At the Ocean City Freckle Contest, Celebrating What I Once Deemed a Flaw

I grew up loathing my freckles. As an adult, I cherish them.

Contestants at the Ocean City Freckle Contest
Writer Shelby Vittek (left) shows some freckle pride at the Ocean City Freckle Contest alongside other entrants James Van Gemeren and his children, Jasper and Anne, from the Netherlands. Photo by Jauhien Sasnou

As the only natural redhead on both sides of my dark-haired family, I grew up keenly aware of my unique physical traits. While I cherish my red locks and freckles now as an adult, they haven’t always been such prized features. With them came a slew of nicknames that other kids used to tease me, like Ginger and Carrot Top (which is actually green, thank you very much), as well as every redhead’s least favorite: Freckleface.

They may be a fashionable beauty trend now, but when I was growing up, having a face full of freckles was as embarrassing as having a face full of acne. It wasn’t until I was out of college, when I finally felt comfortable in my own skin, that I stopped covering up my freckles with foundation and started celebrating them.

Newly in love with portions of myself I once loathed, I became obsessed with learning more about the recessive red-hair trait. I became enamored with what I found out. Did you know, for instance, that only 2 percent of the world’s population is born with red hair? Or that the mutation that causes red hair, on the MC1R gene located on chromosome 16, was only discovered in 1995? Motivated to connect with others like me, I even traveled to the Netherlands, where I attended an international redhead festival, and to Scotland to meet with the geneticists who first mapped the mutation—and who praised the intense hue of my hair.

Closer to home, I decided to enter the Freckle Contest on the boardwalk in Ocean City. Held every summer (this year’s is scheduled for July 6) in front of the Music Pier, the free contest is open to freckled folks of all ages, redheaded or not. We were grouped into five different age groups, and our judges were Miss Ocean City, Miss Junior Ocean City and Little Miss Ocean City—none of whom, I noticed, had any freckles.

I was pretty confident of my chances. After all, the number of freckles on my shoulders far exceeds the number of tans I’ve had in my life (approximately zero). So when I didn’t even place as a runner-up, I was disappointed. Maybe I should have spent more time in the sun that morning to really make my freckles pop.

Feeling slightly dejected, I accepted my participant ribbon and congratulated the winners, including the red-bearded man who won in the adult category. He was there with his kids, who had also participated in the contest. They happened to be vacationing all the way from the Netherlands. As it turns out, we had both attended the redhead festival in the Netherlands, but it took a quirky freckle contest in New Jersey, of all places, for us to finally meet.

Before I wandered away down the boardwalk, I paused to look around at the excited faces of the sun-kissed kids around me. If they didn’t already appreciate how special their freckles were, I hoped they now would. 

Shelby Vittek is the editor of Modern Farmer online magazine and a former associate editor at New Jersey Monthly, where she still authors the monthly Libations column.

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