My son is a redhead, or as we call it in our house, an “orangehead.” Strands the color of sun-warmed sand peek out from between burnished copper locks. Looking at it, letting it slowly run between my fingers, is enchanting, like staring into a tiger’s eye.
Just after he was born, a college pal with hair of a similar hue looked down sadly and said,”He’s got the curse.” My husband and I stood there, shocked and incredulous; we had fantasized about a gaggle of kids with russet curls. But our friend told us his hair made childhood miserable. We shrugged it off, convinced our buddy must have had other issues.
Now we get it.
Strangers comment every time our little boy goes out in public without a hat. Usually multiple someones say multiple things, the most popular of which are:
“Wow! Look at that hair.”
“Boy, you’re gonna be trouble.”
“You are red! So red. Hey there, Red.”
“You’re a fiery little guy, aren’t you? I bet you get mad.”
“That hair is too much. It is just too much.”
“Hey, carrot top! What’d you do, eat a whole bag of carrots?”
“Redheads dance with the devil.”
I kid you not. All of these things have been said to my 4-year-old by adults with not a wisp of self-awareness. The words seem to just bubble out of them with no thought for his little feelings, for the confusion and dismay the statements could cause.
People mean well. They’re as entranced by his hair as I am. I can see the positivity, the wonder and delight, in their faces. But he can’t. Sometimes they say the awful ones that make him think he and his hair are naughty, weird, and “too much.” Most often though, he hears a literal exclamation without connotation: “Your hair is so red.” It doesn’t sound bad any one time, but repeated attention without praise also makes him hang that much-heralded head.
Thanks to our friend’s warning, Mama Bear got proactive early. After he turned 2, I started to follow up.
“A ginger!” they say, cruising right on by.
Stopping and turning, I answer, “Yes, isn’t it just beautiful hair?”
“You’re trouble, buddy,” they chuckle.
“No, you must have him confused with someone else,” I respond, “He’s a kind, helpful boy.”
They almost all realize the error and get on board immediately: “Oh yes, such lovely hair.” But it doesn’t feel like enough.
There are extraordinarily few positive portrayals of red hair for boys. Redheaded girls deal with their share of hurtful stereotypes (no one wants to be called “fire crotch” and questioned about the coordination of her carpet and drapes), but many positive images and associations soften the blow. Not so for boys.
The mean kid in picture books often has hair as flaming as his nasty taunts. Even Violet the Pilot, a favorite for its feminist role-shattering, commits this sin. Advertisements of grown men sprawled on beaches, the sexy ones for underwear and perfume, almost never feature redheads. When they do appear in the media, redheads are often portrayed as bumbling and clownish. Since my son, thankfully, rarely sees tabloids, Prince Harry’s good-looking, happy mug doesn’t help any.
I found myself wondering if we could do anything to ward off the curse.
Then ESPN brought some serious game. The cover of the magazine’s latest issue features Andy Dalton looking fierce, but not mean. Focused, but not quarrelsome. Smirking, but not goofy. Intense. Sexy. There’s nothing remarkable about the look as far as cover boys go. It’s your standard smoldering gaze with a hint of mischievousness. Masculine dominance with a softening kindness. The kind of thing that makes men jealous and women breathless.
The phenomenal part is that his red hair is featured in all its glory.
As soon as it arrived, I brought the magazine into the kitchen, and—knowing the value of what parenting expert Harvey Karp calls a “side door” lesson—put it down in front of a girlfriend of mine seated just to the side of my son. “Look at this guy!” I said to her. “Lots of people think he is very cool. And handsome.” He leaned over and looked, his interest evident but unspoken.
For the next week, I left the magazine lying around on various surfaces but said nothing more. Then, eight days after it first appeared in our house, my 4-year-old brought Andy Dalton’s picture over to the kitchen counter. “Mommy,” he asked, as I feigned interest in continuing to load the dishwasher, “do you think this man’s hair is handsome?”
“Yes, buddy, I do. I definitely do.”
He turned away, and I almost missed his smile. An outpouring of relief, self-confidence, and pure joy.
Thank you, ESPN, thank you so much.