The color of hair and eyes are among the most fundamental determinants that we use to describe a person’s appearance. Both come in an almost limitless range of shades. With eyes, in particular, no two irises are exactly the same, a little like fingerprints, which is why they can be used as unique biometric identifiers.
Color is determined by genes - more than 100 of them. While there are some genes that specifically correlate to only hair or eye color, there is a significant overlap and many genes influence both. They are highly heritable, meaning we almost always inherit our hair color from one or both parents. Having said that, there are exceptions, as we will see.
Historically, different parts of the world have seen specific hair and eye colors predominate, and we will look at some examples of this. Over the past century, however, that has changed due to increasing ethnic diversity.
The fact that certain hair and eye colors used to be so unusual in specific parts of the world led to all sorts of myths and misconceptions. Today, however, most people are more likely to have their opinions about eye and hair color influenced by celebrity fashion than by centuries-old superstitions. We will look at some interesting ways in which fashion and popular culture have presented different hair colors in particular through different lenses.
Having said that, none of us want to be pigeon-holed or classified according to our appearance - at least, not unless we are the ones controlling the narrative. Today, there is a growing trend to define our own eye and skin colors as opposed to letting them define us. We will look at the different ways this can be achieved, both temporarily and permanently.
We mentioned earlier that the color of eyes and hair is determined by genes. To be more specific, both are directly influenced by a natural pigment called melanin. This is formed by cells called melanocytes and the more melanin that is present, the darker your eyes and hair will be.
Two genes, OCA2 and HERC2, are highly influential in determining eye color. They act in combination with at least eight more genes, some of which also influence hair color.
There is a 99 percent likelihood that a child will inherit one of his or her parents’ eye colors, or a combination of the two. Having said that, there have been rare occasions when two blue-eyed parents have had a brown-eyed child.
Similar basic principles are in play to determine hair color. We have mentioned that this is determined by melanin, and until about 1,000 years ago, melanin was created exclusively by a melanocyte called eumelanin. If you had lots of it, you would have black hair. If you had less of it, you would have blonde hair.
At some point during the Dark Ages, a genetic mutation triggered the production of a different melanocyte called pheomelanin. We now know that this is connected with the MC1R gene. We have two such genes, and ordinarily, they trigger to produce eumelanin. However, if one fails, pheomelanin is produced instead.
The result of this mutation is that hair takes on a reddish hue. People with strawberry blonde or auburn hair can put it down to one of the MC1R genes failing to function. When both fail, the result is bright red hair.
So we now understand that different amounts of melanin determine eye and hair color and that a specific genetic mutation is responsible for red or ginger hair. This leads us on to the question of what determines melanin production.
We know it is not down to chance, as we have seen there are distinct regional variations, ones that were even more obvious in bygone generations when people did not migrate to the same extent and there was therefore less ethnic diversity.
Scientists theorize that melanin production is triggered by exposure to UV and Vitamin D. This would tally with the fact that northern Europeans tend to have lighter colored hair and eyes than people living in warmer and sunnier regions.
The other point worth bearing in mind is that more than 90 percent of the world’s population has brown or black hair. Blonde and red are actually anomalous when you take a global perspective. In other words, we might not be so different from one another after all.
10,000 years ago, all humans had brown eyes. Then, at some point a genetic mutation took place, conceptually similar to the one that created red hair. This one affected the OCA2 gene, and it happened to an individual between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Researchers have concluded that everyone with blue eyes shares this common ancestor.
The reason for the mutation is less clear, however. Some scientists believe it is connected with the cooler climate when humans migrated from Africa and Asia to Europe. However, as the latest evidence suggests that this happened 100,000 years ago or more, we would have expected the mutation to happen sooner if that was the cause.
One thing is beyond doubt. That first blue-eyed human must have had a very difficult life, and we can only imagine the stares and superstition that he or she would have faced. It was almost certainly as big a deal, or bigger, than the sudden appearance of red hair thousands of years later. As that happened in relatively recent times, we have a little more information to go on as to how things panned out.
We know, for example, that red hair was first recorded in Scotland. That is still where we see the highest concentration of redheads to this day, approximately 10 percent, compared with two percent of the global population. Scottish researchers believe that, like the blue eyes, all redheads share one common ancestor. But as this gene mutation happened far more recently, they have not spread as widely as those with blue eyes.
Back in the Dark Ages, a wealth of myths and legends surrounded redheads, from the somewhat literal idea that they are “hot-headed” to accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession. Clearly, life was hard for redheads in the 14th and 15th centuries, but in the 1500s, there was a change of attitude.
Elizabeth I succeeded to the English throne in November 1558 and suddenly, red hair wasn’t just acceptable, it was positively regal. It’s safe to say she was the world’s first redhead fashion influencer!
Today, we are far less uptight about people being different from the norm. In fact, it is something to celebrate. For example, if you have red hair and blue eyes, you’re not quite one in a million, but you are about one in 600. Let’s take a look at some other rare hair and eye color combinations.
Queen Elizabeth I might have been one of the first fashion influencers, but she certainly wasn’t the last. Since the Second World War, in particular, celebrities from the world of TV, music and movies have had a huge influence on how we perceive different hair colors, and to a lesser extent, eye color, too.
In the 1950s and 60s, Clairol used the phrase “blondes have more fun” in advertising its range of hair dyes. This was built on the fame of Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield and movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
20 years later, however, Clairol had updated its marketing strategy and blondes were getting a tougher time. In the 1950s, those blonde bombshell actresses had intentionally cultivated the “dumb blonde” image. Back then, people associated a certain charm to it. But the 1980s were more cynical times, and the blonde image was further dumbed down by celebrities of the time such as Jessica Simpson and Pamela Anderson.
It wasn’t just blondes who were subject to stereotyping. The “feisty redhead” cliche that originated in that perception of “hot-headedness” was still alive and well. In the rebellious punk era of the late 1970s and early 80s, this became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people took to dying their hair red or orange to come across as more edgy.
As the 1980s gave way to the 90s, the punk era faded into history. At the same time, a succession of natural redhead celebrities such as Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and Simon Pegg suddenly made ginger fashionable, and even more important, non-threatening.
Suddenly, red hair wasn’t threatening, it wasn’t edgy and it wasn’t quirky. It was just plain fashionable, and it has never gone out of fashion in the 30 years since.
To bring things right up to date, here are the top celebrity hair shades for 2023 according to stylist to the stars Nicole Petty.
|Hair color||Nicole says|
|Copper red||All shades of red will be popular in 2023, but copper will be the standout color to brighten up your locks. Kendall Jenner unofficially kicked off the trend last summer, and we've seen a slew of celebrities, including Gigi Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, follow suit.|
|Candlelit Brunette||Candlelit hair uses low-contrast and mid-tone highlights to give the hair a warm and reflective feel. It’s also a perfect way to add dimension and brightness. Who wouldn't want hair like Beyoncé's?|
|Barbie Blonde||With Greta Gerwig’s movie Barbie hitting screens in July, Barbie-inspired blonde will be a huge trend this summer. The key is to maintain the same depth of bright blonde throughout the roots, lengths, and ends of your hair.|
|Gemini||Gemini is a fun two-tone style. It will make you stand out from the crowd and allow you to express your personality. For dark hair, use pinks, purples, greens, and blues, and for light hair, blues, greens, reds, yellows, and black.|
|Glossy Brunette||This particular colour trend is all about finish. For a glossy, shiny effect, focus on hydration. If you’re not a natural brunette, consider using a cool-toned brown dye to lend hair a bright, glassy finish. Megan Fox and the Princess of Wales provide perfect reference points.|
|Peachy Rose||2023 will see the rise of peachy rose blonde. It offers a fun and colourful way to transition from winter to brighter spring and summer. This trend is best for blonde hair, as pink takes more easily to light hair, but it is still possible to achieve this look in darker hair colors.|
|Expensive Blonde||Expensive blonde is all about soft contrast and golden tones. The overall effect looks incredibly natural, but it takes both highlights and lowlights to really nail it. No one does expensive blonde hair quite like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.|
|Natural Grey||Don’t confuse this with the icy grey that was trending in the 2010s. This shade has a natural yet slightly futuristic vibe. Julia Fox was sporting an amazing grey-toned, wet-look style at the CFDA Awards.|
Today, three quarters of American women say they dye their hair. We no longer allow the color of our hair and eyes to define us. Instead, we choose how we wish to appear, so if there are any stereotypes in play, we are in control of our own narrative.
We are still influenced by celebrity fashion, of course. But it is interesting to see how some famous people have chosen to change their hair and eye color. For example, did you know that neither Lucille Ball nor Gillian Anderson are natural redheads? They used red hair to present an image or, if you prefer, a narrative.
In the above examples, we might be surprised that the hair color we associate with the famous names is not natural. In other cases, such as Beyonce’s blonde period or Maisie Williams rocking purple bangs at the Game of Thrones premiere in New York a couple of years ago, we are left in no doubt.
Changing eye color is even easier than dying your hair. Colored contact lenses take a matter of seconds to slip in and out, and you can even get prescription ones made up. But are there other ways? You might have read about implants that permanently change the eye color, or people achieving the same effect with laser surgery. Both of these are possible, but the American Academy of Ophthalmology has spoken out against both practices and advocates contact lenses as the best and safest way to change eye color.
What about those genes, though? It is possible for expectant parents to choose the eye color of their unborn baby through gene therapy, so it is no great leap to imagine that some time in the future, we will be able to make similar choices for ourselves.
Right now, however, let’s enjoy the richness of diversity in eye and hair color. After all, what do words like “natural” and “normal” really mean anyway? We’ll close with some facts and figures from a survey of women aged 42-57 that give food for thought on that topic.
|What’s normal anyway?|
|Most have not worn their natural hair color since 2019|
|71% find that change of hair color boosts their confidence|
|Average number of different hair colors they have had so far is five|
|One in three aren’t even sure what their natural color is anymore|
|21% use a new hair color to embrace their age|
|40% trust color advice from their hairdresser|
|25% trust color advice from their friends|
|Two thirds started coloring their hair when they were under 30|