By ITV News Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian
Stacy Weeks was in the final year of primary school when she was again on the run from bullies making fun of her red hair.
Chased out of the playground, she was holding her lunch box in one hand when two boys and one girl pinned her down on a grass bank.
Its contents spilled out and one of the boys began unwrapping leftover tin foil and shoving it into Stacy’s mouth – in full view of a crowd of her classmates.
A substitute teacher was quick to break it up this time, but the damage of the past few years would have a huge toll on Stacy.
“I hated my hair with a complete passion, it wasn’t really the colour I liked because of what I went through as a kid,” Stacy, now 43, told ITV News.
Growing up in Cornwall, she was regularly called “kipper”, “jinx”, or “ugly” and also teased for her maiden name, Herring. It got so bad that sometimes she hid in the toilets, only for some children to throw wet paper towels over the cubicle door.
“All my mum’s friends would say it’s so beautiful and my hairdresser would say people pay for this colour. The bullying may have stopped, but it always stuck with me,” she added.
She dyed her hair blonde in her early 20s, three years after her proud redhead grandfather passed away, and said she felt more attractive.
It wasn’t until 2016 when Stacy, who now runs a successful pilates and wellness clinic called Red Yew Studio, finally reverted to her natural colour at the age of 38.
“At school, it was always blondes and brunettes that got chosen for roles in any plays, you didn’t feel massively attractive,” she said.
“Now I love it, it’s quite a cool colour. I literally get stopped in shops for people saying my hair looks amazing.”
Stacy’s experiences at school are far from unique. CEO of anti-bullying charity Kidscape, Lauren Seager-Smith, told ITV News bullying is "often targeted at people who are perceived as different", which is why she has supported Redhead Day UK - an initiative bringing red-haired people together - for several years.
Around 15 years ago, there was even the emergence of ‘Kick a Ginger Day’, a fictional event in the US satirical cartoon South Park that was subsequently linked to a spate of school bullying.
In more serious cases, abuse can be threatening enough to warrant a call to police.
According to figures obtained by ITV News from a third of police forces in England and Wales, officers were called to 230 incidents in which the victim was allegedly targeted for their red hair in 2021 up to November 15.
This means that a report was made to police over concerns for the safety of a person with red hair roughly every day-and-a-half on average last year, though the true figure is likely far higher.
It’s this kind of discrimination that led 41-year-old tech entrepreneur Marc Crouch to create a safe space for redheads like himself, The Two Percent – a nod to the estimated ginger proportion of the world’s population.
What began as a dating site called ‘Hot for Ginger’ in 2010 turned into a thriving community by 2018, with more than 11,000 members on Facebook, regular events and plans for a new, revamped website in 2022.
It started to take off with the Kick-a-Ginger-Day-inspired ‘Kiss a Ginger Day’, which is marked on January 12 every year since 2009.
“Back in 2015, the Kiss a Ginger Day thing kind of exploded, and suddenly it was picked up and we got a million people visiting our page on one day,” Marc said of the dating site.
“So we thought, let’s host a party. And we booked a pub in central London for 100 people – 350 turned up. We had to turn people away at the door.
“We did Kiss a Ginger Day parties every single year. And then three years ago it began to take a bit of a turn, it started to become a licence for people to come and pick up redheads, so we noticed there was a shift happening.”
The group is a “celebration of how beautiful redheads can be”, where practical advice is often exchanged from how to handle bullies at school to the best hair and skin products.
Marc himself has spoken to young redhead boys about their experiences at school, having been the target of sometimes-vicious bullying.
“I had rocks thrown at me, my head shoved down a toilet, I was shot with an air rifle,” he said.
“Boys get it worse than girls for sure. Being a redheaded boy is harder than being a girl unless you’re good looking. Although, our main administrator [for The Two Percent] has stories of people trying to set her hair on fire.”
While the bullying dies down as you grow up, Marc says, he still has a slight scar on his forehead from the night just a few years ago when he was punched at a corporate cocktail party by a man who shouted that gingers are “unaborted children".
His attacker, who thought it was “just banter”, apologised afterwards but only for the punch, not for his so-called joke.
“He said ‘you need to have a better sense of humour’... that’s one of the biggest problems – people genuinely don’t think it’s a bad thing to make fun of redheads,” Marc said.
“That’s what always stands out for me, it’s not necessarily the abuse itself, but how acceptable it is to make fun of redheads."
Highlighting his point, he added: “Around 15 years ago, I was working in Covent Garden and I remember one guy I was working with had a redhead wife, and she was pregnant.
“We had this long window and we saw a red-haired woman with a red-haired baby, and someone said ‘aww that’s going to be your baby’, and then one of the guys said as an off-handed joke ‘if I had ginger baby I’d flush it down toilet.’
“And they all laughed. It’s like they didn’t notice I wouldn’t find that particularly nice. It didn’t register to them that it might be upsetting to me.”
Poking fun at redheads has been the source of controversy even in mainstream media.
As recently as 2018, an Australian brewery had an advert banned after urging customers to “stop the spread of the ginger gene” by looking for its hidden ginger ales.
Energy company Npower sparked outrage when it featured a red-haired family alongside the words ‘there are some things in life you can't choose’ in a 2000 advert.
The Advertising Standards Agency ruled that the 219 complaints received were not justified.
This tolerance is one of the priorities for groups like The Two Percent, which is planning an alternative to Kiss a Ginger Day.
“I think the original sentiment was good but it has shifted in a different direction. As it became mainstream people started to mock it, it’s a problematic term, ‘kiss a ginger’, for various reasons,” explained Marc.
“So we want more events that are more humanising. We want to focus on chipping away at the idea that making fun of redheads is acceptable.
“A lot of us are carrying a fair amount of trauma for having red hair so what you think of as an off-hand joke actually cuts quite deep.”
So, why are redheads targeted so much?
Dr Punit Shah, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Bath, says there is an “enduring social acceptability” around ginger abuse, which has a particularly pronounced effect in schools.
Humans are social creatures and like “similarity”, he said, adding this desire to “fit in” comes from evolution – it was an advantage to be in greater numbers.
“It’s a longstanding psychological phenomenon that people in a minority stand out, they are by definition different to the norm and that opens them up to being ‘othered’ by some of the majority,” he said.
“Children are very unfiltered creatures in a way. Whether it’s red hair or other aspects of diversity, children have a tendency to notice differences between people and singling people out about it.
“At the lower end of the spectrum it can result in asking questions, but of course with children it can turn into bullying.
“Mechanisms for why children can be like this are multifactorial. One of the characteristics is that they have been bullied themselves or been abused at home, so they turn that into bullying others at school.
“If they can get away with bullying redheaded kids, then that’s what they’ll do, whereas other forms of bullying they won’t get away with. That’s why I think bullying persists, because it is acceptable.”
Wilma MacDonald, from Edinburgh, agrees that many seem to “tolerate” the abuse of redheads.
“It’s taking the p***, you’re fair game because you’re a redhead. There are memes like ‘smack a ginger day’ and you think ‘what?’ Anything else would be unacceptable,” the 43-year-old said.
Having grown up in a small community on the Isle of Lewis, to the west of Scotland, the country believed to have the highest proportion of redheads in the world, Wilma says she wasn’t bullied but did face “general teasing.”
She shares her name with one of the main characters from popular cartoon, The Flinstones, who was famously red-haired. “The Flinstone reference annoyed me and still annoys me, that started quite young,” she said.
“I didn’t react to it. They knew it wasn’t something that bothered me too much.”
Like many others with ginger hair, Wilma noticed a change from general teasing to sexualisation – the most common refrain being some variation of: “Does the carpet match the drapes.”
That’s something Marc can also relate to, as he recalled the time he had to push a drunk woman off his lap after she tried to unzip his trousers to “find out.”
Wilma’s experiences have not been physical, but she has been subject to “creepy” comments from strange men.
“When I would get off the bus, men would say ‘does the collar match the cuffs’ and I’d say ‘you’ll never find out’,” she said.
“There have been men wanting to touch my hair, which is weird. I remember in one country they said I could make a lot of money because men like redheads.
“There was definitely a change from my teenage years onwards from teasing to creepy sexualising. I would definitely notice that change.”
This fetishisation is nowadays one of the more common issues reported by adult redheads and can be traced back hundreds of years.
Jacky Colliss Harvey, author of ‘Red: A History of the Redhead’ and herself a ginger, said: “There has been a very interesting gender divide between male and female.
“Between men it’s either that you’re some kind of barbarian, you’re totally uncouth and uncivilised, or because of the pale skin that goes with red hair, you are somehow effeminate.
“Whereas for women, it’s always had an association with sexiness and sensuality, and some hidden erotic power that was not available with people whose hair was not red.
“Artists absolutely loved depicting naked, beautiful women with red hair. I really think artists did a lot to perpetuate this myth.”
There were also times red hair was very much in style. “The perception of redheads has varied very widely from one country and one era to another,” Ms Harvey said.
“We were all the rage under Elizabeth I in England, for example. Under pre-Raphaelite artists [a group of mid-19th century English poets and artists], red hair became very fashionable.
“If you wanted to ally yourself with the bohemian elite then a red head was what you wanted.”
Many of Queen Elizabeth’s portraits show her with red hair, and it is even said she had her horses’ tails dyed to match.
But red hair was also a way of marking ‘the other’ in society, which is partly rooted in antisemitism, with ginger genetics being prevalent among Orthodox Jews.
The Irish and the Scots – historically two nations that were seen as enemies in England – have a higher proportion of redheads than elsewhere, which may have fostered discrimination.
Going back further in time, the Romans and the Greeks viewed the eastern-Europe dwelling Thracians as barbaric. According to ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, many Thracians had red hair.
Thracian children were sometimes sold, giving the real prospect that Greeks and Romans may have had red-headed slaves.
To further compound their lowly status within Ancient Greece, the clown or comedic figures in plays would often wear red wigs.
Some ideas, however, have persisted only in myth. For example, some internet theories allege redheads were singled out during witch-hunts in medieval England.
“It’s absolute and complete nonsense,” Ms Harvey said. “It came up so much and, well, you would think if this was a historical phenomenon you would find it somewhere other than the internet.
“It simply didn’t happen. In the witch trials, these are official documents, the details of the women on trial were given. And you could tell their ages were recorded and nearly all were elderly, mostly with grey hair, and most were on the margins of society.
“But it is true that red hair, because it’s rare, is a marker of difference and undoubtedly there was prejudice towards redheads throughout history. But it happened simply because as a species we tend to target anyone who’s not the same as us, unfortunately.”
The truth behind red hair all comes down to genetics.
In 2018, researchers at the University of Edinburgh examined DNA from almost 350,000 people who had taken part in a UK Biobank study.
When they compared redheads with people with brown or black hair, scientists identified eight previously-unknown genetic differences that are associated with ginger locks.
Previously, it was thought that red hair is controlled by a single gene known as MC1R, with versions of the gene having to be passed on from both the mother and the father.
However, not everyone carrying two red-haired versions is a redhead, meaning that other genes had to be involved.
It partly explains why Suzi Butcher, 50, grew up as the only redhead in her family.
Born in Australia to British parents, she said she was surrounded by mostly blonde and tanned girls, including her younger sister.
It could make her feel singled out – she was called “freckle fart face” by other children at school – but she believes the experience was “character forming.”
“The way I responded is I used to sit and read by myself, not playing with other people,” she said. “Somehow, I don’t know how it happened, I used to rehearse plays in playground and for school – it forced me to become a bit more creative.
“I worried about fitting in but you realise you had to be something a bit more, a bit different. You couldn’t get away with just being normal.”
She was finally joined by another redhead in school at age 10, but for much of her upbringing there were no “romantic heroines”, as she puts it, with red hair and freckles like her.
“So, you almost grew up thinking that to find love you had to have blond hair and blue eyes or be raven-haired with dark stormy eyes,” she said.
“I remember being so shocked when Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson, as I couldn't believe someone with red hair and freckles could be courted by a prince. I was 14.
“And we know how that ended up. This lack of romantic role model was another dent in the confidence of already-awkward teenagers like me.”
There are now more prominent people in public life with red hair – like Ed Sheeran, Prince Harry, Geri Halliwell and Rupert Grint, who played one half of a memorable romance in Harry Potter as Ron Weasley.
Red-headed Lily Cole has become a star name as a model over the past 15 years, and even she was teased with words like ‘carrot top’ at school.
But, like Suzi, she says she loves her hair nonetheless.
“My red has faded and my freckles have faded and now I have to pay for it to stay red, which seems almost unfair,” said Suzi.
“I still worry about kids growing up. It’s probably worse for them now, with social media and everything they are going to see all kinds of comments. It does get better, and I love my hair now.
“I just wish you didn’t have to go through all that as a kid to get to that point."