Gender Presentation – An Autistic Perspective5 min read

My mother has often rolled her eyes about the way I choose to express myself physically.  From my short hair (and I mean VERY short) to the selection of my clothes.  This has been a point of contention between my mom and I since I was a little girl.  In fact, I don’t recall having a lot of meltdowns, generally, but I absolutely had full-blown, hours-long meltdowns over clothes. 

Namely, my parents wanted me to wear more feminine clothing as a girl, and I could not process that.  

Being diagnosed at 40 as autistic, I’ve spent the past two years doing much reflection about my lifelong, but formerly unlabeled, autistic experiences.  All those battles over clothes comes to mind.  

I was the first-born daughter to both my mother and father.  (They were split by the time I was born, and have kids from other marriages).  My father is a native of Chile, and in that culture, girls are expected to present ultra-femininely, from birth through adulthood.  This is true to a slightly lesser degree of American culture, as well.  As my parents decided what I should wear, here is what was happening for me:

This dress itches, that seam is scratching me, my legs are exposed to the breeze, and I can feel my leg hair moving ever so slightly, these tights make my tummy hurt, those shoes keep slipping off my heels, my hair is getting in my face, I hate having my hair brushed, it feels like claws on my scalp, that girls’ toy reeks of fake strawberries, it’s so overpowering, I can’t play with it, I can’t think with all this happening, why are they making me do this?  Why can’t I just wear sweats and a t-shirt?  

My mom sort of gave up eventually.  We would make a “deal.” I’d wear something slightly girly, on special occasions, but it couldn’t be itchy, no lace on my skin, and we traded time shopping for girls’ clothes with me getting time shopping for boys’ clothes. 

I will never forget the first time she let this happen and the shirt I picked from the boys’ section.  It was a polo by La Coste, and had the cool alligator on it, like my step-dad wore, but wasn’t itchy, and it was…  PINK.  Best of both worlds.  I actually liked pink; it’s just that most pink clothes were horridly uncomfortable. 

girlonboard

Flash forward to adulthood, and little has changed, except that I am mostly in charge of my clothes.  I have to follow the rules of “business attire” at work, but there’s nothing that says I can’t do that with men’s clothes.  So I do.  

Why?

Men’s’ shirts are cut a little looser.  They’re longer in the sleeve, and I have massively long arms (I’m 5’9″, but my wing span is 6’0″).  I can NOT stand the feeling of the sleeve cuff riding up past my wrist bone, so I need that extra length.  Men’s shirts are also broader in the shoulder area of the back, I don’t feel constrained by them.  Women’s shirts hug too much.  They touch me in too many places.  They keep me from feeling I can stretch out, and I need to stretch out a lot.  

When women’s casual shirts have that high-cut short sleeve?  It sits about one inch too high and rides into my arm pit.  I hate that feeling; it’s distracting and uncomfortable.  Women’s jeans and pants?

First off, they’re too tight, overall.  Second, same issue as with the sleeves: my legs are very long, and I don’t like my ankles exposed to air, even with socks on.  I can feel the air.  Not to mention, women’s pants are cut to be worn higher on the hips.  My torso is super short, and if I wore them where I’m supposed to, I’d look like Steve Urkel’s sister.  No, thank you.  

Men’s pants, however, are designed to sit lower.  They have more room in the groin and other places.  They’re more comfortable.  Not so restrained.  

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Don’t get me started on bras.  I hate them, but I have to wear them for work.  First chance I can, when I get home, my bra is off.  I avoid wearing one as much as possible.  If I can, I buy bras that don’t have underwire.  BUT sports bras are too tight and make me feel like I can’t breathe. 

How about the hair?  Again, this is a sensory thing as part of my autistic experience.  Not only can I absolutely not handle the sensation of hair on my face, eyes, or even baby hairs against my skin, I also do not like the feeling of brushing long hair.  On the contrary, I do like to seek some sensory experiences, and when my hair is freshly cut short, skin-short in some places, I get to “fuzz” it.  It’s a stim for me.  I calm down, fuzzing my hair.  I calm down, running my fingers through my hair where it is slightly longer (a few inches), and I pull slightly at the end of each run-through.  I like the gentle pull on my scalp.  It’s way more mild than the pull of brushing long hair, and thus soothing instead of irritating.  

I’m sure a lot of people think I present my gender as androgynous because I’m gay.  Many people, even in the gay community, assume I internally identify in some way or another, based on my appearance.  This is a false assumption.

Internally, I’m a big ol’ femme girl.  But my autistic experience and sensory drives dissuade me from appearing as such.  I’m not a stone butch.  I’m not even butch.  I’m not really a dyke, either.  I’m a lesbian, yes, but if not subject to the intense sensory experiences of my body and brain, I would look more traditionally feminine.  I don’t dress or cut my hair this way to get attention.  I don’t hate myself.  I don’t NOT think I’m beautiful.  I’m not hiding.  

I’m just feeling.  I’m feeling every little thing more intensely than someone who is not autistic, someone who is not sensory sensitive.  Keep that in mind for me and others in this beautifully varied autistic community.

14 Comments

  1. i have aspergers and m.e .i take part in a lot lot research
    my blog,http;//mark-kent.webs.com
    twitter,supersnopper
    Linkedin,AutismDad

  2. When I was pregnant with my daughter and my shirts started getting tight I borrowed my husbands’ shirts.  And they were so freakin’ comfy!  I was like why aren’t women’s shirts this comfy!  I always preferred t-shirts to shirts and blouses because I felt constrained in blouses.  So I would just wear blouses for special occasions since I loved how they looked just not how they felt.  Anyways as soon as I started wearing men’s t-shirts I realized they were even more comfortable than t-shirts for women.  So I went and bought some men’s t-shirts so I could wear them throughout my pregnancy.  I still wear those t-shirts occasionally.  I really like looking cute though.  I don’t like how I look in men’s clothing but I don’t like how I feel in some women’s clothing.  I feel like I can’t win!

  3. This is really interesting!  I have kind of an opposite thing about clothes – I like things to feel like a second skin as long as it moves with me.  I like the tightness, the compression (I also seek out deep pressure for calming stims).  I love skirts and dresses but I hate to wear them because they’re such a hassle, so my style became combat boots with heels and curve-hugging jeans. 
    I had meltdowns over clothes as a kid, too.  For me it was tags (still bother me), “bad feel” fabrics (anything scratchy or unnatural feeling), and seams in socks or tights (hate them). 
    Thanks so much for sharing this with us!

  4. Lovely article, a delightful read.

    1. August 3rd, 2019 @ 01:03 & 01:07

  5. Correction, August 4th.
    My apologies.  I’m rather tired.

  6. Great article and so relatable.  Much of what you’ve written here fits me to a T…  But there’s another strand, for me, which is demand avoidance (PDA); it’s the expectation that I, as a woman, will conform by dressing a particular way in a specific style, wear make up, etc – I abhor that expectation; it’s a demand with which I will not – cannot!  – comply!  But, even if I could, it would be sensory torture, so it’s a double no from me.

  7. I always take my bra off at home.  Even if my bras are among the most comfortable I’ve ever owned, I hate them anyways.

  8. Excellent article!  Since my diagnosis I’ve discovered amazing people like you who I can actually relate to and it’s still so wonderful to read something and have that whole ‘omg, me too!’  feeling.  I’ve always preferred boys clothes and shorts.  My wardrobe consists of checked and Hawaiian shirts, a few skirts (because I can’t wear shorts at work!) and a million nerdy t shirts.  Since my diagnosis I’ve now been able to wear what makes me feel happy.

    I think you look fantastic and I wish you could wear 100% what makes you comfortable all the time, especially at work.

    Best wishes

    Amber

  9. Hey, have you ever tried a soft bra?  They come in sizes like S, M, and L instead of numbers like 38C or whatever.  They’re kind of like sports bras without the strangle.

    If you haven’t done so already, you should definitely try them.  They’re a lot more comfortable than the usual stuff.

    1. Author

      Thanks! 

  10. I also look quite masculine and I am glad I found your story here.  I thought I was very weird for feeling this way about clothes — I don’t know many autistic people around me that are this sensitive to the feeling of clothes and hair. 

    When I was about 6 years old, I got short hair because I could not stand the feeling of hair in my face and the only thing I did with it was pull on it and chew on it.  I kept pulling out the hair bands and clips.  Now, years and years later, I would really like to have longer hair, because I’d like to dye it and I feel like that’s not worth the effort when my hair is this short.  But I just can’t grow it out. 

    I wear soft bras too.  I have ones that look similar to the Calvin Klein soft bras (but a lot cheaper).  I don’t like to feel my breasts move but I also can’t stand underwire bras, and this is my solution.

    I don’t wear fabrics that feel very smooth, silky or thin.  I mostly wear cotton: jersey (T-shirt and sweater fabric) and denim (jeans fabric). 

    I don’t feel comfortable in things that fit tight.  It’s not that I don’t feel comfortable with showing the outlines of my body: I am fine walking around naked.  I just don’t like the feeling of fabric that close around my skin.  Except sports leggings: I don’t want pant legs flapping around me when I run. 

    I have been questioning my gender identity for multiple years now and reading your story helps me (for now) to feel OK with dressing masculine and having a woman body. 

    Well, this reaction became a story on its own…  Woops XD

  11. You pretty much described exactly how I feel about girls’ department clothing, and I had a very similar relationship with my parents in terms of girls’ clothing – it took hours and hours to find something “formal” I could wear that was still technically girls’ clothing.  Most girls’ clothing is so restrictive.  ESPECIALLY those sleeves.  They aren’t really sleeves!  They’re fake sleeves.  Sleeves are supposed to go past your armpit!  Most girls’ t-shirt sleeves do not.  Sometimes I wish I could just order some extra-small men’s shirts as I think they’d be the perfect fit, but instead I just wear slightly baggier small men’s shirts (since most don’t have an extra-small size). 

    Also one other thing – women’s pants don’t have pockets!  Or if they do, they’re tiny pockets.

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