Are people with red hair — gingers, redheads, individuals of unusual rufosity, whatever you want to call them — less attractive than people with other hair colors? That is certainly what received wisdom tells us. Alongside the impression that they have fiery tempers, unquenchable libidos, and cold, clammy hands (OK, I made that last one up), one of the most common bits of folk wisdom about redheads is that they are just not that cute.
Color of my love
In 2012, the journal Psychological Studies published a study that created quite a stir on this topic, and was widely reported as "bad news for redheads."
Researcher Nicolas Guéguen examined how hair color alone could influence a person's chances of scoring at a nightclub. He had women dress up in differently-colored wigs, and measured how often they were approached by men. Similarly, they had men wearing differently-colored wigs approach various women over the course of the evening, and measured how often their advances were accepted or rebuffed.
By using the same set of men and women, and changing only the apparent color of their hair, this experiment was able to separate the influence of hair color itself from other features of physical attractiveness, such as facial features, skin tone, height, and body proportions.
Just as you might expect, based on common folk-wisdom and stereotypes, women were approached most often when wearing a blonde wig and men were rejected the most often when wearing a ginger wig. The news looks pretty bad for ginger men.
Or does it? Studies have shown time and again that facial symmetry, height, and body proportions matter the most to people's immediate assessments of physical attractiveness. These are also features that are more intrinsic and harder to change or hide than hair color. If the only thing that people are responding to is the hair color itself, this may actually be good news for redheads. It means that the only thing that "turns people off" is something that's fairly easy to change.
Unfortunately, this also helps to perpetuate the stereotype that redheads are intrinsically less attractive. When so many ginger celebrities actively cover it up by coloring their hair, it only makes it more difficult for people to think of "hot gingers."
This reassures people in their belief that redheads are "usually not hot," simply because they don't know how many hot people out there really are redheads.
What about the freckles?
At this time, there isn't any evidence to suggest that gingers are less likely to have those traits that are considered "generically attractive" by the majority of the population, such as high cheekbones, symmetrical faces, and well-proportioned bodies. However, they are much more prone to having freckled skin.
Skin tone is another one of those well-studied features that has been shown to consistently have an impact on people's assessment of physical beauty: Those with clear, evenly-colored skin are widely regarded as being more attractive than people with patchy, blotchy, or freckled skin.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when looking at professional photos of redheaded models and celebrities. Even those "hot redheads" that flaunt the redness of their hair usually are made-up on magazine covers to have almost unnaturally even skin tones.
Moreover, there is a reasonable theory to explain why the bias against freckles might be more than just a cultural prejudice. Not to be too blunt about it, but freckles are cancer factories.
Let's be clear, before the hate mail starts pouring in. Some people find freckles very attractive, and that is fantastic. Not all freckles automatically lead to cancer, either. But the type of melanin that causes freckles can increase the skin's sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation and make skin more prone to getting cancer.
They therefore can serve as a quite real biological "warning sign."
In the northern latitudes, this isn't as much of a problem as when you get closer to the equator. In fact, although the gene patterns that are associated with having red hair are present in both northern and southern areas of Europe, there are many more actual redheads in the north.
Part of the reason for this is that in the south, the "redhead genes" are mixed in with more dominant genes for darker skin, so the genes that produce ginger hair do not have an opportunity to express themselves and be visible.
So there may be an evolved, adaptive response to be less attracted to people with freckles, on the grounds that they are more likely to develop skin cancer. This could also explain why celebrity redheads tend to have their freckles airbrushed away to make them look more appealing.
However, it does not explain why there still remains such a strong bias against gingers — freckled or not — especially in the northern latitudes where sun exposure is less of a problem.
Attractiveness and gene-mixing
It is also possible that both red hair and freckled skin are viewed as less attractive because they are both recessive traits. This means that the traits are easily covered up by the effects of other genes. For example, if you get genes for red hair from one parent but brown hair from another, you are likely to not have red hair yourself.
The same is true for the trademark pale, freckled skin of redheads: When mixed with the genetic codes for darker skin, the fact that the "freckles gene" is present in a person may never actually become visible.
This could be related to attractiveness because there is an evolutionary benefit to mixing genes from different groups. When a person's heritage is very mixed, there is less of a chance that a harmful recessive gene will have an opportunity to express itself.
Charles Darwin proposed this idea, calling it "heterosis:" The theory that cross-breeding across populations would lead to children that are genetically stronger than their parents.
Consistent with this theory, Dr. Michael Lewis discovered in a study that was published in 2010 that people will rate photos of individuals with mixed-ethnicity backgrounds as "very attractive" 55 percent more often than people from a single ethnic background.
What does this mean for gingers? It could be that having red hair serves as a biological cue for a lack of genetic mixing, which we have evolved to be biased against. But once again this biological theory must be interpreted with caution.
This doesn't mean that all redheads are inherently unlucky genetically and must be unattractive. But it does mean that attractive redheads are likely to have had a little more genetic mixing in their past than others.
All of these discussions of hair color, genetics, and attractiveness really don't address the bigger issue of prejudice, however. No matter how many good, sound theories there may be pertaining to the biology of attraction, and how or why it may be biased against people with red hair, it does not change the fact that biology cannot explain the insults, the taunts, and the hate crimes that gingers have to put up with their entire lives.
It also doesn't explain that gigantic influence that culture has, both positively and negatively, in the perception of redheads. Anti-redhead bias is dramatically more prominent in the United Kingdom, for example, than in the United States — with no really solid explanation apart from ingrained cultural prejudice.
Moreover, it is fairly trendy for actresses — usually those who are already considered popular and beautiful — to take on a redheaded look in order to be daring, edgy and fashionable. Julia Roberts, Rose McGowan, Cynthia Nixon, and Debra Messing are some memorable examples of celebrities that made red hair look exceptionally good.
So the scientific answer to the question "is there a basis for the stereotype that redheads are unattractive" is what someone might expect, if he is familiar with science. That answer is: Eh, kind of, but not really.
Studies show that on average, people may be less likely to make a move on a redheaded girl or accept the advances of a redheaded guy. On the other hand, as long as you don't have prominent freckles, many gingers can pass as blondes or brunettes, showing that the difference is purely superficial.
Moreover, if you are already hot, you can get away with dying your hair red and it's seen as "trendy" rather than unattractive.
And while there may be a plausible evolutionary explanation for a minor anti-ginger bias, especially in southern latitudes, true "ginger haters" will have to look somewhere else for an excuse for their bad attitudes.
More from The Kernel...
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- An open letter to #brands about Gamergate
- Why is the Pentagon stuffing caves in Norway full of tanks?
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- What the Middle Ages can tell us about the GOP's big charity myth
- Gamergate has backfired spectacularly on its nincompoop perpetrators
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- 10 soldiers welcomed home by very happy dogs
Subscribe to the Week