Forget the bullies, now it's chic to be ginger
Jessica Chastain reveals the abuse she suffered for her hair colour, writes Chrissie Russell
As Jessica Chastain sashayed down the red carpet in eye-popping Alexander McQueen crimson at the SAG awards, it was no wonder she was smiling.
Dripping in diamonds, a figure to die for and a wave of uber-glam, rich, red hair falling over her shoulder – one male interviewer compared her to cartoon sexpot Jessica Rabbit.
Certainly none of the fawning press or many photographers falling over themselves to take her picture were shouting: "Oi! Ginger!" – unlike her childhood, when the Zero Dark Thirty star was routinely mocked for her hair colour.
"I got teased a lot when I was a little kid," she has revealed. "Bullied for being a redhead. When you become an adult, that stops."
Interestingly, while the schoolyard bullying stopped, the anti-ginger sentiment did not, and on entering the acting world, Chastain had to fight to stay ginger after being warned writers don't script for redhead leading ladies.
"Someone suggested I go blonde, and I really thought about it, but in LA one constantly finds oneself in rooms with only blondes."
The auburn actress is far from alone in coming under fire for her flaming locks.
Irish telly host Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh has told of the childhood ribbing she endured over her copper tresses, saying: "As a redhead, I got teased growing up and I would have loved a tan."
Last year, English supermodel Lily Cole revealed she'd been bullied so much at school that she started to automatically assume people wouldn't like her because of her fiery hair.
"There isn't the stigma around it in the way there is, quite rightly, about racism," she said.
"Any form of bullying should be stamped on."
Cole's parallel between racism and anti-ginger prejudice will ring true for the many real-life victims of abuse.
Playground taunts of 'ginger minger' or 'carrot-top' can be cruel enough – but in some instances, redhead hating has taken a more sinister tone.
'Kick a Ginger' and 'Slap a Ginger' days have occurred in the UK and Canada, organised over social networking platforms.
In 2007, a family of redheads in Newcastle were forced to move home five times after enduring sustained abuse over their hair colour.
In 2008, a British schoolboy, who had been bullied for his orange hair, hanged himself.
Last year in the UK, there were two separate, vicious attacks on men provoked because the assailants took exception to their hair colour.
Other evidence exists to suggest widespread, ingrained prejudice against redheads. In the UK, the Centre for Equality Policy Research last year found that a job applicant with ginger hair is seven times more likely to be rejected than a dark-haired applicant, and eight times more likely than a fair-haired applicant.
According to researchers, we've been taught to avoid stereotyping on grounds of gender or race but the deep cultural signals attached to red hair – like perceiving redhead women as being wild and quick tempered, or ginger haired men as unattractive and geeky – have been allowed to persist.
Anti-ginger sentiment can be traced back thousands of years. In Ancient Egypt, the redhaired god Set was associated with natural disasters, and in Ancient Greece, redheads were labelled "emotionally unhousebroken" by philosopher Aristotle.
Throughout the ages, ginger hair has been associated with devilment, witchery and vampiric tendencies.
In the 19th Century, gingerism was equated with anti-Irish sentiment when Irish immigrants were generally regarded by many as ethnically inferior.
The obvious reason redheads are singled out is because they are a minority. Globally, just 1pc-2pc of people have ginger hair. Even in Ireland, where it occurs more frequently, just 10pc of us are redheads.
Jim Harding, director of anti-bullying service Bully 4u (bully4u.ie) frequently comes into contact with young people teased for being ginger.
"Being a redhead always crops up," he says. "But whether it's hair colour, an unusual hobby, being disabled or race, bullies are very cruel and will try to latch on to anything that makes someone different."
What is important, he says, is that the victim doesn't let the bully make them feel they have no right to be themselves.
He says: "Our attitude is all about empowering. If someone is harassing you about being ginger, tell them to stop.
"If they don't, it's bullying and should be reported to a teacher and dealt with. Any form of bullying isn't to be tolerated and calling someone ginger all the time just isn't acceptable."
Certainly it's something that seems to be being taken more seriously. GAA boss Liam O'Neill sent out a strong message last year when he said he wouldn't tolerate gingerism on the pitch.
"People's hair colour is a source of abuse in society," he said. "Whether it's physical size, shape of features on their face or on their body, anything that offends is insulting and I want to clear our game of them if I can."
There's also been a growing trend towards ginger pride, fuelled in part by the abundance of celebrity redheads such as Florence Welch, Damian Lewis and Christina Hendricks.
The Irish Redhead Convention, which sees hundreds of flame-haired folk from across Ireland unite for a day of ginger-loving events in Crosshaven, Co Cork, is a flagship event for The Gathering this August.
"The feedback I'm getting is that attitudes are changing," says organiser Joleen Cronin. "We're celebrating our uniqueness."