I am 24 years old and I can finally put my hair into a ponytail. This may seem trivial, but it matters, especially when you have spent most of your life keenly aware of all the things you can't do. I have cerebral palsy, and it affects the right side of my body. Putting my shoulder-length hair into a ponytail by myself had always been out of reach, until last year.
I didn't feel embarrassed about needing help with my hair until high school. I'd watch enviously as my classmates put their hair up before gym class. My eyes would follow them as they walked through the halls without limps, ponytails bouncing along happily as they made their way to their boyfriends' lockers.
My identical twin sister, Leah, was one of those girls. She doesn't have cerebral palsy, and she can put her hair up without even thinking about it. I spent a lot of our teenage years resenting everything about her — from the shape of her face to the tips of her toes. I wanted to be her. I wanted a body with completely functioning hands and feet, a body without a right leg that was shorter than the left. I wanted to wake up glad that I had woken up. I didn't want to resent God for giving me crooked lips and fingers, aching knees and hips, but I did. Since I couldn't take my anger out on him, I took it out on her, calling her the names I called myself when no one else was listening. I was cruel. Still, Leah stuck by me, always the first person to defend me when someone made a snide remark about my disability.
I wanted a body with completely functioning hands and feet, a body without a right leg that was shorter than the left.
Even though Leah or my mom would help me every morning without complaint, having to wait until they were done getting ready and then ask them to fix my hair really bothered me. I couldn't allow myself enough space to be OK with how much I had to ask for help, because I was striving for a kind of independence I knew I might never have. I would go to school and my friends would say, "Oh, you put your hair up, it looks really cute," but I knew that I hadn't done it, my mother or my sister had done it for me. The ability to put my hair into a ponytail was just another thing that I couldn't do, regardless of how hard I wished for it at night. I imagined boys thinking, She can't even put her hair up. Why would I go out with her? Nevertheless, I didn't really work on my ponytail dream in high school. Being one of the girls with the long, swinging hair just seemed out of reach.
In college, without my mom or my sister to help me, I tried every trick imaginable to put my hair up. For a while, I used a claw. I had a black one and a brown one. But the claw didn't give me a ponytail, it just pulled all my hair up. The claw was quickly followed by a bejeweled tuck comb, which never worked either. I always ended up sending the comb skittering across the room.
I would ask my roommates or hallmates to help me, and they were happy to do it, but I was the only black person in my friend group. I knew that my hair was very different from theirs. My hair is thick, and it takes a lot of time and patience to get it to cooperate. They weren't sure how to approach it. I was thankful to them for even trying, but it really pointed out the glaring differences between us, so I tried not to ask very often. Asking for help made me feel like an outsider, like the younger me watching those girls with the perfect hair. Instead, I used the claw or the comb, or I wore my hair down.
Asking for help made me feel like an outsider, like the younger me watching those girls with the perfect hair.
I graduated from college in 2013, and while I was living back at home and looking for a job, I had a lot of free time. I made a list of all the things I could and couldn't do: I couldn't walk for long periods of time without leg and hip pain, I couldn't ride a bike well, and I was paralyzed with fear at the idea of running. I couldn't skip, or swim, or sing, or dance. I knew I couldn't teach myself to swim, but I decided I was going to learn how to do a ponytail, no matter what.
I tried YouTube tutorials. Search: How do I put my hair into a ponytail using one hand? There are lots of videos on this topic, mostly by amputees. But the videos showed only white women with hair long enough to position between their shoulder and chin to keep it in place, hair long enough to put between door frames and dangle behind chairs.
Search: One-handed ponytail with short hair. The results were more of the same, until I found a video I thought might actually work. It featured a special hair tie called the 1-Up — basically an elastic string with a toggle. My aunt Renee made me one, and I followed the video's instructions. The hope was that my nondominant right hand would be able to help my stronger left hand and create this seemingly easy ponytail. I envisioned a new morning routine where I would stand beside my sister while she did her hair and I did my own. I imagined walking into a dressing room at the mall and trying on clothes with the ease and nonchalance of a girl who could confidently put her hair back up when she was done.
I envisioned a new morning routine where I would stand beside my sister while she did her hair and I did my own.
I was proud of a ponytail I hadn't successfully made — until reality crept in. I needed to pull the string with my right hand while my left hand held down the toggle, and my right hand wasn't strong enough. I wasn't strong enough. After two weeks, I had to give up on the 1-Up.
Search: What's wrong with me? Why can't I do this simple thing? Will there ever come a time when I do not need to ask my sister to put my hair up once she is finished with her own? Doing my own ponytail was part of a dream of self-sufficiency, a chance to believe that if I could do that, I could achieve other things.
I felt desperate to be able to do this. I began practicing in secret. As soon as my mother and my sister left for work, I would park myself in front of the mirror, brush in hand, and try to put my hair up all day. I practiced for weeks in the same chair, in front of the same mirror, with tear-stained cheeks.
On a Wednesday in April last year, in the middle of a rainstorm, after trying for three weeks, I finally did it. I gathered as much hair as I could in my left hand and put the elastic around it, then put the low ponytail into my right hand and used my left hand to twist the elastic around and tighten it. The resulting ponytail wasn't perfect, but I cried like I'd won a Pulitzer.
The resulting ponytail wasn't perfect, but I cried like I'd won a Pulitzer.
These new sloppy ponytails give me a taste of the self-sufficiency I long for. They are a promise of more to come, a promise to keep working at them until they are the best that they can be. I find myself wondering back to that list of things I can't do and imagining a world in which I can. Now that I am able to do this one thing, the others don't seem so impossible. Maybe I will drive one day or learn to run again. Being able to put my hair up didn't make me instantly love myself or my body, but it helped me see that I could one day.
I no longer have to ask my sister for help unless I want a ponytail that will last a while, or a touch of makeup. My ponytails feel like a revolutionary act, a celebration of disability and of me. I will never blend in, and I am recognizing the beauty in that fact. However, with my ponytail, I feel less like an outsider and more like the badass, black, disabled feminist I am.
Search: What's wrong with me? Absolutely nothing.
Keah Brown is a writer and lover of books, language, and pizza. She tweets about them all and more @Keah_Maria.