This first-person article is by Julie Green, a writer who was diagnosed with autism in her 40s. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.
I have a confession: I never understood fashion or beauty. I observed the rituals of other women as one observes an alien species. For decades I tried to emulate the way these creatures dressed and wore their hair, but it often felt unnatural and deeply uncomfortable.
Then, at age 45, I was diagnosed with autism. It gave new meaning to the term “fashion victim” – that certain fabrics can inflict literal pain on people like me.
Although autism does not affect everyone equally, many people on the spectrum can be hypersensitive to sounds, sights, smells, touch and tastes. I am fortunate that my sensory issues remain relatively mild and manageable.
As I slowly come to terms with the hypersensitivity which is an integral part of my autismyears of sidestepping fashion and beauty trends have taken their toll and left me with a festering insecurity about my appearance.
From an early age, I cut the tags off of every piece of clothing I owned, which was a risk in itself since the cut edge could end up being more jagged and irritating than the tag itself. The year my grandmother started knitting was particularly cruel. She bought a pattern and faithfully reproduced the same sweater in different colors for each of her grandchildren, so help us, we were expected to wear these rash-causing sweaters. From then on, I gave up wool, linen and countless other fabrics.
I also gave up jeans with their stiff seams and buttons. Puberty inflicted a special kind of punishment. Finding a bra that I could tolerate wearing for a long time became an ongoing struggle. I have never owned a pair of heels. I didn’t wear any fancy underwear either. I’ve avoided a whole host of beauty procedures that I don’t understand that frankly look like medieval torture.
Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that I wasn’t as beautiful or sexy or feminine as other women because I didn’t have… could not – look or dress as they did.
Not everything is bad; being “low maintenance” probably has saved me a lot of money over the years.
But my hypersensitivity goes beyond simply choosing to wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Some people on the spectrum struggles with basic grooming and hygiene rituals such as washing or brushing hair. And this struggle can interfere with daily life. While in college, I was so bothered by the feel of the hair on my scalp that I shaved my head just to relieve myself. It was a matter of necessity – not a radical fashion statement – and it left my self-esteem in tatters. Although I love long hair, I’ve mostly kept mine short over the years.
Thorny collars and itchy dresses were hallmarks of my 80s childhood. Fortunately, times have changed. Many manufacturers have ditched sharp labels in favor of printed labels, and the world as a whole is a better place for that. There are less sadistic bra options if you know where to look. And a genius created comfortable shoes known as Sketchers. Even jeans (once my nemesis) are softer. Brands have become wiser, kinder. Or maybe I just got wiser and kinder to myself.
With so many people working remotely during the pandemic, loungewear has become all the rage. It was surreal to see generally elegant, dressier women suddenly wearing my uniform.
One day, I stumbled upon my dream joggers. It was a lovely olive shade, lined with fleece, and the second I put it on I wondered where it had been all my life. I rushed online to buy a set in every color available, only to find the price had been raised, probably due to its popularity.
Unable to justify the expense, I reluctantly emptied my cart. At that time, I wished the women of the world would return to their power suits and stiletto heels. You can have anything I wanted to tell them, just far from the olive jogging set.
I no longer envy fashionistas and I finally gave up dressing like them. Instead, for the first time in my life, they’re the ones trying to dress like me. It may have taken 45 years and an autism diagnosis, but I finally feel comfortable in my own skin.
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