I used to think a ponytail was just a ponytail – a versatile women’s hairstyle. Over time, it has come to mean much more to me.
I work in industries – tech, venture capital, infrastructure software investing – that some days feel exceedingly male. Many days, I wish I had a wing-woman – another female in the conversation – at the table or in the board meeting in order to feel less reduced to a stereotype. Maybe if another person asserted the same opinion as me, it would be a group of people saying X, versus the only female in the room saying X.
I go back and forth, mostly subconsciously, on whether I should wear pants or a dress, wear black or a color, acclimate or stand-out. There’s the option to be androgynous, and then there’s the option to wear stilettos. Most days, knowingly or not, I reach for the all black uniform, sans stilettos.
Even in adult sports nowadays, in things like skiing and cycling, gender is harder to discern. Don a helmet, goggles, sunglasses, gloves, gear and from afar it’s honestly difficult to tell.
But as you approach, you notice the ponytail.
I was once a runner, still am, and increasingly a converted cyclist. I frequent the Marin Headlands and Hawk Hill whenever I can get a spare 90 minutes. Confirmed a chip on my shoulder, but it gives me no greater pleasure than to approach a group of male riders from behind, overtake them, and know that the simple existence of my ponytail protruding my helmet added insult to the (bad enough) injury of being passed.
The ponytail is also a reminder. In keeping with cycling, I use a software program called Zwift – described as a kind of cycling metaverse by Eric Savitz at Barron’s. As is custom in a metaverse, you can choose the attributes of your avatar – your skin color, body type, and hairstyle. Click away, but you won’t find a female avatar with a ponytail longer than a stub, maybe 2 inches.
This isn’t Zwift’s fault, but after feeling left out I spent time on the message boards, wondering why Zwift couldn’t offer an avatar with my likeness – with a long ponytail. I learned that rendering hair, let alone long hair, is particularly hard in CGI. Hair isn’t one mass but a million tiny strands that move individually. Add wind (particularly relevant when cycling) and it’s made even harder, and deemed not worth it by Zwift to overcome. It’s a reminder that we still have a ways to go.
It’s no exaggeration to say that my ponytail has been a source of strength for me. My first ever cross-country race was my freshman year of college, running in a Division 1 race against a handful of schools in our conference. Having never run cross-country, I had no idea and zero expectations for what it would resemble, how I would feel, nor in what place I should finish. In the absence of personal (or external) expectations, I could just give it a try, enjoy the experience. I was calm before the race, relaxed, not nervous.
I ran and I ran well; I greatly exceeded my own expectations. I also enjoyed it, far more than the track & field races in high school where I remembered getting so nervous. I made a mental note that day to try to harness that carefree attitude again, because it was more fun. I noticed over time that the more calm and casual I was, the more competitors could sense it – how could she be casual now when so much is at stake? It seemed they found it unsettling.
But we all get nervous. In truth, the sentence should read, “I noticed over time that the more calm and casual [I was perceived to be], the more competitors could sense it…” Because, I was as nervous as the next athlete. For whatever reason, and I may never know, I devoted that nervous energy to my ponytail. Something I could control. And also a necessity, because though one can run through a loose ponytail, one cannot run through an unbalanced, floppy bun.
And that’s how, before races, my sister came to ask, “Cack, how is your ponytail?” – which, yes, meant how straight, how tight, how balanced, how clean – but which really meant, “I’m your #1 fan and I’m rooting for you.”