Five-ring Circus

Why Slut Strands Are the Hairdo of the Olympic Games

Chloe Kim, smiling and holding her snowboard
Chloe Kim, strands out, celebrates winning the gold medal in the women’s snowboard halfpipe final at Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou, China, on Thursday. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Did you watch Chloe Kim win gold in the Winter Olympics’ halfpipe final this week? Did you watch her nail her first run, her “safety” run to secure the win, and then go all out trying to land a 1260 in her next two runs even though she could have just boarded straight down the pipe not doing a single trick and still have been on top of the podium?* Wasn’t that awesome? Congrats to Chloe Kim on being both an incredible athlete and generally seeming like a very cool person to boot.

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Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s time to talk about the most important part of her performance on Wednesday night: her hair. (I’m kidding on the “most important” thing. Leave my mentions alone.) You might have noticed that Kim, along with much of the field, competes with two distinct strands of hair pulled outside her helmet on either side of her face. If you watched the women’s freeski big air final, you’d have seen the same look on every athlete coming down the hill. Some competitors, like China’s gold medalist Eileen Gu, opt for smaller, wispier tendrils, while Kim’s look involves more substantial swaths of hair. On Twitter, the look was likened, not inaccurately, to a hairdo from a “ ’90s prom.” But among freeskiers and snowboarders, the style has another name. They’re known, affectionately, as “slut strands.”

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Slut strands aren’t a new thing, nor do they have anything to do with promiscuity, perceived or literal. It’s a term I’ve been aware of since I was a preteen ski racer in the early 2000s, and it certainly predated me and my friends. Though, at the time, as alpine skiers with wild dreams of being the next Julia Mancuso, we hermetically sealed our hair tightly into our helmets, lest anything create aerodynamic drag and slow us down. Important reminder: We were 12. Ski gear, especially older ski gear, tends to make everybody on the hill look like a genderless snow astronaut. (Which, come to think of it, kind of rules.) Slut strands are about signaling to everyone else on the hill that you want to be recognized as a female athlete. That you ski or board just as well as, or even better than all the men who dominate those sports around you. Olympian Maddie Mastro—who finished outside of the top 12 in the qualifying round in Beijing, which meant she didn’t ride in the halfpipe final with Kim—posted a viral TikTok about them back in November of last year. “The feminine urge to pull hair strands out of your helmet every day so people know you are a girl,” reads the text in the video. “Sl*t strands 4 life,” Mastro added in the caption.

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For Elsa Watkins, slut strands are “basically [as] essential as your bindings themselves” and about “showing off your femininity in a simple and cheeky way.” Watkins is the founder of the Slut Strand Society, an apparel company, and an outerwear designer based in Denver. “I’m from Crested Butte. I grew up in a ski shop. My mom owns a couple of ski shops down there. To us, femininity in the outdoor space, and especially our ski world, has always been the forefront of what we do,” Watkins said. “So when we started calling them slut strands in like sixth grade, it kind of just stuck with us. Now it’s turned into a giant global community of ladies and strands.”

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The Slut Strand Society began three years ago, and it now has more than 20,000 Instagram followers. Growing up in a skiing family—Watkins says her older brothers were all also halfpipe and slopestyle skiers—she can’t quite recall the first time she heard the term. “I just grew up always knowing that that’s what we called them,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily like it, per se, but I was like, OK, if this is what we’re gonna call it, we might as well embrace it and make lemons out of lemonade, because obviously the name is not gonna change.” She added that she loves that it’s a trend that is nearly universal for freestyle skiers and snowboarders. “You will hardly see anyone in the Olympics right now without their strands out,” Watkins said.

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“There really wasn’t anyone designing outerwear for girls in that space,” Watkins says of her time growing up on the slopes. “So all we wore was like men’s Armada and men’s Saga,” both popular ski and snowboard apparel and gear brands. “We looked like 14-year-old little boys when we were skiing. That was the only option. So strands were an easy way to show people, oh, that is a girl!” Suffice to say, being seen as a girl on the mountain was very important to Watkins. It still is. And it’s a sentiment she sees reflected back to her while watching the Games in Beijing.

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“It’s a super simple way to make people in the space feel celebrated and included and worthy,” Watkins said of the ubiquitous slut strands. She and her colleagues spend a lot of time talking about promotion and marketing for their gear, but often find themselves wanting to make sure that what they are promoting is improving—and hopefully widening—the winter sports community. Given the high financial and geographic barriers to entry, it’s a community that perhaps unsurprisingly can often be pretty exclusionary—which isn’t helped when you add in the culture of broey camaraderie that dominates many a mountain lodge around the country. “This is the one thing we can promote that’s approachable to absolutely everyone,” Watkins said. “It makes you feel connected by just two strands of hair.”

Correction, Feb. 11, 2022: This article originally misidentified the trick Kim attempted. It was a 1260, not a 1280.

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