Ponytails

by Kate Tapscott

            I unfold my aching limbs, trying not to let my boots clang on the metal as I step to the front of the stage. My palms are clammy, my movements, I hope, at least endearingly awkward. The knowledge of being watched feels almost physically suffocating, pressing on my chest and short-circuiting my thoughts. I’m clad in black, like the other performers. Before we all went out on stage, we stood in a circle and did a chant, some sort of hype-up ritual with a lot of swears and holding hands. I had swayed and chanted half-heartedly with the other women, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how sweaty my hands were in the grasp of the women next to me. Later, I’ll wish I’d worn a different top, held my arms away from my body so they’d look thinner. But, onstage now, I’m grateful for the calming rhythm of speech when I open my mouth to begin: I am not pretty.

            Recalling childhood Kate always elicits in me a particular mix of affection, nostalgia, and second-hand embarrassment. In home videos with my twin sister, I’m always jabbering away, talking over her sometimes, making up plots for stories for the two of us to act out on the fly. Pictures show me beaming, my lips pressed together in a smile so broad it makes my whole face look wider. On family fishing trips, my sister and I donned broad-brimmed tangerine sun hats and bulging lemon-yellow life jackets with gusto.  

            In my youthful self-confidence, I appreciated my body mainly for its functionality. My legs were only on my mind when I needed them to pedal a bike, my arms when I took on the monkey bars. The asexuality of childhood was freeing; I don’t remember having any real attachment to my gender nor a sense of my body as an object to be appraised. There were flickers of something, perhaps. I have a memory of myself twirling around the playroom in a lavender princess dress, admiring the way my tan skin looked against the cheap purple tulle. Did I feel pretty then? If I did, it was a fleeting moment, leaving my mind as quickly as it came.

            Trying to pinpoint a moment in my childhood where I suddenly became self-conscious seems to be oversimplifying things, and yet I’m drawn to a day in fifth grade when my more popular friend whispered to me asking if my mom forced me to wear collared shirts every day. I had been coasting for months on my signature look of a brightly colored polo, plaid Bermuda shorts, and pink sketchers, all tied together with neon green braces and a greasy low ponytail parted in the middle. I didn’t even really brush my hair, just scraped it back, ignoring the snarls. But now the spell was broken, and at home that evening I rifled through the upstairs bureau for a non-collared Abercrombie Kids blouse to bring out of retirement. I traded in my Sketchers for Sperrys, brushed my hair and started flipping my head upside down to make a high ponytail.

            Walking into class the next day was just as bad as I expected; the vaguely mocking oohs and ahhs underscored the message I felt myself delivering to my classmates: this girl cares; this girl is trying. That was what changed that day, when I traded in my polos for halter tops and my scraggily low ponytail for a styled high one: not that I suddenly entered a system that ranked me on my appearance and attractiveness to men (as a girl, I had already existed there), but that I internalized that system, made it plain to my peers that I wanted to pass muster. I was under no delusions about my own middling position in the social hierarchy. The statement that “all bodies are beautiful!” struck me as not only unhelpful but fundamentally untrue. It was obvious who the pretty girls were: the ones everyone wanted to take pictures with at parties, who got to walk in the middle of the sidewalk rather than straddling the curb, whose existence the boys registered (if superficially) outside of the context of group projects. They had succeeded in the project at which I was so visibly falling short, and their reward was being seen – with an objectifying, acquisitive, perhaps degrading gaze, yes, but I envied them for it.

            Lacking both genetic luck and the savvy to fake it, every minute effort to try to make myself more attractive felt like an act of self-violence. Every stroke of makeup carried the implicit criticism: this is what your face looks like, and this is what it’s supposed to look like. Seeing videos of myself laughing sent me into spirals of self-hatred in which I willed my body into disappearance, vowed never to scrunch my face into that shape again. I carried myself like I was apologizing for being alive.

            The conventional way to liberation for the self-loathing unattractive girl is through body positivity. I became an avid fan of inspirational quotes. You are beautiful inside and out! The only way to get a bikini body is to put a bikini on your body! Be your own kind of beautiful. My brain was like a Dove soap commercial. But at a certain point their platitudes started to irk me. What if I don’t think I’m beautiful, I retorted to their patronizing reassurances. What then? Why all this urgency that women consider themselves beautiful at all? Our bodies aren’t something we do, or even really something we make. There’s no cosmic rationale that explains why I have this body and my friend another, no real meaning to be derived from the color of a person’s eyes or the shape of a nose. It’s not my fault was the refrain I came back to. The solemn exhortations to “love your body” and “let your inner beauty shine through,” still carry the vague insinuation of a deficit I’m not sure really exists. In their urgency to have women affirm our beauty, they never really end up questioning why beauty should be so central to our self-worth in the first place. Even the way we adoringly describe our fellow women as beautiful seems to me to be doing them a disservice by so heavily foregrounding an attribute that’s so distantly related to who they are. I think about my childhood self, how liberated feels like the best word to describe the way I felt in my one-piece swim-suit and clunky life jacket, or in my purple corduroy pants and messy ponytail. Did I think my body was pretty then? I don’t think it crossed my mind.

            In the weeks leading up to the performance, I muttered my own writing under my breath to try to memorize it. Trudging down College Street in the snow, I hissed: Why is it so important that I think of myself as beautiful? Why must we reduce womanhood to mere aesthetics, the arbitrary appearance of our outer shell? I curled my hands into fists to warm my fingers. It is not my fault, the way my features arranged themselves. Beauty is not an achievement to be praised. It was a 6th grade rant I had clumsily refashioned and haphazardly submitted to RISE, an annual Bowdoin production which casts women to read aloud the anonymously submitted stories of other women on campus. It was by sheer coincidence that I was assigned to perform my own piece, but I was grateful for it; I wanted my piece to be read with the rhythm, the intonation I had in mind. After a while, practicing it began to feel like I was reciting a spell, or some sort of bizarre, self-deprecating chant. I’m not beautiful, I mumbled mindlessly in the shower, hot water running in rivulets down my calves. I repeated it until my jaw was tired, then stood under the spray, feeling the droplets trace their paths down my body.

            A few days after RISE, I’m sitting at the desk in my room in Mac House. My own words are still running circles in my mind, leftover from weeks of memorizing. I’m not beautiful. It echoes in my head in a constant loop. I’m still not sure if I’ve got it quite right. Is it possible to find liberation, or even contentment, in something that feels so viscerally like self-deprecation? Doesn’t my meekness suggest that I’ve internalized the same logic I’m trying to resist? I’m not the unselfconscious 5th grader with the greasy low ponytail and the Sketchers anymore, and I can’t get her back. I’m not sure if I’m any further from the self-hating girl who came after.

            The worst part of it all is that when I walked into school that day in my Abercrombie Kids top and my high ponytail, I felt, behind the loss of agency, the humiliating consciousness of what seemed like my inherent inferiority, the irreversible inhibition – I felt, too, the unmistakable pleasure in the possibility of being seen as beautiful. It’s seductive, that possibility, and even now, I can’t help wanting to chase it. As Jia Tolentino aptly observes in her book Trick Mirror: “when you are a woman, the things you like get used against you. Or, alternatively, the things that get used against you have all been prefigured as things you should like.” Beauty is hard to stop liking.

            Later, I open a shared photo album someone sent in the GroupMe. There’s one photo of me, about to speak, my hands clasped in front of me. My face looks greasy and red, my hair dull and fuzzy. I wish my upper arm was thinner, my nose a different angle.

            The irony of this moment of self-hatred isn’t lost on me. But there it is: the trap patriarchy sets for women is insidious. It isn’t easily escaped.

About the Author

Kate Tapscott is a current senior at Bowdoin College, where she is double-majoring in English and Hispanic Studies and minoring in German. Her coursework at Bowdoin has nurtured her burgeoning passion for feminism, and she sees writing as the ideal place to tease out the contradictions of life under systems of oppression. She aspires to be able to write for a living, either as an author or an academic. When she is not reading or writing, Kate enjoys doing endurance sports, practicing yoga, and critiquing reality dating shows.