December 24, 2004

Whatever happened to redheads?

A reader writes:

I'm a redhead and always get discouraged from keeping my natural hair color when I constantly hear "blondes vs. brunettes". It makes me feel invisible and I question if men just aren't attracted to redheaded women. After reading your article though it seems that blondes and redheads are clumped into the same category? I was wondering why that is?

Good question. I just watched Rosanna Arquette's meandering documentary "Searching for Debra Winger," in which aging Hollywood actresses kvetch about how they don't get any good roles after they hit 40 (The title comes from Debra Winger, a big star in her late twenties with "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Terms of Endearment," who walked away from The Industry just before her 40th birthday.). The movie could have been called "29 Blondes and Whoopi Goldberg."

Yet, redheads were a very big deal in American popular culture (songs, movies, television -- Lucille Ball never made it big until she dyed her hair red) for much of the 20th Century and then something happened, maybe in the 1960s.

Perhaps it had something to do with Americans paying more attention to racial minorities. Just as the differences between Irish vs. Italians seemed less important after the rise of interest in the 1960s in blacks made black vs. white seem ever so more important than Irish vs. Italians, then differences in hair color among whites might have seemed less important. So, blondes simply became a general symbol for the kind of hair colors that whites can have naturally, but other groups can't.

Or maybe it had something to do with the fad in the 1960s and 1970s for women to get tanned. Since blondes can tan and redheads can't (to generalize wildly), blondes were more fashionable in that era than redheads. We've gotten over that fad for tanning, but for some reason, the emphasis on redheads never returned, even though a lot of leading actresses are redheads today (due to Hollywood's strong desire for leading ladies to be fairer skinned than their leading men).

By the way, when Arquette hunts down Debra Winger in what looks like her plush retirement, she's wearing her hair bright red, and it looks great.

Despite the paucity of starring roles for actresses over 40, all the ladies in the documentary seemed to be still living in the lap of luxury. These days, it doesn't seem like many ex-stars are hurting financially. A big reason is that the LA real estate market has been booming for most of the last 29 years, so even if you blow all your ready cash, you still have the house in Beverly Hills that's worth $4 million dollars more than you paid for it. So, you can move to a $2 million dollar house in Santa Monica, then sell that when it goes to $4 million, and so on.

Also, if you are a leading lady, you can marry a rich man. So, I'm not shedding too many tears for the 29 blondes.

Regarding the natural history of redheads, they appear as far away as the Middle East and the Canary Islands, but the farther west you go in Northern Europe, the more common they are. Western Ireland has a remarkable number -- I'd guesstimate 30% are redheads in County Kerry on the Atlantic. In contrast, blondes get more common as you go north in Europe (typically, golden blondes in the west, ash blondes in the east).

My theory is that both redheads and blondes are sexually selected for in women because they are more noticeable, which women generally want to be. Blonde hair reflects the most light and red hair is the most eye-catching of colors.

However, there are downsides to both. Redheads seem to be associated with very low melanin skin, which can cause big problems when the sun is bright. Redheads get more common the farther out in the Atlantic you go because the skies are more overcast, so the chance of a bad sunburn is less. In contrast, blondes tend to tan better, so they are more common more inland where the weather is less misty. On the other hand, while highly reflective hair makes blonde women hard to ignore, it can be work against blonde men who are hunters or warriors by making them visible from a long way off. (You used to be able to spot the formerly ultra-blond golfer Greg Norman from an enormous distance off at tournaments from the sun glinting off his hair.) So, blonde hair isn't very common where the sun is high in the sky because blonde men then tend to lose the element of surprise.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

I've seen a map of the distribution of blonde hair in Europe, but I've never seen a map of the distribution of red hair in Europe. Does one exist?

Anonymous said...

Why is blonde hair more golden in western Europe and more ash blonde in eastern Europe? Was it sexual selection or the environment?