Why is it important to understand our own bullying in order to move on from the past? Bullied for my redhead and how I came to terms with it
I've talked to a lot of people who experienced bullying growing up as a redhead. It happens a lot. I was not immune to that, though there were several other layers of cruelty to my bullying, from religion to have moved more than 5 times in my lifetime.
I'm pretty sure almost anyone I were to meet on the street would be able to give me a near textbook definition of racism. Many would even be able to define the differences between bigotry and prejudice. But how many people do you think anyone could meet on a daily basis who would know that the word "gingerism" is a form of hate speech? Did you know some redheads have been not only brutally beaten, but some even killed, just because they have glorious red hair?
Redheads don't have the option of being an introvert. To some degree, certainly, but every time a person with the hair of the sun walks into a well-lit room, every eye will be on that poor soul, whether they like it or not.
How bullying about my red hair started
I grew up being bullied. When I was only 7 my own grandmother told me that it looked like a cow had farted into my face. She wasn't fond of my freckles. While that may seem funny on the surface, it was absolutely devastating to a 7-year-old little girl who already believed herself to be unattractive, and who idolized people like Judy Garland. I so desperately wanted to be pretty. Sadly, at a young age, I had already accepted that it would never happen to me.
At 8 my mother said I'd entered an "awkward" stage, telling me that she hoped someday that I would grow out of my ugly. It was "just a phase," she said. My already struggling self-esteem was finally non-existent. "It's a shame you look so much like your Aunt Debbie because she's just not very attractive." She was a redhead also, and the only other redhead in the family.
I don't remember what age I was when my mother told me that I could easily have been swapped in the hospital for another child, but I was probably somewhere around 9 years old. She was pretty sure I was hers because I had my father's funny looking ears. I guess there were two baby girls who had lost their bracelets in the hospital and we were both taken to my mother for inspection. They apologized and informed her that they had no idea which baby was hers and hoped she could tell them. That's probably not something a young child needs to know about. In fact, I probably could have lived my entire life without that bit of information.
At 10 years old I often sat alone on the playground, making swirling patterns in the dirt with my pointer finger. If I tried to play on the swings or slide, I'd get pushed off, sometimes at a fair height. If I tried the monkey bars, some mean-spirited child would poke their elbows or fists into my ribs until I fell. Often I ended up with playground sand in my mouth - either from the fall or from the other children kicking it into my face.
I clearly remember one day I went crying to my mother in tears, telling her how a boy at school had been throwing things at me on the playground when I was simply minding my own business. When she asked what he was throwing, I told her it was grass for my "carrot top" since carrots had green on top. She told me not to worry, once he got to know me, he'd throw rocks. She laughed pretty hard at her joke. I wailed so loud the neighbors heard my sobs.
By the age of 13 things had progressed to having a girl several years older and an entire foot taller than I was trying to shove me into my own locker that was, I'll admit, too narrow for my skull. Upon failing, she attempted to fit me inside of a standing soda vending machine, which promptly cracked and broke. Her excuse was that she'd heard I was responsible for rumors about her cousin, which of course wasn't true. Until then I wasn't even aware of who her cousin might be. It turned out her cousin was one of my closest (and very limited number of ) friends, until then.
Bullying for my red hair just got worse as a teenager
By 14 things escalated again and a girl, whom I had for quite some time called a friend, decided I was out to "steal her man" because her boyfriend happened to like red hair. She pulled a knife on me in an empty hallway and it was all I could do to not show fear. I'd been bullied so much. I'd gotten used to it. I just wasn't used to the other kids having actual weapons. She slashed at me, I dodged, and that was that. But she did threaten to cut my hair off.
At 16 the bullying shifted back to the parents. I'd started to make friends at school, though I'll admit they probably weren't the greatest of influence on me. I started to skip classes. My parents took me out of my school and enrolled me in the local "Troubled Kids" school instead.
Suddenly I was surrounded by kids twice my size, often several times older, and most of them affiliated with gangs, covered in tattoos and selling drugs in the schoolyard. It's actually quite a miracle I didn't end up addicted to drugs in a desperate attempt to fit in, while the girls in school mockingly called me "Miss America" because of my unusual walk. Oh, how desperately I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. I wanted to be anyone but me.
One day my mother pulled me aside and told me that she'd never liked my hair color, and called it a "mouse gray" color. You see, I wasn't quite the vibrant red color that the rare few have. Mine only looked red in the sunshine, and artificial light almost always washes out the lovely red color of most things. It's why you can't put a candy apple red car into a garage and have it look half as pretty as it does on the street. Sunlight is the secret.
But that day, my mother decided she would bleach my hair blonde. Her first attempt turned my hair a bright neon carrot orange color and she went racing to the store for more bleach and dye while I stood staring into the mirror at the monster she'd created.
My mother had 'always wanted a pretty daughter' she said. I stood there looking at my moody gray-blue eyes, blonde eyelashes, crooked teeth, prominent freckles and, now, neon orange "Leeloo" hair. I wanted to cry, but instead, I realized that I would likely always be that ugly girl and that I needed to focus more on who I was inside. I needed to care less about my outward appearance, or I'd never be happy in life. By the time my mother returned, I was resolved to be whatever it was she wanted me to be. And, for that day, she wanted me to be her blonde daughter.
My hair came out the color and consistency of straw, but my mother absolutely loved it. She said that it made my freckles pop out more (which I saw as anything but a good thing) and that I looked so much prettier with blonde hair. Maybe, she interjected, I'd actually have friends now.
She took me to the military base not long after that and saw a sign about a back to school fashion show that would be taking place at the local on-base store. She grabbed me by the arm and dragged me through the store that day until she found the person in charge of the fashion show, and she offered me, her little blonde daughter, as a model.
I saw the other kids - the short, round, adorable rascals who had worse self-esteem than I did if that was possible. I knew I'd fit right in with them, and of course, I did. But it lit a fire under me that day. I thought that if I could simply bleach my hair blonde to be accepted by my own mother, surely if I changed other things about myself, I could be accepted by more people in my life. It was one of the most brutal and unrealistic life lessons I've ever had to UNlearn.
Bullying for being a redhead greatly affected who I was as a teenager and young adult
I tried my hand at being 'me' over and over, but I was so lost in the world of bullying, not knowing who I was, not understanding why people didn't like me and not realizing that I shouldn't care. I became the shape-shifter. I would alter myself to fit whatever anyone else thought I should or could be. Time and again, I would be told by some boy I'd been dating that I was 'the perfect woman' because we had all the same taste in everything.
Time and again, I would have my internal monologue, reminding myself that I needed to continue listening to their kind of music and enjoying their hobbies if I wanted them to continue liking me. It was exactly what my mother had taught me to do. My hair was blonde for years until I finally just got tired of it and let it grow without my doing anything to it.
I went on a little-known show called "Extreme Makeover" in December 2003, where they cut my long hair, dyed it a dark chocolate brown color, set me in high heels and a ball gown, and called it a day. I was a Mini-Makeover.
My episode aired on March 17, 2004. That's right, when my episode was on TV, the majority of the nation was out celebrating St. Patrick's Day. Nobody even saw the show. I felt pretty, but that feeling was quite fleeting. I still wasn't me. I was an Audrey Hepburn Wannabe, which worked for the time being since she was my role model throughout my teens and early 20s. She was always just as self-conscious as I was.
A few short months later, my grandmother died, followed quickly by my grandfather. At the funerals, I had an all-out verbal battle with my father over his not being there for me, and I told my mother that she was too negative toward me and she needed to stop bullying me. (I hadn't seen her in years and the first thing she said was that my hair was too dark.) I'd finally stood up for myself as an adult. That small, seemingly insignificant act of defiance and pride set something loose inside me.
Moving on with my life after bullying for my red hair
When I got back from the funerals, it was less than 2 weeks later and I moved, cut all my mid-back length brown hair off, bleached it out and dyed it bright neon red, and married a man I hardly knew. It took me 24 years to finally turn into that rebellious teen. Of course, the marriage didn't last, but the short red hair did. I kept it short and neon red for nearly a decade. It landed me unusual opportunities like a featured spot on the TV show Alias, another on Will and Grace, and eventually a modeling gig for Harley Davidson. But, to be honest, I still wasn't quite me. I still didn't know who I was, I'd just built a different personality was all. I needed to dig more into what made me who I was and truly discover who I wanted to be.
Understanding how I was bullied for being a Redhead will be continued on IrishCentral.com over the coming week. Make sure to sign up for our newsletter to read the rest of the series.
If you have been affected by anything in this article, you can find assistance at https://www.stopbullying.gov
Amanda Blackwood is the founder of Redheads Unite! and author of "Detailed Pieces of a Shattered Dream: The true story of one kidnap victim's run for her life." The book is now available in paperback and Kindle. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Redheads Unite at www.redheadsunite.org. Follow Amanda Blackwood on Facebook. On 22 Feb, 2018, Amanda will be a guest speaker on bullying at Dungeons and Drafts in Fort Collins, CO.
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