The little red-haired girl
Once upon a time I was a little red headed girl. Now I'm all grown up and my body is no longer that of a little girl, but I have a feeling my mind will always be that of the young and wondering child.
Long ago, redheads had a reputation of being in league with the devil, of practising witchcraft and deviously luring men to their lustful demise. Something of that image lingers today, in the courtesan or seductress, something inherently fiery in their nature. And while that may be true for some, and I think is held within all, myself included, there is also the everyday nature of the amber locks. The stories held in memory for years, some of importance, others of little significance, but all held together by one thread, a thread of strawberry hair.
My mother always wanted a girl with red hair - all her sisters had it – yet fate had stuck her with a sort of mousy brown colour that never managed to look like anything she wanted. In marring my father, who has enough red hair to scare a Scotsman, she hoped to secure the deal for her future daughter. And so, when I, the first born, arrived on the scene with a full head of carrot coloured hair she was delighted.
Not even a month passed before my mother rushed me back to the gynaecologist – 'All her hair is falling out', she said, half questioning, half pleading for him to do something. Being a first time mother it was then that she learned that it is quite normal for babies who are born with lots of hair to loose it all within the first few months of life. It is thought to be for the same reason as new mothers who also experience hair loss, simply a drop in hormone levels that evens out over the next few months. What alarmed her the most was that very often, the hair that comes back and stays for life, is a totally different colour and texture to what it was before. Mine came back even redder.
Up until I was about 7, I had always had what was more of a boy's hair cut than one for a little girl. Not too short, but never touching my neck, with a straight fringe and sides that covered over my ears. Although the hair dresser always wanted to make it 'pretty' and my mum could never play with it, it was what I wanted, and I was not having it any other way.
Come time for our Grade 1 school photographs, the first ever. My mum got me up extra early to make sure I was neat and tidy and had my uniform on straight. Then for the hair. I liked that my fringe was always in my eyes – it gave me something to hide behind - and that my ears were hidden – I thought they stuck out funny, but my mother thought it inappropriate for the special day. She insisted that I wore an alice band, there were tears and sulking faces, but I went off to school with the band in my hair.
That photograph still stands on a bookshelf in the living room. When I got to school I had taken off the alice band, but decided to put it back on at the last moment, not wanting to upset my mum when she saw the picture. They had set up a little wooden window frame with fake ivy climbing around its edges; we had to lean our elbows on the edge and cup our chin in our hands, smiling for the camera. My hair sticks up from behind the alice band in a mess of folded up pieces, poking up pieces and bits left hanging over my forehead, my ears do stick out funny – even she admits it now - and my eyes are red from the tears of earlier. Yet still it stands there so relatives can tell my mum it's cute.
The next year, all concerned had learned their lesson and I went to school on photograph day exactly as I did every other morning. It was worse. There was a new photographer. I remember his name was Mr. Beets, he wore brown trousers with white socks sticking out the ends and an awful green tie. This year it was a swing we had to sit on, and for each child that came up he would make them say something like 'cheese' or 'marshmallows' or say something funny about them to make them laugh. When I stepped up, nervous in the way only a little kid can be, he started. 'Oh, look at that hair! Has it gone all rusty? Did your parents leave you out in the rain? Hahaha!' Hahaha, echoed all the other children, while the bulb flashed and I was left with a picture of me about to cry.
The more I thought about it the worse it sounded. Did they leave me out in the rain? They couldn't love me very much if they did that. I never told them what the man said, maybe they would laugh too. When I saw the same man the next year I felt a sinking inside me and tried to creep away, but the teachers always know who should be next in line and I heard the call of 'Rusty! It's Rusty again! Come on!' I was 'sick' on photo day the year after that.
There were always the kids who called me carrot-top and other such childish things, children are cruel. It was worse for the red-headed boy, Nigel, sometimes it always seems harder for the little boy. But everyone gets called some name in primary school and as I got a little older it never bothered me the way it did when I was just 7 or 8. I let my hair grow long, as far down as my waist, and I'd wear it in two long plats, or a pony-tail held with a band that had a flower on it.
When I entered Standard 6, the first year of high school in South Africa, I went to a place called Woodmead. It was not your average school. It openly and stubbornly opposed the apartheid government, allowed all races to attend and held mixed classes. There were students from all over the African continent, the teachers were mostly ex hippies or political activists of some kind. I was in heaven. Nothing mattered there. Unfortunately, heaven only lasted for one more year, it was eventually shut down and we all had to scramble back into the real world.
In most ways, I had never been a very girly girl. My mother never wore make-up or shaved her legs, I thought it natural that I shouldn't either, or rather, I just never thought about it, it never occurred to me. Through many twists of fate, and much against my better judgement, the school I ended up at after Woodmead was Crawford College, the proverbial cream of the crop – the rich and thick.
When I went to school that first morning, dressed in the smart little skirt with my white, unshaven legs sticking out the bottom I was the laughing stock of the entire campus. That's the kind of place it was. The girls would tease, and the boys made snide remarks along the lines of 'At least you know what colour she really is.' It was a whole new world to me, I was quite innocent to such things and so wounded by the fact that people could be so rude about such an insignificant thing.
One summer day some people came to shoot a commercial at the school, all the pretty girls lined up first, desperate to be in on the action. Amid the fuss, someone asked if there was a girl with red hair. One of the teachers, unaware of my unpopularity, called me forward. There were shrieks of laughter from the other girls. A lady came toward me and exclaimed, 'For heavens sake, you're so pale, and look at all those freckles. God! You haven't even got foundation on!' I tried to explain that it was always like that, red-headed people had freckles. 'Not on TV they don't', she told me, all the time patting my face with something powdery. I left that place the next week.
There was a girl at the next school, she was tiny and wore boots that looked like they weighed twice as much as her. She was beautiful, she always reminded me of someone, but I never could think who. She had blond hair, but always told me how she wanted to dye it really orange, not natural looking red like mine, but stark, flaming orange. One day she did it and when I saw it I knew – Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element – that's who I loved.
We went to the school ball together. The next week when we went back to classes, a board had been stuck on the wall with photos from the event. Someone had taken a piece of paper and a black marker and drawn a big arrow pointing to a picture in the middle of the board with the words 'Red-headed lesbo porn' above it. It was a picture of me and her kissing. I still have it in my year-book.
It was with the advent of the World Wide Web that I discovered that actually some people do love red hair, a lot. There are whole fetish sites dedicated to just that. What an odd concept I thought, it seemed odder than shoes or even horses, perhaps because it was such an integral part of me. Now, the feminists will probably get very angry with me for saying such a thing – but if I admit the truth I like the idea of being an object. At least in a sense such as that, that someone out there would love something about me that was just a plain and simple part of my life is kind of a cool thought.
The one that I am with now thinks somewhat along those lines, he finds it both erotic and exotic, perhaps it's just because he's from Bulgaria and there are no red-headed girls there, except for in the movies. But more and more, as I grow up, I find that it defines me in some small way, it's a natural thing that sometimes sets me apart, but puts me together with others who have been set apart for the same reason. All people have something like that, it could be your accent in a foreign county, a birthmark or a mole, your nose or your sixth toe – something that is just you, yet crops up at the strangest times to leave permanent marks on your memory. And you grow to love it, never mind the teasing or the admiration, it just is.