Should you dye your hair red?

Should you dye your hair red?

Photography by Jeff Coulson Image by: Photography by Jeff Coulson Author: Canadian Living


Should you dye your hair red?

The first time I hit the bottle, I was 17 and aiming for Nicole Kidman's coif in Moulin Rouge. My hair came out more eggplant than crimson, but I was thrilled to be attracting attention left and right. ­I even inspired men to break out in song. (Seriously.)

Since that first foray into the world of hair colour, I've been blond then red then blond again, and I've just recently returned to my red-haired roots—OK, not roots in the literal sense. I had no idea how much I'd missed the look and the automatic layer of mystery, individuality and edge—all words people have used to describe me as a redhead—it added to my perceived personality.

Hair colour, like any pillar of the beauty industry, can easily be written off as an antifeminist tool peddled by the media to keep women in the salon instead of out in the world. But Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest and assistant clinical professor at Harvard University, argues that methods of adornment have been around since the dawn of humankind, and we've always been prone to stereotyping according to appearance. "People don't want to admit it, but we are wired to judge a book by its cover," she noted at a recent seminar. "The initial perceptions of both beauty and personality are based on appearance and are unconscious and innate."

Hair psychology: Can red hair get you more attention?

To me, hair colour is one of the most immediate visual cues, and red tresses instantly trigger assumptions regarding personality. "There's a reason why a stop sign's red," says James Corbett, colour director at Clairol. "It's meant to veer out at you. If you're red, you're being noticed more." Aside from red's natural ability to stand out, strangers and passersby—even friends—make all kinds of cultural assumptions to the point of fetishizing the hue and deeming the person behind the hair wild, unique, confident and maybe even a little mystical thanks to the rarity of natural redheads and the history of
persecution against them.

It's not just red hair that incites stereotyping. According to my colourist, Tara Linley of Salon Escape in Toronto, most gentlemen still prefer blonds. "There's a small grouping of men that are obsessed with redheads, but blond is the colour that men and women find sexiest," she says.

It  can also translate to a lack of respect.

"I have several clients that have always been blond in high school and university, and then as soon as they start looking for jobs in the banking world or as lawyers, they ask me to tone down the blond or take it away completely because they want to be taken more seriously." Welcome to the realm of the brunette.

Of course, since we're able to book an appointment with a salon or play colourist over the bathroom sink on a whim, hair colour isn't an aspect of appearance that we're helpless to change. "We don't just depend, like animals do, on our biology or what we inherited," says Etcoff. "We use tools that we create to highlight, exaggerate or conceal features with the intent of creating impressions or gaining advantages."

First impressions count

Hair colour triggers judgments in everyone from the five-year-old who skips by on the street to the vendor handing off a hotdog. Can these first impressions be altered? Definitely. But that takes time, and, in a job interview, a quick cab ride or an online dating profile, that's exactly what we lack.

For some, this emphasis on appearance, even if it's just a starting point in social interaction, may seem shallow. As a theatrical person, it's empowering to note the changes I can inspire in people's reactions simply by dyeing my hair. I know when I walk down the street how people are going to judge me based on my looks. I can brighten my red and attract attention, or I can tone down the colour and blend in with the crowd. The same is true for my choice of makeup and clothing.

Not only do I know how the world will judge me, but I also know how different hues alter my mood and self-perception. "It's amazing what the psychology of hair colour can do for a person," says Corbett. "It can unlock whatever's inside that woman, her best self, and bring that out." After rocking a variety of hues, I can officially say that red's my key.

To help you keep your freshly dyed hair looking smooth, try our tips for frizz-free hair.
This story was originally titled "Big Red" in the January 2014 issue.
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Should you dye your hair red?