What an injury taught me about self-empowerment

It’s the little things, as simple as being able to tie on a ponytail in the mornings, that empower us to take on the day.

Liubov Burakova | Stocksy United

In a quick snap of time I fell. My right shoulder cracking against a granite counter, leaving me sprawled on the floor with a dislocated shoulder, broken bone and nerve damage. I was, temporarily at least, without the use of my right arm. It would be months before I would manage to lift a glass of water to my lips, let alone pull a shirt over my head or drive a car. But I discovered that one of the more debilitating side effects of my injured shoulder wasn’t so much the driving, or cooking, or various other activities I could no longer do, it was my inability to make a simple pony tail.

Just a few days after my accident, still at home with ice and pain killers, I was annoyed by limp hair on my neck and frizzy strands in my face. I handed the black pony tail holder I typically wear around my wrist, now useless to me, to my husband. “You have got to put my hair up for me,” I whined. “It’s driving me crazy.” Teaching him to brush my hair up into a basic pony tail was like trying to teach a toddler to tie his shoelaces for the first time. Suddenly this simplest of jobs seemed complicated and unnatural. It was frustrating to take a casual movement—done thousands of times without thought by me over the years—and break it down into clinically instructional steps. Still, my husband did his best to emulate my left-handed, lame instructions. The result was a mess—off-center, and both too loose and too tight—with pieces of wayward hair clumped painfully in the band.

Lacking the physical ability to sweep my hair up was more than just a vain annoyance; it left me feeling oddly powerless about life in general. What had this accident done to me?”

Next, I approached my son. Unfortunately, because he does not sport a trendy man bun, he was not in practice either. But he gamely tried his best for me, alternately brushing, grabbing and then dropping sections of my hair, and finally getting the band stuck on his own wrist before giving up. If I had been smarter, I would have approached strange mothers of young girls on the street. I am guessing any practiced mom worth her salt could have probably accomplished a pony for me with deftness, even if I were running away from her.

Lacking the physical ability to sweep my hair up and twirl it one, two, three times around with a holder, was more than just a vain annoyance; it left me feeling oddly powerless about life in general. What had this accident done to me? When the doctor told me that my convalescence could take a year or more, I knew I should feel encouraged and grateful that recovery was in the offing, but instead I felt out of control and weak. I had to ask others to cut my food for me. I needed help putting on my coat. I couldn’t carry the groceries. My ponytail powerlessness embodied all of that, perhaps because this hairstyle is one of the first ways a young girl says, “I am an independent force to be reckoned with!”

I recalled the competence and confidence that I felt when I learned to create the simple pony back in grade school. I had finally moved past the childish pixie cut my mother preferred and discovered the joy of longer locks. My busy working mother could now allow longer hair because it wasn’t she who had to deal with it. Oh, those big, shiny, and colorful plastic balls at the end of every ponytail holder in second grade! They made a satisfying clacking noise as they snapped into place around a high waterfall of hair or pair of neat braids.

Tying my hair into a battle-ready ponytail became the female equivalent of rolling up one’s sleeves to charge ahead into work mode—even though I faced a computer screen, not a kick boxing opponent.”

In middle school, of course, we left those loud, childish bands behind, preferring instead the minimalism of thin elastic bands the color of our own hair. In high school, the cool girls made neat buns by jabbing yellow pencils through their swirled hair to hold it in place. The longer the hair, the easier it seemed to twirl it into an impressive updo, sometimes using no implement at all, but just tying and tucking the ends of one’s own hair back into the bun. The hippest girls did it with ease, using a flip and a tussle and a twist, often later pulling the hair back out with a shake and then redoing it multiple times during class. If you were seated behind them, you could witness their lion-like prowess and be in awe of their nascent girl power.

Later in life, the simple wearing of an elastic around my wrist said I was ready for action. I felt naked without a hair tie as a bracelet. For me it became the female equivalent of rolling up one’s sleeves to charge ahead into work mode. Pulling my hair up off my neck and away from my face and tying it into a battle-ready ponytail was invigorating. At work, handling a tough situation meant first putting up my hair—even though I faced a computer screen, not a kick boxing opponent. Having a ponytail holder at the ready said I was not afraid to get dirty and get the job done. Not having one handy could cause a feeling of desperation. I would beg ponytail holders off friends the way chain smokers bum cigarettes.

The feeling of empowerment can come from the smallest of places: even a simple, ordinary hairstyle.”

Now that I couldn’t make that ponytail myself, it made me realize how lucky I had been all that time to simply have two working arms, and a thick mane of hair. It also made me realize that the feeling of empowerment can come from the smallest of places: even a simple, ordinary hairstyle.

Eventually my shoulder grew stronger and I struggled my way to a ponytail of my own making. It was a painful process but a triumph, kind of like growing up out of that awkward pixie cut stage. When I finished, it was—similar to the ones my husband fashioned for me—a little off-center and messy, but it was my own. To someone else it might have seemed like a small victory, but to me it was a watershed moment. Like a superhero dodging a stash of Kryptonite, I felt my power returning.

Ponytail up, my engines felt re-started. There were many other steps on my path to healing physically, of course, but my personal mental healing began with that one (albeit sloppy) little updo.

Antonia van der Meer
Antonia van der Meer
Antonia van der Meer is a magazine writer and the author of "Beach House Happy: The Joy of Living by the Water."

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