To speak through Anaïs Nin: “I’m easily obsessed.” So it is with running. I’ve been running regimentally enough now (5.5 mile-trail, three times a week, since June, pace whittled down from 49 to 41 minutes) for the activity to gel into an identity. As a form of physical exercise, running of course carves fat off: my body feels almost Lindsay Lohan-ish now. As a form of psychic exercise, I could feel it adding to my hips and boobs. I knew this I became just as, if not more, excited about the September issue of Runner’s World as I was with that of Paris Vogue: Lara Stone styled like Scarlett O’Hara? Lovely, but I’m too busy reading up on the dangers of overstretching and the new Nike Lunarglide sneakers. So, as with all things in my life, it is time for me to measure the distance between “runner” and “girl.”
I suppose that the first and simplest way in which an activity becomes feminized is by being performed by females. In that, I felt vindicated upon learning that Mia Kirshner, a.k.a. my femme namesake, Jenny Schecter of The L Word, is also a runner (a triathlete to be exact). But of course, that an activity becomes gendered by the gender of its practitioner is a pretty boring, and I think, ultimately inaccurate concept. Rather, I find that more often, an activity is already gendered as a process, which gives gendering shape to its practitioner. But running seems pretty gender-neutral: moving your legs on a path while sweating doesn’t seem particularly feminine.
Or perhaps, moving your legs on a path while sweating isn’t recognizably feminine. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his memoir as a runner-writer, Haruki Murakami writes: “I run to acquire a void.” He’s referring to the luxurious blankness of his mind while running, and I love that idea. But “void” is also the way in which women have traditionally been figured in Western thought, along with “hole,” “lack,” “castrated.” I like thinking about jogging’s mental paving as a paving of a brain-vulva: the vulval void as a luxury item rather than a handicap.
Weirdly enough, there’s another moment in Murakami’s book which displays a tangential awareness of this feminine link. Here, Murakami describes some fellow runners who pass him as he is jogging in Cambridge: they are girls, “Harvard freshmen,” he guesses. These girls are “healthy, attractive, and serious, brimming with self-confidence.” To top it off, they are “small, slim,” and have “blond hair in a ponytail.” What’s interesting is that this sketch is lodged in a chapter titled “Even If I Had a Long Ponytail Back Then.” Murakami, an Asian man, compares himself, rather competitively, with these gals. They might pass him in running, but he passes them in life experience: “these girls probably don’t know as much as I do about pain.” And sure enough, the girls’ inexperience with the dark side of life is symbolized by their running hairdos: “their proud ponytails swinging back and forth.” Murakami differentiates himself:
“But even if I had a long ponytail back then, I doubt if it would have swung so proudly as these girls’ ponytails do.”
This is probably why I hate symbols: it’s so laden, too easy. The ponytail here functions rather like a butt-face: you know, the frat house-y joke of magic-markering faces on beer bellies or butt cheeks. Here, the ponytail gets read as if it were a face. It is easy to scapegoat the ponytail as an emblem of the (presumably) white upper-middle class privilege of these Harvard freshmen because the “proud ponytails swinging” have the perky provenance of 50s white femininity. The original Barbie, Sandra Dee, and Olivia Newton-John as “Sandy” in Grease: bouncy, blond, innocent. The ponytail indeed swings up, balancing out their pert little ski-slope noses.
I like it that even though he is disidentifying from these ponytailed girls, the male Murakami (no femme is he judging from author pics) imagines himself with a long ponytail. Gender doesn’t seem a barrier to identification—even if he identifies to back away from that identification. Still, when Murakami says that his ponytail wouldn’t have a proud swing, I wonder if he takes his own metaphor seriously enough. Does he imagine that his ponytail wouldn’t swing “proudly” or that it wouldn’t swing at all—the swinging itself a prideful act akin to flagwaving? But if he still imagines himself a jogger, what else is a ponytail to do but swing?
Take it from this crow-haired ponytailed runner: the runner’s ponytail swings. When I used to run regularly six or so years ago in San Francisco (all those fucking hills!!), I was just growing my hair out for the first time, and also just beginning to accept my identity as a girl. When I’d suit up to run, I’d either braid my hair in a taught immoveable rope or a tight immoveable knot. I thought that to run with a ponytail swinging behind me would weigh me down. Boy, was I wrong. This year, I said Fuck It for the same reason I do most of the things in my life: I’m lazy. To my pleasant surprise, I found that the ponytail didn’t weigh me down at all. Actually, I rather enjoyed the swing of weight behind my head. It made me feel like Black Beauty, or Wonder Woman. I wouldn’t call this feeling “pride” but it wasn’t “shame” either.
And the ponytail doesn’t always “swing;” it also “whips.” Running by the bay, the winds can get awful fierce sometimes and many a day, my cheeks would get slapped by my own hair, or I would take in a mouthful of ponytail with my running inhale. Others might see a runner’s ponytail as swinging smugly, but to the runner, to the serious femme runner, the ponytail is like femininity itself: a thing that hurts you but a thing that allows you to make yourself.
Personally, I have two rather different, darker associations with ponytails. One, Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Rabbit Catcher”:
It was a place of force—
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.
I like to think that the void I’m acquiring while running is putting me in touch with this “place of force:” when the torque of the jog feeds me my own hair, I’m being possessed so hard by the women who lived before me that it feels like erasure.
The second, Helen Mirren on playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the BBC television series Prime Suspect:
Well, obviously, it was important that I looked like a policewoman, and so the hair was an issue. I'd always had long, blonde hair, and the general feeling was that it should be cut as I knew policewomen didn't, and don't, run around with long flowing hair, as people can grab it. So if they have long hair it's either tied back, or it's short.
The ponytail is feminine accoutrement as flexible armor to patriarchal violence. It begins in the playground: long hair makes anyone vulnerable to grabbing and pulling. The ponytail, while still more dangerous than a bob, allows the woman to retain an obvious femininity while performing a traditionally masculine act. Like catching criminals. Like...long distance running?
So while I probably also have nothing in common with perky blond ponytailed joggers, I feel more akin to them when I run than I do to old Asian men. I mean, come on. I jog in one of my favorite t-shirts: a pink Belinda Carlisle summer tour shirt from 1986. (I’m trying to wear it down to a particular transparency, down from Pepto pink to strawberry ice cream pink) My new Indian name: Runs With Pink Ladies. When I run, I don’t feel like Olivia Newton-John in Grease, the goodie-two-shoes who has to be lured into being sexy by her desire for a guy rather than by the seductive attitude of the girl gang, the Pink Ladies. Instead, I feel like Michelle Pfeiffer in Grease 2: the leader of the Pink Ladies, the eternal bad girl, hair whipping in surly defiance.