I was looking for a place to belong. Instead I found a weird, fetishistic group of strangers.
I was standing in a record-breaking crowd of 1,721 natural redheads, all dressed in various shades of blue, posing for a group photo in a large green field. We had all come together for a weekend-long international redhead festival held in the Netherlands. As photographers were hoisted up into the sky on large cranes, I looked around at the colors. I’d never been surrounded by so many people that resembled me.
From shades of deep burgundy to yellow-tinted gold, the entire spectrum was there. From burnt orange to an orange that resembled a pile of autumn leaves. Bright copper and ginger and strawberry blonde and auburn. There were babies with bright and pure curls, balding men with those telltale ginger bleach-blonde eyebrows, and older women whose once-flaming hair had grayed to a duller straw yellow kind of orange. So many different combinations. A bright, beautiful sea of red.
Still, I felt alone. Surprisingly alone.
I first found out about the strange gathering in college when a friend sent me an article about the festival, with the comment, “Look!! You can go be with your people.” After several years of wanting to attend I finally embarked on the trans-Atlantic journey.
As the only natural redhead in my entire family, I’ve often felt alone in the ways I experience the world. My sister has dark brown hair and tans easily, and unlike me, was never made fun of for being pale and pasty while we were growing up. As one of the few redheads in my high school, I frequently felt ostracized after being called names like “firecrotch” or being told, “redheads have no souls.” I’ve never quite fit in — not with my peers, groups of friends, or family.
My coppery red hair is not the hair of someone who goes quietly through life. I thought maybe I’d find someone who deeply understood me at the world’s largest gathering of redheads. I expected to find that feeling of belonging I so longed for. I hoped I’d finally feel at home in such a sizeable redhead community.
The first gathering of Redhead Days in the small Dutch town of Breda dates back to 2005, when the blonde painter Bart Rouwenhorst put an advertisement in the local newspaper asking for 15 natural redheaded women to model for him. Over 150 women responded to his ad. When I met Bart in Breda in 2015, he told me that he was initially inspired by artists such as Gustav Klimt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who famously painted red-haired women, and that he didn’t want to turn any of “these beautiful women” away. So he invited them all to participate in a lottery to decide which ones he would paint on his canvases.
The festival has reoccurred — and grown — nearly every year since its inception. Over 5,000 people from more than 80 countries attend each year, yet only about one-third of the attendees are genuine redheads. There are always far more “admirers” than actual redheads in attendance, which you might not notice until the evening events looking out at the heads in a crowd.
* * *
To get to Breda, I first had to fly to Amsterdam, and then catch an hour-long train down to the southernmost part of the country, near where the Netherlands borders Belgium. On the train, I began looking for signs of other redhead festivalgoers. I noticed a couple of redheads pass through the cabin on the way down. Too shy to ask them where they were headed, I kept to myself in my row.
When I arrived at my hotel there were a handful of gingers sitting in the lobby, all staring awkwardly at each other. It went unspoken, but we all knew we were in town for the same reason, as did the hotel staff. Still, it didn’t feel entirely okay to address one another. What if they spoke a different language? Or what if they really were just in town on this same weekend by coincidence?
That night, at the kickoff party, I met my first admirer. He had long, stringy brown hair and a full beard, wore a floppy brown hat and a shirt that read “I ♥ REDHEAD GIRLS.” We took a picture together. He gently kissed me on the hand. I indulged his curiosity and told him my name, where I was from, and then turned around to introduce myself to another red-haired stranger.
Men with every shade of hair color but red approached me with cameras, asking if they could take my picture. I saw that other redheads had posed for them, and wanted to surrender to the chaos of the crowd, so I did, albeit reluctantly. Even with my boyfriend accompanying me, I felt a strange sense of submissiveness to these men, where the only option felt like allowing them to capture me on film. I had come all this way to admire and appreciate other redheads’ appearances, and it felt wrong not to share mine with others.
The weekend was packed with a random assemblage of events, some having to do with red hair, and others nothing at all. There were more than half a dozen photographers set up beneath tents ready and willing to do individual photoshoots. There were speed-dating/speed-meeting sessions, fashion shows, a Mister Redhead pageant and a heel race, lectures on the history of red hair, and redhead-specific beauty product tutorials. In 2015, the theme was Vincent van Gogh, who was — you guessed it — also a natural redhead, so you could have your photo taken next to a vase filled with sunflowers, or pose in a face-cutout portrait of “Potato Eaters.” I did both.
Ever want to go on a pub crawl with a dozen other strangers with whom you have nothing in common but your red hair color? You can do just that at Redhead Days. Want to do yoga in a field surrounded by gingers? Or take a Latin dance class with fellow freckled companions? You could do those here, too.
Imagine the love child of a Renaissance Fair and a family reunion, and you’ll have some sense of what this bizarre festival is like. There’s a weird, deviant sexual vibe during the whole thing — like the kind I imagine teenagers experience at a sleep-away camp. Except here, it felt incestuous.
I’d made a deal with myself that I would try to go to every event on the schedule that weekend. I would push past my sometimes-crippling social anxiety in order to find the group — or person — who got me. It would be worth the temporary discomfort in the long run, I told myself.
The “meet and greet sessions” were basically just speed dating. I’ve never once been attracted to someone with red hair before, and hadn’t traveled nearly 4,000 miles to find romance with another redhead, but I went anyway, keeping the promise I had made to myself. There were Dutch board games and Dutch candies scattered across picnic tables in the town’s grassy park, put there to alleviate the awkward conversations had with strangers, I suppose. I sat down at an empty table and plopped a candy in my mouth — a hard licorice drop that I had expected to be a sweet candy.
Each session lasted five minutes. When they ended, the men would stand up and rotate to the next table. We all wore stickers with the flag and name of our home countries, and that became the easiest entry point of conversation. We compared freckles and degrees of paleness, pulling our sleeves up and holding our forearms against each other. For the first time, being the tannest was no longer a badge of honor. These people were competing for whose coloring was most ginger of them all.
“Are there a lot of other people with red hair there?” I asked an auburn-haired Nate from Israel, and then the strawberry-blonde Ika from Germany, and a freckled Anna from Finland. I couldn’t think of much else to ask these strangers. Most conversations felt dry and formulaic. I kept waiting for the attention to shift away from our appearance — our hair color and freckles, how good the color blue looked on us, and how much sunscreen we use in the summer — but it never did. I wanted to feel like I belonged here in this redhead family, with people who looked more like me than anyone in my own family, but all I felt was mildly bored.
Just as there had been at the opening ceremony, there were redhead admirers lurking in the meet and greet sessions. I met a man of Filipino descent, who had traveled with a few friends to Breda from a military base in Germany where he was stationed, just to “see what this was all about.” And then there was Tom from Texas, a big and beefy dude with dark buzzed hair.
“You traveled even further than me!” I said. “Is your girlfriend or wife a redhead?”
“I’m actually here by myself,” he said, his eyes locked on mine. “Hoping to meet someone.” I plopped another licorice candy in my mouth and politely smirked.
“If any love couples come from this, you can have a wedding here next year!” shouted one of the non-redheaded organizers.
The next day, on the way to where the group photo was being taken, I saw posters with an image of two red-haired cartoon characters, dressed in a wedding gown and tuxedo, kissing above the following message: “Wanted: Bridal Couple for Redhead Days 2016!” My new, fellow red-haired friends were as confused by the message as I was.
“You’re all very nice people,” said Sebastian, who I had incidentally met during a speed-dating session earlier that day. “But I don’t think the person I want to marry would be at a place like this.” Which I took as meaning: a redhead.
* * *
As the festival progressed, so did the seediness. On my way back to my hotel room on the first day, I noticed a suspicious-looking man with disheveled brown hair, a messy beard, and a backpack filled with camera equipment wandering the streets alone. When he approached me and asked if he could take my photo, I politely agreed. After he had taken a few shots, I asked him which newspaper he worked for. “Oh, these aren’t for a newspaper,” he said. “These are just for me.”
On the way to the group photo location, all the redheads had to wander through a park from the festival’s main meeting area through to a hilly area on the other side. As I walked down the paved path, lined with trees, I noticed the male photographers camped up in their branches. The men, with their cameras, acted like true paparazzi, trying to get the best shots of our red hair contrasted against the greens of the trees and grassy park we moved through. As we shuffled down the path, all I heard was click, click, click, click.
When I returned home, I plugged a photo I had of myself from the festival into Google and did a reverse image search. I didn’t find the exact images the bearded guy had taken of me, but I did find a few incredibly unflattering ones on Flickr that someone else had snapped unbeknownst to me.
In one photo, I’m wearing a blue shirt that hugs my breasts tightly, which reads “JUSTICE FOR GINGERS” in an orange font. I’m making a face that looks exactly like the look of judgment my mother gives, and I’m not sure if I’m more embarrassed by the photo’s existence or how much I resemble her.
* * *
I left Breda at the end of the three-day festival feeling like a piece of my identity puzzle was still missing. I didn’t find what I originally hoped to. I had gone to the festival wanting to belong, wanting to be seen and appreciated for who I was. Instead, I was only seen for what I was — a natural redhead — which was not a new experience for me.
I’d made dozens of new red-haired acquaintances, but their short presence in my life wasn’t exactly life changing. I didn’t get anybody’s phone numbers or emails. A few found me on Facebook, but we only touch base once a year, about a week before the festival to see who will be going again.
The closest thing I made to a “friend” at Redhead Days was a woman from Vienna named Tammi. Even though I also come from Austrian blood, my friendship with Tammi never really blossomed. On Facebook, we like each other’s photos and posts from a distance, though we don’t have much to talk about. I visited Vienna a couple months after drunkenly eating hamburgers with her after the redhead pub crawl, but put off making contact with her. When she saw the photos of me in her city I had later posted on Facebook, she reached out and said she was sorry she had missed my visit, and that she really would like to hang out the next time I was in town. Why didn’t I feel guiltier for avoiding her outside of Redhead Days? We were part of the same tribe by default, but how much meaning did that actually carry?
After leaving the enormous crowd of redheads, I was unsettled, with more questions and concerns than I had answers. I didn’t exactly feel like I was part of a new community, though I wonder if that’s because I wasn’t ready to be part of it yet. If I joined this redhead community, would I have to accept the rampant sexual objectification of redheads? It seemed so. Did I really have more in common with the British chick that pissed herself during the pub crawl than I did with my own brunette sister? Maybe. Was I going to find the answers to big life questions during those two days at a bizarre redhead festival in a country where I didn’t speak the language? Probably not.
I had wanted to discover a deep connection with other people who looked like me, who moved through life and crowds with a spotlight on them just as I did, who didn’t fit in with their childhood friends or families because of their bold appearance. While some of our narratives were similar — most of us experienced bullying as a child and now are desired for our unique looks — I didn’t belong with these people. We were from different countries, spoke different languages, felt different ways about our red hair. We might have all shared the same genetic mutation that causes red hair, but that didn’t mean we had much else in common.
I’ve spent much of my adult life testing out different friends, looks, jobs, and interests all in an attempt to find where I fit. I thought I might fit into the community at Redhead Days, but I didn’t, and I went home retaining that uncertainty about my place in the world. I’m still trying to figure out just how much my physical appearance contributes to who I am, how much it does and doesn’t define me, and how much I should or shouldn’t allow it to represent me.
As I boarded a train back to Amsterdam, where I’d catch a flight home to Philadelphia, all I felt was disappointment. Despite never feeling like I did, perhaps the place I belonged most was at home with my family. I worried that maybe I’d never feel like I belonged anywhere.
Last month I learned there wouldn’t be a Redhead Days taking place next year. The story is that the festival got too large for Breda, and the organization is taking the year off to find a new host city. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe I’m not alone after all, that maybe there were others who didn’t find what they were looking for there either.