Saturday, March 17, 2012

What makes hair color "hot"?

The ‘hot’ hair color this year (source). While there seems to be a general trend to prefer average physical characteristics, this doesn’t seem to apply to hair color. People seek colors that are uncommon or even unnatural.

Europeans have departed from the species norm of black hair and brown eyes by evolving a wide range of bright hair and eye colors. What is the selective advantage of these new hues? Or are they merely a side effect of something else?

I’ve argued that these new colors were selected for … their newness and colorfulness. To be precise, their selective advantage lay in their novelty and brightness. These eye-catching qualities enabled women to improve their mating prospects at a time when the operational sex ratio was skewed toward a female surplus and a male shortage.

This is the logic of advertising. Visual merchandising matters most in saturated, highly competitive markets that offer too many interesting choices (Lea-Greenwood, 1998; Oakley, 1990). Such a context rewards products that stand out because of their bright or novel look, as seen in colors for home interiors. This market has grown more competitive over the past half-century, and the novelty factor has correspondingly grown more important: preference for one paint color rises until satiated, then falls and yields to preference for another (Stansfield & Whitfield, 2005).

In the natural world, and under conditions of intense sexual selection, this same logic leads to a color polymorphism. A new color appears through mutation and spreads through the population until it is as common as the established color. This equilibrium will then last until another color variant appears. The total number of colors thus grows over time.

This aspect of sexual selection can be demonstrated under controlled conditions. In an American study, male participants were shown pictures of attractive brunettes and blondes and asked to choose, for each series, the woman they would most like to marry. One series had equal numbers of brunettes and blondes, a second series 1 brunette for every 5 blondes, and a third series 1 brunette for every 11 blondes. Result: the scarcer the brunettes were in a series, the likelier any one of them would be chosen (Thelen, 1983).

The same trend appears in popular culture. On American TV programs, women are four and a half times more likely than men to have red or auburn hair and five times more likely than men to have blonde hair. Conversely, men are four times more likely than women to have gray hair and 40% more likely than women to have black hair (Davis, 1990). A similar trend has been observed on Turkish TV programs:

Women were more likely than men to have red (5.3%) or blonde (15.6%) hair. In fact, no primary male characters in this sample had red or blonde hair at all, but female characters did. (Ikizler, 2007, p. 39)

This sex difference undoubtedly reflects the use of artificial hair coloring, although female hair color is naturally more diverse than male hair color (a legacy of the female-directed nature of sexual selection in Europe). Interestingly, women are using hair dyes to give themselves less typical hues, rather than more typical ones. Such colors may be uncommon but naturally occurring, such as platinum blonde and red. Or they may not exist at all in nature, such as green, purple, and magenta.

This year, the leading hair colors are forecasted to be “red, burgundy, strawberry blonde, copper brown and auburn shades.” Among celebrities, the hottest colors will include “bright reds, vibrant blues and pastel pinks” (Fall Hair Color Trends 2012).


Davis, M. D. (1990). Portrayals of women in prime-time network television: Some demographic characteristics. Sex Roles, 23(5/6), 325-332.

Fall Hair Color Trends 2012

Ikizler, A.S. (2007). Gender role representations in Turkish television programs, Submitted as a St. Mary's Project in Partial Fulfillment of the Graduation Requirements, St. Mary's College of Maryland for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts in Psychology

Lea-Greenwood G. (1998). Visual merchandising: a neglected area in UK fashion marketing? International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 26, 324-329.

Oakley M. (ed.) (1990). Design management. A handbook of issues and methods. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Stansfield J., & T.W.A. Whitfield. (2005). Can future colour trends be predicted on the basis of past colour trends? An empirical investigation. Color Research and Application, 30(3), 235-242.

Thelen, T.H. (1983). Minority type human mate preference. Social Biology, 30, 162-180.


Ben10 said...

Allright, i'll copy here my questions from the previous post:

1) what is this special sensitivity to anaesthetic (mentioned in the previous post)?

2) When did these alleles 'popped up'in the european populations?
Wikipedia states:
"Estimates on the original occurrence of the currently active gene for red hair vary from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago"
100 000 years, really?, it seems very old...

3) Wikipedia states that the redhairs alleles are recessives. Is there any selective advantages for heterozygotes (such as for sickle cell disease) ?

Also, there is no proof that these alleles were either rare or common during the prehistoric ages (and how can you infer the frequencies?). There might have been several burst in frequencies, followed by declines with differences among different social casts. During the middle ages, women from the nobility must have been in very large excess, many were put in monastery, and sexual selection might have been more intense in the nobility than in the peasanry. What do you make of that?

Sean said...

Re 'Fall Hair Color Trends 2012', that sounds like fashion rather than the thing men are interested in.I’ve argued that these new colors were selected for … their newness and colorfulness.

I'm confident that you are right about that. I doubt artificial hair colouring is working under the same selection pressure now. As you suggested a while ago-

"In earlier generations, the preferred model of sexual behavior was one of stable, fecund, and long-term relationships. Other forms of erotic expression did exist and are attested in the literature, but at a lower level of prevalence than would be expected if allowed free and unfettered expression. They were discouraged by social custom because, in one way or another, they were less optimal in producing stable families.

One of these alternate eroticisms was the practice of deliberately darkening women's skin. Rightly or wrongly, the preferred model of sexual behavior encouraged women to keep their skin as fair as possible. This "meme" has proven highly successful in most human societies, and, like so many other memes, has succeeded without its practitioners fully knowing why. During my fieldwork in a rural community of eastern Québec, I asked retired farmwomen why they took such great pains to keep their skin untanned. Many had no idea at all. One simply said: "It was important. My sisters were the same. I don't know the reason. They never told us" (Frost 2005: 60-61).

Now girls tan their skin. And people object when they are young, ostensibly that is on health grounds, but when it is spray on tan it's still perceived as a bad thing. I think that is because people sense a tan is a 'adult' look. A tanned look definitely makes girls seem far older than their years somehow. And actual tanning has an effect on sexuality Owners of Ubertan tanning spray could face two years in prison (This is a tanning drug you inhale BTW) "Ubertan contains melanotan, a chemical that stimulates the production of melanin in skin cells making it darker. Reported side effects include nausea, migraines, dizziness, palpitations and enhanced libido" (Google search Ubertan aphrodisiac)

So if the motivations for skin colour are diametrically different now, why expect the selection for hair colour to still operate in the same way - for rarity. "Blonde hair' is not rare at all, it's extremely common. The overwhelming majority of 'blonde' hair nowadays is artificial lightened. But women still much prefer the bottle blonde look to red or the more unusual colours like the unnatural ones you talk about.

I think one reason standard blonde hair is popular among young women, despite being more than a little common, is it works as one part of an image; it works as an advertising signal, a bit like revealing clothes. to signal being open to the more modern kind of relationship. I think the modern idea of "hot" is tied up with the perception of signaling being available in a way females were not before modern times.

Harold said...

Part of the sexual selection might be for lighter body hair, with lighter head hair as a side effect.

Anonymous said...

"Estimates on the original occurrence of the currently active gene for red hair vary from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago...100 000 years, really?, it seems very old"

I read somewhere - which i can't find - that red hair is a close mutation from black hair so maybe red hair marked step one in a transition to multiple hair colors?

"Several accounts by Greek writers mention redheaded people. A fragment by the poet Xenophanes describes the Thracians as blue-eyed and red haired.[5] Herodotus described the Budini people as being predominantly red haired. Dio Cassius described Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, to be "tall and terrifying in appearance... a great mass of red hair... over her shoulders."

The Roman historian Tacitus commented on the "red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia",[6] which he connected with some red haired Gaulish tribes of Germanic and Belgic relation.

In Asia, red hair has been found among the ancient Tocharians...Caucasian Tarim mummies have been found with red hair dating to the 2nd millennium BC.[7]"

There's also the Egyptians describing the Libyans as "red" etc.

"Part of the sexual selection might be for lighter body hair, with lighter head hair as a side effect."

Very good point.

Ben10 said...

These reports from greek or latin writers give the feelings that redhairs were not rare in these times in barbarian tribes, maybe with a frequency higher than today, except in celtic isolates.

chris said...

"These reports from greek or latin writers give the feelings that redhairs were not rare in these times in barbarian tribes, maybe with a frequency higher than today, except in celtic isolates."

I doubt it, outsiders tend to notice the most striking features of a group and than associate those features with the whole group.

Take for instance the prevalaence of the east asian racial epithet ang mo.

It essentially means 'red-haired monkey' and was used by Chinese, Malaysians and Singaporeans to refer to the dutch traders who began their trading adventures into the regions centuries ago. Now I find it highly unlikely that all the dutch traders were red-haired, but I have no doubt that some would have been and that would have been a very striking feature to separate them from the indigenous people in those regions.

Sean said...

Artificial hair color seems an indication of 'alternative' or bolshie leanings rather than being hot.

Bottle blonde hair is still very popular, blue contact lenses too. One aspect that may be worth taking into account is that in cities like London about half the young are non white. It is my impression that even those non white men who have brought up in the West still rate the light hair and eye colors of European women highly. And a high proportion of immigrants are young men from counties where light hair and eyes are rare. Women are increasingly open to considering non white men as potential partners, and they rate Black men are rated as more physically attractive than white.

I think that blonde hair has a lot of mileage in it yet. In fact natural European eye and hair colours are destined to become ever more rare as the number of children born to two white parents falls. I don't see artificial hair colour as ever being regarded as 'hot'.

Peter Frost said...


1. There is a 3-way interaction between pain sensitivity, hair color, and sex. Red-haired women seem to respond more readily to painkillers. The following is from Mogil et al (2003):

"our results revealed a significant influence of MC1R genotype on analgesia in women only. Pentazocine at the dose used
produced modest analgesia in all men. By contrast, ‘‘classic’’
light-skinned, redheaded women with two variant MC1R alleles
displayed robust pentazocine analgesia against ischemic pain and
were the only group to display convincing analgesia against
thermal pain. Skin type appeared to be a better proxy for MC1R
genotype than hair color, as these effects reached significance for
ischemic pain when light- versus dark-skinned women were compared as described above, but did not quite do so for redheaded versus nonredheaded women"

2. We don't know. There seems to be an urban legend that we have dates for the appearance of blue eyes and red hair, but no such dating has yet been done.

Rosalind Harding came up with a mean estimate of 50,000 years (this may be the source for that Wikipedia entry) using a model that assumed no selection for or against red hair, i.e., relaxation of selection against red hair.

One can hardly cite this estimate to disprove the sexual selection hypothesis, since the model assumes that no such selection happened.

3. Red-hair alleles are recessive, but they have visible effects in the heterozygote state.

In order to date the appearance of red hair and other 'new' hair colors, we will have to retrieve the MC1R gene from ancient skeletons to see which alleles were present. There are other dating methods, but direct examination would be the cleanest way.


In the case of skin color, the desire for color novelty has to compete against a general preference for lighter female skin, which in turn reflects a need to create more stable, longer-lasting pair bonds where the male is less aggressive and more caring toward his mate.

Under conditions of intense sexual selection, the second tendency will progressively overwhelm the first. Mean skin color will become steadily lighter in women and, by extension, in both sexes.

You're confusing 'older' with 'sexually mature'. Symons argued that women become darker with successive pregnancies. Such women are older but they're not sexually more desirable.

I think women tan for two main reasons: 1- it exploits the color novelty factor; and 2 - it triggers a more aggressive and perhaps more stimulating sexual response.

There's also some evidence that women can become addicted to tanning (i.e., it stimulates the pleasure center in the brain, although this could be a conditioned reflex).

At my high school, blonds were about 20 to 25% of the population. That is probably the threshold where a hair color starts to become common.


There's a trivial explanation for those red-haired mummies. Hair has two pigments: eumelanin (dark) and pheomelanin (yellowish red). Eumelanin breaks down more rapidly than does pheomelanin, so hair will turn blond and then red over time.

This is also why people turn blond in the summer.

Gini said...

It seems about every other woman: white, black, latina, has the same hair color as that model. Red hair has been popular for the last several years. It's probably time for blonde to make a comeback.

s6 said...

Female hair colour is "naturally more diverse"? Interesting. Which study/studies show that?