fewer days there are in the year when vitamin D can be produced, and the more when vitamin D will be broken down by the body for use. And without enough vitamin D, everything eventually stops working. Hence the wretched fate of the Viking settlers at Herjolfsnes in Greenland.
Herjolfsnes (now Ikigait) was named for one Herjolf Baardsen, a follower of Erik the Red, and founded in 985. It was a tough and inhospitable place to live, but the Vikings were nothing if not tough themselves, and the point where the settlement was founded was the first landing place for ships that had trekked from Iceland or even Norway, so the community here should have been set to thrive. It did not. It simply disappeared. For many years the native population of Inuits were blamed for the settlement’s demise. Then in 1921 the remains of Herjolfsnes were examined by archaeologists, who found there the ruins of a church and other buildings, and numerous burials, preserved by the cold.89 Herjolfsnes is a Tarim of the snows.
The bodies in the graves told a sad story of decline. Shrouds were patched and reused; coffins, too. Those laid to rest were of noticeably short stature. The account of the excavation records with sadness how many of them were very young and notes too that “a conspicuously large number of the women were of slight and feeble build: they were narrow across the shoulders, narrow-chested, and in part narrow at the hips. Several showed symptoms of rachitis [rickets], deformity of the pelvis, scoliosis and great difference in the strength and size of the left and right lower extremities.” Their teeth were worn from eating hard vegetable matter—these were people who had existed on a starvation diet for generations. It’s been conjectured that by the time they needed to, the Viking settlers were too enfeebled to hunt seal and fish as did the Inuit. The climate had worsened. Fewer children were born. Those who were died young. The longboats from Norway had ceased. The community died of slow physical deterioration. It was killed, in fact, by the long Arctic winters and a lack of vitamin D, from which the Inuits’ meat-rich diet protected them. The body of the last Viking was reportedly found by the Inuit in 1540, on the floor of his dwelling, where he had died, alone, his sheath-knife “much worn and wasted” by his side.
This is salutary enough. But vitamin D deficiency has also been implicated in an increased risk of certain cancers, of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis (pace, Dr. Berg), irritable bowel syndrome, and gum disease. Its role in preventing rickets has been known since the 1930s. And in the days before we all lived long enough to be so troubled by cancers of one sort or another, it was a weapon in the arsenal against the then all-time killer, tuberculosis. Plenty of vitamin D gives you a stronger immune system all around. So if your red hair comes with that pale skin, one of the messages your pheromones will certainly be carrying will be a message of health, and of an immune system boosted with resilience.90
Pale skin has also, in both East and West, been prized for centuries as an attribute of female beauty. It speaks of seclusion, of being kept apart, of Rapunzel’s tower, and, to a degree, of ownership. It meant you did not have to earn your bread in manual labor. It speaks, basically, of the harem, the seraglio. But in men, the message carried by pale skin is completely different, and it seems at least possible that one of the reasons why red hair is so gendered, why what is regarded as an acceptable if not indeed a highly desirable characteristic in one sex is seen as being so much less desirable in the other is because redheaded, pale-skinned men are presenting what many cultures have regarded for centuries as an attribute of female beauty.91 Pale skin in man is a quality ascribed to the milksop (just look at the word)—someone too unhardy to go out into the world and make his way with his fellow men. In fact a 2006 study found that a significantly higher proportion than you would expect of CEOs had red hair, extrapolating from its rarity in the population at large, which may say much of interest concerning the effect on character of having to overcome being teased or bullied because of your hair color early on in life.92 In our idiosyncratic human way, however, does the fact that something is nonsense stop it from being believed? No, it does not.
But then so much about hair is gendered, and is completely opposite from male to female. “If a man have long hair it is shame unto him.” So wrote St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory unto her.” In his 1987 study Shame and Glory, the sociologist Anthony Synnott lists the following examples of contradictions between the sexes: hair on the body is seen as good on men, but bad on women because it is regarded as a “male” characteristic, and is therefore with much labor and some pain removed (could this also be something to do with wanting to show off that pale, feminine skin?).93 Men uncover their heads in a holy place; women cover theirs. Men rarely change their hairstyle—a man can have basically the same cut as he had as a boy in short trousers, which may also be pretty much the same hairstyle as his father had before him, and this is seen as entirely normal and acceptable; whereas women change their hairstyle with far greater frequency (Synnott gives a particularly telling example: when was the last time you saw a man change his hairstyle simply to go out to dinner?), and this is seen as entirely normal and acceptable for them. The norms of male hair tend toward unchanging uniformity—Synnott cites the example of a man with the same haircut JFK sported fifty years ago being wholly unremarkable today, whereas a woman styling her hair like Jackie O. would be regarded as making a statement that was very consciously retro. Women want their hair to be individual, to stand out. The conspicuousness of red hair, for a woman, its very rarity, thus makes it an advantage to her (which is no doubt why red hair dyes have such a large share of the market). It does exactly the opposite for a man, for exactly the same reason and by exactly the same means. Is this another factor behind red hair being regarded as less desirable both in and very often by the men who have it? Because it denies them that ability to blend in? Finally—and never mind numbers of redheaded CEOs—Synnott quotes another survey, this time from the United States and conducted in 1979. The finding here was that redheaded women were regarded as the executive type: brainy but no-nonsense, and slightly scary to the opposite sex (think Agent Scully: The X-Filesplayed with this trope series after series); while redheaded men were regarded as “good but effeminate—timid and weak.” It’s as if the sexes had swapped their usual stereotypes entirely.
And there may be another reason why redheaded men have a reputation for a certain wimpishness. Once again it is a result of the redhead’s unique biochemistry. Redheads feel more pain than do blonds or brunettes. Or rather, we feel the same amount of pain much more acutely, and thus require much more anesthesia to knock us out—20 percent more being the rule of thumb among anesthetists and surgeons I have spoken to. There is as you might imagine much discussion as to why this should be, how much it varies from redhead to redhead, whether some forms of pain (thermal, for example) are better or worse tolerated by redheads, and which and what anesthetic drugs are thus contraindicated. We do not bleed more than those of other hair colors. That is a myth (although I have also heard it stated as fact by one surgeon, at least, that we do). We do not bruise more easily than those of other hair colors. That is another myth, and very likely a result of the fact that bruises show up so much more noticeably on pale skin. But we do indeed require more anesthetic, and we all have horror stories of trips to the dentists as children when we weren’t given enough. Unsurprisingly, redheads are notoriously bad at keeping dental appointments, having injections, and as children, having knots dragged out of our red hair (think of the poor woman in Degas’s La Coiffure, wincingly holding on to her roots as her hair is combed out); but paradoxically, a normal level of pain for us would reduce many a blond or brunette to tears. The stoicism thus engendered nonetheless seems like a rather poor evolutionary trade-off to me. Why on earth should this pointless and painful adjunct of having red hair exist? Redheads also react badly to cold, reporting physical pain at temperatures perfectly bearable by non-redheads, although, paradoxically, we can eat highly spiced “hot” food with no discomfort at all. Madras curries and Scotch bonnet peppers hold no terrors for the redhead. There is also a belief, repeated on websites without number, that redheads are unusually susceptible to industrial deafness. Red hair is linked to brittle cornea syndrome, and there is an adrenal malfunction, one of the indicators of which is red hair, that is linked to early-onset obesity.94
With redheads, even the hair itself can be troublesome. Hair is made of keratin, the same substance as fingernails, and its character as well as its color derives from the shape of the follicle and the pigment-producing cells in the follicles. Beyond that, lively arguments are still under way as to why we have hair, why we have it where we do and not where we don’t, and why there should be so many different types. Redheads have around 90,000 hairs on average, fewer than blonds and brunettes. Princess Merida’s computer-rendered 1,500 separate strands, which would equate to about 112,000 actual hairs, are therefore well above average. Her curls, however, would have to be natural; the keratin of red hair also contains more sulphur (up to twice as much) than hair of other colors, which makes it more difficult to perm. There are more disulphide linkages in red hair, which have to be broken down for the perm to take. This bolshy tendency of red hair to fight back against the hairdresser’s art and its wearer’s wishes has been known since the eighteenth century at least. In his Art of the Wigmaker of 1767, Monsieur François de Garsault explains, “Another kind of hair coming from Switzerland and England is also sold, this is red hair which has been bleached in the fields as cloth is bleached, and which for this reason is called ‘field hair.’ It will not frizz [that is, take a tight curl], and is only used for graduating the straight, smooth hair. It should never,” he warns, “be mixed with a mass of frizzed hair.” If you want red hair to behave, you need to show it a firm hand. Oh, and because of its color, redheads are also much more likely to be stung by bees.95
There is much in the strange and unusual connections afoot in a redhead’s internal chemistry that in the words of Jonathan Rees still needs to be bottomed out.96 To begin with, he notes an unexpected degree of diversity within that MC1R gene, seesawing between fully homozygous changes, where the recessive gene resulting in red hair is present on both chromosomes (a full-on redhead, as it were), and where it is only present on one and is only partially expressed (resulting in codominance and brown hair and freckles or brown hair/red beard). Tim Wentel, a dermatologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, suggests there may be as many as four hundred different genetic possibilities. Nor is MC1R on chromosome 16 any longer the only note in the chord. There is the part also played by HCL2, on chromosome 4.97 One might anticipate that where there are two, there will be more, and as proof of the almost limitless discoveries waiting to be made as our DNA is finally uncoiled from its helix, labeled and laid out straight, you could hardly do better than point to the people of Melanesia.
The first definitions of what it was to be Melanesian were suggested by eighteenth-century European explorers of the region; even now there is no agreement on where the boundaries of Melanesia should be traced, or even whether the term is a geographic or a cultural entity. But to those people living on these islands, the word “Melanesian,” which was once redolent of subjection and denigration, has become a term of affirmation and empowerment (redheads, take note). And on the Solomon Islands, 5 to 10 percent of the population, along with having very dark skin, have afros of the most striking shades of anything from a cinnamony-ginger to peroxide yellow (Fig. 29). Any number of explanations had been offered for this: natural bleaching by sun and salt water, diet, or the genetic legacy of early European explorers. But in 2012 it was found to be the result of another unique recessive gene, one totally separate from MC1R, and found nowhere else in the world. The geneticist Sean Myles, who finally identified the gene, has called it “a great example of convergent evolution, where the same outcome is brought about by completely different means.”98Sherlock Holmes and Jabez Wilson would have known all about that.
Unhappily, not all such recent genetic discoveries are quite so cheering. As with our prehistory, much of what follows is speculative and contentious. One only has to look at the cautious language of the science to realize that. Nonetheless, being a redhead can have very undesirable side effects indeed.
The biggest villain in the cast here is melanoma. Melanoma, as we all should know by now, is a particularly aggressive form of skin cancer, with a vindictive propensity to spread from the skin to other organs. One possible scientific explanation for this, for melanoma and a number of other conditions, suggests that despite the stronger immune system, redhead DNA is more fragile than that of other hair colors, less good at repairing itself, and therefore more prone to those disorders that, like melanoma, arise in damaged cells. As evidence of this, there is a link, although no one can state categorically where in the triangle is the cause and where the result, between red hair, melanoma and two serious medical conditions, the first of which is Parkinson’s disease, and the second is endometriosis. Melanoma is a point in the triangle for both of them.
Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. Its causes may be genetic; its development is associated with head injury and exposure to certain pesticides. In this particular Venn diagram of nastiness, Parkinson’s is in one circle, melanoma in the second, and red hair in the third.99 A history of melanoma is “associated” with an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s. MC1R gene variants are associated with an increased risk of melanoma. But the lighter your hair color, equally the greater your risk of developing Parkinson’s, with those with red hair being at the greatest risk of all—three times the risk of those whose hair is darkest. This is all deeply depressing stuff, no matter that Parkinson’s is still a rare disease. It was thought at one time that the incidence of melanoma might be a side effect of one of the commonest treatment for Parkinson’s, with the drug form of L-dopa, but the finger now points to the likely villain being the MC1R Arg151Cys allele. It probably makes this no easier to comprehend if I remind you here of those four hundred estimated possible variants of MC1R. Don’t worry about it.
An equally unholy trinity exists between the incidence of red hair, melanoma, and endometriosis, another disorder of the immune system and a cripplingly painful condition where cells similar to those that line the womb (the endometrium) begin to grow on other organs in the abdomen, and just as if they were still within the womb, react to the menstrual cycle by swelling and bleeding. A study in 2000 of 3,940 college alumnae in the States found that among the group as a whole, 6.98 percent reported some degree of endometriosis. Of the 121 redheads in the group, however, this went up to 12.4 percent, and again correlated with an increased incidence of melanoma. Or, as the researchers put it, “Among women with red hair there is an association between endometriosis and melanoma … which warrants further investigation.” (I’ll say.) They also speculate that part of this linkage may be bound up in the fact that the HCL2 gene is on chromosome 4 and thus close to the cluster of genes for fibrinogen, a protein necessary for the formation of blood clots.100 As if redheads needed more reasons to stay out of the sun.
But the causal link, between red hair and blood and menstrual bleeding, harks back not only to the age-old slur that to have red hair means you were conceived while your mother was menstruating but to ancient Ayurvedic medicine as well, which also links red hair to disorders of the womb. Ayurvedic medicine has been around for roughly 3,000 years and is clearly akin to the Greek system of classifying humanity into types according to the four humors, which for most of recorded history was the basis of all Western medicine, too. The Greeks recognized four physiological types: you could be sanguine, choleric, melancholic, or phlegmatic, or any combination thereof, each of them being governed by one of the four “humors” or fluids within the body—respectively blood, yellow bile, black bile, or phlegm. (The origins of this system may go back even further, to Ancient Egypt or possibly to the Mesopotamians.) Ayurvedic medicine differs from the humors in that in has just three types, or doshas, with redheads being generally classed as the pita type, and being characterized as passionate, chivalrous, sensitive, and compassionate—all to the good. The pita dosha in women controls the health and well-being of the womb, and imbalances within it will manifest themselves there. Here is contemporary Western science confirming what traditional non-Western medicine has believed for centuries. Again according to Ayurvedic medicine, redheads are also prone to frustration, anger, arrogance, and impatience, and when out of sorts, it comes out in their skin, in eczema and dermatitis. Redheads sometimes have what is known as an “atopic” constitution (I certainly have), where the red hair goes along with a propensity for hay fever and any number of other annoying allergies as well.
One of the oldest stereotypes of the redhead is that they have a fiery temper. Again, how to distinguish between the geno- and the phenotype: if you are teased as a child you may very well react by losing your temper. If, like me, you work out that you have more leeway in displays of tantrum than your non-redheaded peers, that behavior is reinforced. But it is now thought that MC1R also plays a role in adrenaline production, and it has been suggested that redheads not only produce more adrenaline but that their systems can access it more speedily, too—in other words, they fire up more rapidly than others (that fear/flight response). Certainly Hans von Hentig, writing in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1947, thought so. Tracing the history of the outlaw in the West from 1800, he lists examples ranging from “Big Harpe,” who terrorized the Ohio Valley in the early nineteenth century and who had, apparently, “coarse hair of a fiery redness” to Wild Bill Hickok (“long auburn hair hanging down over his massive shoulders”). Von Hentig adds to the list of redheaded no-goods Sam Browne and Jesse James, speculating that the appearance of these men was remembered because with the color of their hair, they stood out, which is the sort of logic that sounds a little as if it might be getting into the all-too-familiar area of “they acted like redheads, so must have had red hair”; but he does also observe that “redheadedness also is often combined with acceleratedness of motor innervation,” which, medically speaking, would seem to imply that redheads exist in a permanent state of heightened stimulation. I’m not so sure about that—but these were all gunmen, quick on the draw.
And suggestively, in light of this, science has very recently begun to explore a link between red hair and Tourette’s syndrome.
Tourette’s syndrome (Ts) is an astonishingly complicated, interwoven set of symptoms that can range from small tics and mannerisms to involuntary outbursts of obscene vocabulary. It’s thought that Mozart may have been a sufferer. Technically it is termed a chronic, idiopathic, neuropsychiatric disorder, which should warn you that at present, almost nothing can be categorically ruled out as a cause. In 2009 an Australian pediatrician, Katy Sterling-Levis, whose thirteen-year-old son had just been diagnosed with the disorder, was attending a conference on the syndrome and was struck by the number of redheads in the room—or how they were “over-represented,” to use the unemotive language of the scientific study. The pattern of inheritance for Ts is autosomnal recessive. In other words, two copies of the gene must be present for the condition to result, just the same as with red hair. A survey organized to test the strength of the connection revealed that 13 percent of those with Ts had red hair, compared to the normal average within the population of 2 to 6 percent.101 More than half of the sufferers of Ts had one or more relatives with red hair. ADHD and hyperactivity are also associated with Ts, and a few pediatricians have drawn a much-contested connection between the pale skin/red hair phenotype and hyperactivity, to boot. In adults as in children this is characterized (among other symptoms) by impulsive and inappropriate behavior, mood swings, racing thoughts, and a craving for excitement. Spencer Tracy, one of Hollywood’s leading men in its Golden Age, and one of the very few actors to make it seriously big despite an unmistakable tawniness in his natural coloring, was hyperactive as a child. It’s also striking how many symptoms of hyperactivity seem to have been present in the poet Algernon Swinburne’s behavior.
Swinburne was born in 1837. His mother was a daughter of the third Earl of Ashburnham, and Swinburne proudly traced his red hair back to Henry VIII. His well-to-do family sent him to Eton, where his cousin Lord Redesdale left this toe-curling description of him:
What a fragile little creature he seemed as he stood there between his father and mother, with his wondering eyes fixed upon me! … His limbs were small and delicate; and his sloping shoulders looked far too weak to carry his great head, the size of which was exaggerated by the tousled mass of red hair standing almost at right angles to it. Hero-worshippers talk of his hair as having been a “golden aureole.” At that time there was nothing golden about it. Red, violent, aggressive red it was, unmistakeable, unpoetical carrots…. His features were small and beautiful…. His skin was very white—not unhealthy but a transparent tinted white, such as one sees in the petals of some roses…. Altogether my recollection of him in those school days is that of a fascinating, most loveable little fellow.102
The fascinating, loveable little fellow went on to scandalize the London literary scene with his poetry (technically some of the most accomplished in existence, still, but in its subject matter suggestive, erotic, and deviant, at the height, in the 1860s, of Victorian respectability), and outrage London society with his behavior as soon as he could.103
Swinburne’s endlessly fluttering hands and feet had been diagnosed in childhood as “an excess of electrical vitality.” As an adult he seems to have been willing to do anything to make himself the center of attention—that stunt of sliding nude down the bannisters at Rossetti’s was one of many. He rapidly became both an alcoholic and a user of opium, and he posed (according to Oscar Wilde, whose gaydar, one would think, would be faultless) as a homosexual.104 Medical opinion now is that he may well have suffered some degree of brain damage at birth and was possibly hydrocephalic. Such was his notoriety that when on July 10, 1868, he fainted in the Reading Room of the British Museum, the event made the papers. He filled perhaps something of the same role as the comedian Carrot Top does today—determined to be weird, and if possible, to make a good living out of it—but you do wonder with both what the image of the redheaded man on either side of the Atlantic might have been without them.
It seems almost a shame. Genetic science will one day solve so many of the mysteries that orbit the edge of our imaginations. The truth, or otherwise, of the “blond Eskimos” of Coronation Island in northern Canada, reported as recently as the early twentieth century, will be pinned down, one way or the other; the reconstructed faces of the Tarim mummies, so different from their Han Chinese neighbors, will be allied to their genome and end once and for all speculation as to whether they were European, Asian, or a coming-together of both. The capital of the Budini will be located; and the Udmurt people will be incontrovertibly assigned the same region genetically as they now inhabit geographically, poetically described as being between the Great Forest and the Great Steppe. Their language will give up its last Finno-Ugric secrets, and John Munro will rest easier for knowing he got one thing right: “A white freckled skin, greenish eyes and fiery red hair are characteristic of the Finns, Rühs, and other people of the Baltic highlands.” The enormous graveyard of maybe a million mummies sitting on the edge of Fag el-Gamous, south of Cairo, will provide an answer as to why they seem to have been buried with blonds in one area and redheads in another, and who these blonds and redheads in first to seventh century AD Egypt were in the first place.105 And (which would be particularly handy in this case) a simple means will be discovered of distinguishing true red hair in life from hair whose color in death has been altered by acids in the soil or fungi or bacterial decay. The reason for the red scoria-stone topknots on the statues, or moai, of Easter Island in the southeast Pacific will be found, and their links (or lack therof) to the cult of the redheaded Birdman that persisted right into the 1860s will be explained. An unguessable amount of the history and mythology of Easter Island has been lost to us, but it’s hard not to see the use of red as connected in some way to those red-topped statues, gazing out over the Pacific for so many centuries before. The startling possibility that the first Maori settlers in New Zealand may have found a native people already living there, the Ngati Hotu, who had fair skin, green eyes, and red hair, will be confirmed one way or the other.106 And we may then be closer to understanding why it is that Edward Tregear (1846–31), one of the first to study the Maori, found so many terms among Polynesian speakers to describe red hair:
Samoan, ‘efu, reddish-brown: Tahitian, ehu, red or sandy-colored, of the hair, roureuhu, reddish or sandy hair: Hawaiian, ehu, red or sandy hair, ruddy, florid; ehuahiahi, the red of the evening, or old age; ehukakahiaka, the red of the morning, or youth … Marquesan hokehu, red hair.107
And finally, the coppery topknot of the elongated Paracas skull and the skull itself, and its fellows, will be tested by a lab anybody has ever heard of, and be returned from the star-gazing world of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to this small blue planet here.
When I was very young, but not too young to have noticed that I was the only redhead at my village school, I aligned myself, as many a redhead has done before, with a Celtic ancestry. I was convinced I must have much Irish and some Scottish blood to boot, and that was where the red hair came from. My mother had a vague idea that there was Irish blood in her family, and my father’s family names were Ewart and Colliss, one of which was definitely Scottish, and the other of which I decided was also going to be Scottish, to keep things tidy. Besides, all redheads have Scottish or Irish blood, right? Show me a writer who won’t take the nice smooth plotline over the untidy truth, and who doesn’t start off by rewriting their own identity in some way. Anyway, I liked the idea of my Celticness; I thought it made me different from my friends and superior in some way to my enemies; and no one contradicted me, because obviously I had the red hair to back it up. But in one of those everyday marvels of our age, of course you can now test these assumptions out, with a DNA kit. So I now know that I appear to be 100 percent un-Celtic, that my haplogroup, centered in the North of England, is 46 percent Brit; 38 percent European (centered—who knew?—on Switzerland); 13 percent Scandinavian—Norwegian, by the looks of it; and 3 percent Eastern Middle East. I might as well be that Ur-redhead.
Just about everyone on the planet will have some DNA from the Middle East. We came if not from there then through there, and the haplotype will be there still. Norway and the North of England connect, via the Vikings. Switzerland, I have no idea. But according to the company who did the analysis, there is, on the database of this one company, twenty-seven pages’ worth of people who have also had their DNA tested, and to whom I am genetically related in some way. This is not as revelatory as it may sound—you only have to go back six centuries or so and statistically there would be a European someone to whom everyone now alive in Europe would be related. And of course the analysis doesn’t tell me how many of those twenty-seven pages’ worth of folk have red hair. But there is a pleasing paradox here—that a science that begins by measuring difference ends by making brothers and sisters of us all.
So that is what I am in terms of cells and ancestors piled one atop the other. But to sort out what all that means in terms of being a redhead today, you need not the hard-and-fast of science but the loose-and-sloppy of everything else.