Not so simply red

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Simply Red lead singer’s admission that he slept with thousands of women shatters one longstanding ginger stereotype, but discrimination against redheads goes way back.

10 December 2010

“A red-headed man,” Simply Red’s lead singer Mick Hucknall told the Guardian last week, “is not generally considered to be a sexual icon.” But he admits to bedding severalwomen  a day during a three-year, well, purple patch between 1985 and 1987.

Married now with a young daughter, the 50-year-old singer is doing some soul searching, and perhaps a bit of guilt purging while he’s at it.  He regrets the philandering and admits to getting caught up in the pop-star lifestyle.

“When I had the fame, it went crazy,” he said. “I was living the dream and my only regret is that I hurt some really good girls.”

Hucknall describes his sexual adventures as an addiction, a surrogate for the love of his mother who abandoned him at a young age. But the story here is not the middle-aged fading pop singer who gets the girls – truck loads of them – but that the oft-maligned gingers of this world really are something special.

Hucknall’s revelation has inspired me to follow up a story idea I had about what it means to be a redhead. Red hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. According to our friend Wikipedia, it is associated with fair skin, lighter eye colour and sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Cultural and societal reactions to the simple fact of having red hair range from ridicule to admiration.

Different is as different does

Delving a little deeper, I confirmed my suspicion that gingers really are super-human – though not in a red-cape kind of way. They apparently have different tolerance and sensitivity to pain than the rest of us mere mortals.

Research suggests that while people with red hair are more sensitive to thermal pain – something to do with lower levels of vitamin K – they are less sensitive to pain coming from multiple modalities, including “noxious stimuli such as electrically induced pain”. It has also been found that people with red hair respond to anesthetic and analgesics differently.

[Can you picture a battery of redheads hooked up to the mains for a series of lab tests  followed by hits of morphine? No. Okay, just me then.]

The scientists put this unexpected relationship between hair colour and pain tolerance down to a genetic mutation in a hormone receptor that responds to melanocyte-stimulating hormone (the skin pigmentation hormone) and endorphins (pain-relieving hormone), and possibly others. This doesn’t mean redheads are mutants. We all have mutations (genetic or other) which give us our physical characteristics, like curly hair. [Mick Hucknall got the double-whammy mutation of red, curly hair.]

The number of talented ginger sportsmen and women belies the total number of redheads in the world – estimated at 1-2 % but as high as 6% in northern and western European populations. What separates the top 10 from the many others trying to make it in top-level sports is not necessarily raw talent. It boils down to mental strength and physical endurance or the ability to fight through pain and recover fast.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but the super-human pain tolerance trick could be useful in today’s physically demanding sports regimes [I’d be happy for the more scientific readers out there to blow this out of the water].

Fascination and prejudice

Red hair has had it’s good and bad times in history. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it was quite fashionable and regal to be a redhead. Many painters have depicted their red-headed women as alluring subjects in the vein of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Titian’s red ladies, which were so prevalent the term titian stuck for redheads.

But the redheaded were less favoured by history.  In the Middle Ages, red hair was thought to be a mark of what’s been described as beastly sexual desire and of unearthly beings. The Brothers Grimm speak of a savage red-haired man in Der Eisenhans, while other fables and stories attribute red and green eyes to be the mark of a witch, werewolf or vampire.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift paints the redhead in Hucknallesque terms: “It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.”

Even today, you’ll hear a comment or aspersion almost every day in the media, with terms like ‘ginge’ and carrot-top aimed squarely at the hapless redhead. It’s like a long-running joke perhaps going all the way back to English resentment of the Celts (red hair is more prevalent in Ireland and Scotland) following centuries of independence battles. Again, this is all pure speculation.

It seems even with modern science on their side, the myths, lies and prejudices directed at redheads will not go away. Any wonder they’ve got such fiery tempers!

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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