Once a long time ago, a psychologist explained to me the difference between a reaction and a response.
A reaction is knee-jerk, like when the doctor hammers your knee during a check-up. Or like when you put zebra-stripes in your hair, take one look in the mirror, and scream.
A response is more carefully considered, something over which you exert some control, like when your child hits you in anger, but you do not hit back. Or when you don't shave your head for 24 hours, hoping your new look will grow on you.
Cultural stigmas about hair color -- that blondes are dumb, brunettes bitchy, redheads fiery-tempered, etc. -- are not rational. (Reactions to the color gray I'll save for another post.) But according to Melissa Leo (of the recent films "Frozen River" and "The Fighter"), hair reactions are alive and well.
The actress wandered into the subject this month during an NPR Fresh Air radio interview with Terry Gross. (Click to here to listen, or here for the full transcript.)
GROSS: Was red hair a good thing or a bad thing when you were growing up? Some kids get teased for it.
Ms. LEO: I had so little contact with other children when I was little that I don't really know. They might have had an issue with it. If they did, I didn't notice.
As I got - you know, there was one opportunity many years ago that I dyed it brunette. And that experience taught me something about myself that I would not have learned without dying my hair brown, which is that people judge.
As a brown-haired woman, I walked out of the hotel in Rhode Island, and people looked me in the eye and greeted me good morning. And for me, that was astonishing. It had never happened in my red-headed life.
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. LEO: Because people judge a book by its color, and if I wasn't sure, by the time I'd done these two blondes of Lois Riley and Alice Ward and walked in the world not just in costume but, you know, on off days as a blonde, people not only look you in the eye and say good morning, men and women both come up and touch you and ask you very intimately how are you today.
GROSS: Wait, so...
Ms. LEO: A redhead, on the other hand, is someone who will steal your husband, has a fiery temper, and people tend to cross the street when they see a redhead coming.