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.
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.