Tag Archives: style

On Identities and the Process of Being

May not have a strong sense of identity, and can be very chameleon-like, especially before diagnosis.

Questions place in the world.

I read those sentences on a couple of long lists of traits which are common among autistic women((The most comprehensive ones were Rudy Simones lists of female Asperger syndrome traits, and Samantha Craft’s “Females With Aspergers Syndrome Checklist“.)), but which are not necessarily diagnostic criteria. I found myself going over those lists again and again, eyes twitching across the page as my thoughts raced, seeking patterns and explanations. Words were suddenly put to a strange emptiness I’ve long sensed inside me.

Ironically, reading those lists, and seeing comment discussions where other people exclaimed how they described them so perfectly, my sense of disconnect and outsidership was made worse. That’s not me, I thought as I read something that didn’t fit, That’s not me either… And then every now and then, sentences like the ones above hit me like a fist in my stomach, leaving me reeling.

Who am I even?

2004, a lifetime ago. I would say I was looking for something even then, but honestly, I can’t remember.

I have always battled that feeling of being an outsider. That life is a party I can’t seem to join even if I was invited and wanted to go. I stand outside, looking at the rest of you with my hand pressed against the window. Occasionally, someone steps outside and joins me in my world, and then I’m less lonely for a while. But in the end, I carry a conviction within me of being fundamentally separate from the social world that surrounds me.

I don’t want to be alone. I want to be part of something.

I try not to shame myself for this longing I have to fit in, if not with normative society then at least some sort of tribe. But it’s sometimes difficult. I always thought of myself as an individualist — in fact, if there was ever a label I identified with, that would be it. Seeing the “normal” people around me as enemies while I grew up seeded an intense desire to distance myself from them, from everyone. To swim against the current, not because it wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go, but simply for the sake of it.

Because I had no idea where I wanted to go. I knew what I didn’t want for myself, but not much more than that.

 

I realise this is rather abstract. So let’s take style, for example. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I happily let my mother buy my clothes. Her ideas of how I should dress were slightly eclectic but in no way extreme, and that suited me just fine. I liked being different and getting acknowledged for it.((Besides, clothing stores gave me some pretty severe anxiety, although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. All I knew was that I was completely incapable of going into one, looking through the racks, deciding what to try on and then deciding if I wanted to buy anything, because it was all just overwhelming.))

The thing is, I was never sure if something I thought looked good actually looked good. And despite this idea that I was an individualist, that I did things my way, up until the last few years I could never wear an outfit I wasn’t absolutely sure was acceptable to others — not unless it had been explicitly approved by someone else. Letting someone else buy my clothes was simply the easiest option.

I don’t need my mother to buy clothes for me anymore. But the fact is that even as an adult, every major shift in my personal style has been precipitated by me finding new people who inspire and encourage me to try something out that I previously didn’t quite dare to do.

 

Noticing this pattern, not just in dress sense but in how my interests, hobbies and overall focus in life has shifted over the years, has left me with a feeling that I lack … substance. Of course, I see “personality” not as a thing but as a constant, ongoing process. We are all being shaped and reshaped by our past, other people, our surroundings, circumstance, the world we live in, and so on.

I’ve identified with a lot of things in the past. Particularly movements; at first atheism and natural science geekdom, then humanism, then skepticism — never leaving the previous identities behind, but simply shifting focus. I’ve identified strongly as a beekeeper, as well. Then I spent a few years identifying as a kinkster.

And now? Now I don’t know. I’ve left all those lives behind, if not the interests and opinions. I have picked up a number of new labels for myself: Nonbinary, relationship anarchist, programmer, neurodivergent, gardener. But none of them have become my “primary attribute”, and I feel insecure about many of them. Insecure whether I fit in, whether I’m truly allowed to use them about myself. This despite my own very strong ideological viewpoint that labels of identity is something that each person must be allowed to pick for themselves.

Pop culture tells me that you’re supposed to have a strong sense of self that is more or less constant. That there’s supposed to be an unchanging core that is you. And, well, I don’t think I have one. I don’t know, because just like I’m not sure what it’s supposed to feel like to have a gender identity, I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like to have an identity overall.

Which brings me back to autism.

What if there’s nothing there?

May not have a strong sense of identity…

I think it hit me so hard because it dawned on me that there might not be an answer to the question of who I am. That I might be navigating this labyrinth trying to find my core, only to find that it’s empty.

The fact is, I very much would like to be diagnosed with ASD. I can’t get rid of the notion that it would allow me some respite from the background buzz in my head: Who am I? Why am I? Why don’t I know these things already? It’s hard not to shame myself for it. I question my need for labels. Why should I need labels to know who I am?

But I do want a word for what I am. I want an explanatory model.((It does not escape me that this desire to categorise and label myself could very well be seen as a symtom.)) And I want it to come from outside of myself, because apparently I can never, ever trust myself to do things right on my own. I want someone with a degree to hand me a piece of paper saying I’m allowed to use this word about myself.

 

At the same time, on a different level, I really don’t care. Right now, I am so wrapped up in the process of being, that most of the time I don’t mind that I don’t know what that actually entails. The other day, I thought to myself that I feel like I have grown up a lot over the past year, but then immediately changed my mind: I don’t think there is such a thing as “growing up”, because that implies that we are all reaching for some sort of finished state. As I said, I see personalities as far more malleable than that.

Personalities, to use a gardening metaphor, grow like long-lived perennials. We’re modular and resilient, changing shape and direction depending on what goes on around us. I guess I used to think that everyone was a tree and that I had to be a tree too, but now I feel like maybe I’m a climbing vine, or something else entirely.

More importantly, it doesn’t matter in the end. Because a plant doesn’t need to know its shape or heritage to keep on growing.

Dressing Outside the Box: My Journey of Self-Expression

Anyone who’s known me for longer than a year, however superficially, knows I’ve undergone some dramatic changes lately when it comes to how I present myself. I suppose it’s not so obvious for everyone that these changes have been a long time coming. They would have come a lot earlier, if not for the strange way my strongly individualistic nature has clashed with my equally strong desire to fit in and follow the rules.

I was bullied as a kid – surprise surprise – and although that time has definitely left its scars, the strange thing is how I can’t remember what I was bullied for. Kids make up all sorts of arbitrary reasons to pick on each other, of course, but usually these reasons are communicated to the victim. Not so much, in my case. Anyway, I do remember one time where a boy accused me of having cheated on a test. I remember it because that was one of the few times I hit back (verbally, at least). Because the very implication that I might have cheated got me furious.

Okay, but what’s this got to do with style? In my case, everything, as it turns out.

Ingrained Rules

A need to follow rules has been a very strong theme in my life, without me knowing it. I always considered myself a very individualistic person, an outsider who likes to do things their own way. But fact of the matter is, I’m terrified of being caught having done something wrong. Even if that is simply wearing my hair wrong or combining the wrong pieces of clothing.

At the same time I’ve been actively uninterested in fashion. As in, I considered it anathema to the person I wanted to be. There were styles like synth and goth that appealed a lot to me ever since I was a teenager, but where I felt like trying them out would be putting on a costume. I listened to the wrong music, I didn’t have the energy or interest in learning to wear make-up … basically, I thought I had to buy the entire package to be allowed to wear the clothes and hairstyles I thought looked cool.

All this meant that I often dressed well, and in some ways originally, but always somewhat conservatively.

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Um… #gpoy time!

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So that’s one aspect of what I used to look like. But my need to do things right didn’t just mean shutting myself out of alternative fashion. It also meant that I restricted myself to an imaginary binary.

Stuck in the Binary

It’s been a couple of years since I realised I completely lack a gender identity (what this means exactly is something I’ll probably get back to in a future post). When I first did, I didn’t think much of it. I’m AFAB and wore femme clothing, and as such enjoyed all the privileges, such as they are, of being interpreted as a ciswoman. And since gender literally means nothing to me, I didn’t really care if people kept thinking of me as a woman.

I also made one of the most embarrassing errors of thought I can remember: I thought, “Well, if I’m gonna dress as a man, I’d want to pass, and with these wide hips and narrow shoulders, ain’t no way that’s ever gonna happen.”

It never once struck me that there are other ways to present myself than fully feminine or fully masculine. That there’s a whole spectrum of gender expression, I knew. That there are plenty of people breaking the binary and challenging norms, I knew. I applauded and looked up to them. But for myself, I was completely entrenched in binary thinking.

So I thought that if I couldn’t pass, dressing masculine was pointless, and I told myself that with these wide hips of mine there simply was no chance of ever fooling anyone. Except perhaps very briefly, if seen at a distance. Simply going butch was never on the map, and what’s even stranger, it never struck me that I could dress androgynously. Even though I’ve carried a life-long fascination with androgyny.

All this changed, obviously. It changed through meeting the right people. The first step was, somewhat ironically, embracing femininity. Although I definitely had an interest in looking good before, I suffered from internalised femmephobia, which prevented me from wearing skirts and the colour pink. It’s okay, you can laugh. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

The first step involved meeting a man who was interested in fashion. Not fashion as in what’s fashionable, but as in how to find clothes that suit yourself as a person, how to combine them to accentuate good features, etcetera. And I realised that hey, this is actually a legitimate interest. A hobby, even. One doesn’t have to be shallow or vain (attributes frequently associated with femme) to find this interesting or fun. Besides, if I refused to wear clothes I liked simply because our culture tells me I should wear them because of my perceived gender, then in a way, culture would still be winning.

And that was the beginning of my femme revolution.

Over the next few years I enjoyed a variety of styles with a focus on around-kneelength skirts and brightly coloured and patterned tights. I mostly went either for conservatively cute (as opposed to full lolita) or high femme.

The problem was, it still wasn’t me.

Letting Go of the Rules

The final change began when I started hanging out with the people who are now my closest friends (and in some cases, lovers). Suddenly I was surrounded with piercings and sidecuts and interesting, norm-breaking styles of dress and above all, a very relaxed attitude towards it. They were not cliqueish in the least, and when I started expressing an interest in trying out some new style elements – like dying my hair in unnatural shades – this was met with enthusiastic support and offers of help.

And so I took my first few careful steps. A purple ombre. A discreet undercut. A not so discreet medusa piercing. A sidecut. Another sidecut.

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I am not a woman. I don't know what it feels like to have a gender identity at all, which is why I style myself agender. I am not a woman. I have learned to play the part, and to some extent it has been both enjoyable and empowering to embrace chosen parts of hegemonic femininity. But it doesn't define me. It never has. I am not a woman, but I know what it feels like to be seen as and treated as one. Thus I am a feminist. Today, on Intl Women's Day, I ponder how lucky I am to live in a time and place that allows me to think about gender identity and expression in terms like these. Most people never had that luxury. So – here's to past victories, and future success. #internationalwomensday #iwd #iwd2016 #nonbinary #enby #agender

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And then, sometime this spring, I had many long conversations about gender identity and expression with my partner Deus, and through these realised what should have been obvious all along: I had been LARPing a woman, and for a long time felt comfortable in that role. But I didn’t have to keep doing that. I didn’t have to pretend to be anything that wasn’t me.

I could, in fact, start dressing to look androgynous. Or butch. Or weird. Or whatever I feel like at the moment.

And that’s where I am today. I cut my hair off and dyed it black and purple. I wear a fake leather jacket and prefer men’s clothing, especially trousers, which just have so much more space than the ridiculously tight trousers I wore before. I also happily abandoned the grossly uncomfortable underwire push-ups I had squeezed my diminutive bosom into (telling myself I needed it to get closer to the much-coveted hour-glass figure), in favour of sports bras.

And not just that – I started sitting differently. And standing, and walking. I suddenly became acutely aware of how I, while trying to act like a woman, had constantly been policing my own behaviour, adjusting it to fit the idea of what an attractive female person should be like. Now, I’m finding it amusing to try to emulate male ideals instead, in an attempt to perhaps land somewhere in the middle.

Dressing Outside the Box: My Journey of Self-Expression | alexfelicia.net
Same same but different. The picture on the right was taken in 2012, the one on the left is recent.

In the end, this journey (which obviously isn’t over yet) has led to all sorts of insights about myself and how I express my personality through my exterior attributes. I’m happy to say I haven’t just become far more relaxed about how I present myself, but also less judgmental of others. In the end, the important thing is to dress and look the way you like and feel comfortable with.

So, if you’re reading this and feeling even the slightest twinge of envy: Just Do It. Go on and buy that piece you’ve been ogling but didn’t think you’d dare wear, or get your trimmer and shave a side-cut. It’s less scary and more liberating than you think, and you can always change your mind.