The same crap, on top of everything different

[Feature image description: close-up view of the trunk of a Weeping Willow tree, viewed from behind the metal railings of a bridge, diagonally leading away from the bottom left to the top right of the image. The tree is resplendent with masses of bright green leaves hanging downwards. Behind the tree and its branches, a calm river, with a grey stone wall on the opposite bank, is vaguely visible. Photo taken in the grounds of University College Cork.]

A couple of months ago, I was away presenting a session at a conference in the Republic of Ireland. I’m a very infrequent traveller, especially abroad, and so I was pretty pleased with how I got on with getting there. Okay, I allowed far too much time between taxi to the railway station and my train’s departure time, and far longer than necessary at the airport before my flight, because I get anxious. Air travel is an unfamiliar activity for me; I wasn’t sure what to expect, I hadn’t travelled from this particular airport before, and I wanted to allow for any unexpected incidents, occurrences, or disruptions to my itinerary. Getting anywhere “just in time” leaves me stressed, agitated, and liable to meltdown at the smallest trigger.

I had the luxury of a day to myself before the conference. Time alone is something I crave, and rarely get. I had a glorious afternoon walking extensively, visiting art galleries, exploring the streets, sampling the food. A lingering bath in my hotel room. Uninterrupted time to read a book. To say that this was refreshing and rejuvenating would be the biggest bloody understatement imaginable.

That evening, there was a pre-conference drinks reception.  Finger foods. Lots to drink. And my God, I networked like a pro. Like a boss, as goes the modern vernacular.

The next day was a full day of workshop sessions. The conference was deliberately “unplugged”, which meant no tech, no PowerPoint, no videos. Delegates had been asked to read papers in advance and be prepared to focus on discussion when in the sessions. The emphasis, therefore, was on listening, and on spoken interaction. I had one session to chair, and another to present. By the end of the day, of course, I was tired. My employers had only paid for me to attend one of the three days, but that in itself was pretty demanding.

Despite the intensity of those two days, I managed well. I enjoyed it. And I had a day off work once I got home to sleep, rest, and recuperate. But throughout it all, there was one thing that bothered me. That angered me.

And it had nothing to do with work, or autism.

It had nothing to do with poor wifi coverage, extra high sensory demands, or fellow presenters not adhering to the strict guidance about the format of the sessions. It had nothing to do with exhaustion, anxiety over social interactions with strangers, or the fact that, upon setting up for my own session, I realised I hadn’t brought some of my kit with me (don’t worry folks; it was nothing essential, and I coped well regardless).

No. It was none of those things.

You see, I have no full-length mirror at home. And so I often move around blissfully ignorant as to how my clothes fit my body, how “thin” or “fat” I happen to be looking on any given occasion, or whether what I’m wearing is flattering or otherwise.

From time to time I do glance at my reflection in shop windows, or the ground-to-ceiling glass panels of modern office blocks (pity any poor person sitting on the other side; but then, they’re probably used to it). And I’m quite particular about clothes and how they look on me.

But a full-length mirror is just one of those things we haven’t ever got round to buying.  The house my husband and I have lived in since late 2006 still resembles a tatty student dwelling. We’ve updated some rooms, but now that we have small children, and a distinct lack of spare funds or precious spare time, much of our home resides in a state of notable dishevelment. Our bedroom doubles as a storeroom, our toddler son is also still in with us a lot of the time, there are other bits of the house we need to work on before we get round to our so-called master bedroom, so buying a pristine new mirror isn’t exactly high on our priority list.

So occasionally I get caught out. Often it’s when I see myself in photos, captured unawares. But that evening, it was a mirror.

Before heading out to the conference drinks reception, I bathed, got dressed, did my hair and makeup, and all the usual “getting ready for an evening out”-type things. I looked in the full-length mirror of my hotel room, to check all was to my satisfaction.

And I looked again, aghast.

I had had no idea how fuzzily undefined my waist appeared in my chosen outfit; how much it merged with my hips; and how much my thighs merged onwards and upwards in the opposite direction. No idea how seemingly vast was the expanse of my (not actually that enormous) belly. No idea just how small and out-of-proportion my bust appeared in relation to everything else.

And to think – oh, silly me – that I’d been pootling about quite happily in this outfit on numerous occasions, enjoying the many textures, patterns and colours of the details on that tunic top, thinking I’d looked okay in it! What must have possessed me? How dare I?

And then I got angry.

Here I was.

A professional woman, here to deliver a workshop based on the highly acclaimed work of my team, its submission accepted on merit after being rigorously assessed by a judging panel. A woman with two university degrees, a postgraduate teaching qualification, and senior fellowship of a national professional body. A wife of a loving husband and mother of two wonderful children. A person with many friends. A writer of words which, on the basis of comments and messages I have received, have resonated with so many. Someone with wayward biomechanics, anatomical oddities and congenital joint abnormalities, and with limited time to exercise because of a full-time job and young children, who has somehow managed still to maintain a fairly decent level of fitness.

And on top of that, I’d achieved everything I had achieved despite years of confusion, torment, anxiety and depression, living in a word that wasn’t build according to my needs; twisting, bending, and contorting my very being to try and fit into a space that was an unnatural fit to me. 

And here I was, worried about my bloody appearance.

Like so many women, I’d spent a lifetime trying to do the same thing to my physical body that I had been doing for so long to my behaviour, my outward personality, and my responses to the world around me. And after all these years, after all that has happened to me – good or bad – I was still preoccupied with wanting my body to be something other than it was. A body with faults, yes. But a body that is mine, that has done so much, and that has been with me through everything.

Even after coming to terms with the life-changing news that I am who I am, that I’m autistic and that’s okay, I was still dealing with the same crap, on top of everything different.

Many autistic people do not care in the slightest bit about what others think of them. But to say that we are all this way is a gross generalisation. I am not one of these autistic people. This is one area where I cannot relate to so many of my neurosiblings.

Sadly, sometimes, I care all too much, and for all the wrong reasons. And that added layer of “womanly” insecurity on top of it all does no-one any favours – me least of all.

Aut couture: a sartorial life history

Today I noticed something: the stitching on the cuffs of a top I was wearing was coming loose. The top had been bought from a local charity shop (as are the majority of my clothes – I dislike high street shopping). It had been like new when I purchased it…or so I had thought until I noticed that thing today.

Yes, the stitching was coming undone; but what I noticed was that this was not the original stitching. The thread was the wrong colour. It was actually a little untidy and uneven, once visible. The previous owner of the garment had added stitching, in order to tidy away the rather frilly edges of the sleeves.

And it occurred to me: what was the previous owner’s motivation for doctoring the designer’s intended aesthetic? Did they not like the look of the frills? Or did the frills aggravate the person’s senses in a way that was so uncomfortable as to be unendurable?

Could it be, perchance, that my top’s previous owner was a fellow autistic?

I’ve always been fascinated by fashion. But it’s much more the fascination of the observer – I guess it’s an extension of the fascination I’ve always had with people.

From a very early age, I drew. Never landscapes, still life, or anything other than people. Usually just standing around in groups, interacting. Limited or no background scenery. Just the people. I’d attempt to replicate, in grey pencil, the gestures, expressions, postures and stances of the people I observed in real life. Perhaps it was a method of ‘social interaction analysis’. And the clothes they wore were always a big part of this.

Always a little too serious and ‘meta’ to really be into throwaway pop music as a child, I nevertheless used my pencils to try to reproduce album covers, stills from music videos, and so on (always greyscale; never in colour), and I think it was always the visual aesthetic that most interested me.  I was fascinated by the crown-less ‘hat’ Kylie Minogue wore on the cover of her first album, her mass of permed blonde hair tumbling out and over the brim. Not a clothes thing, but another image that always captured my attention was the silhouette, against a blank, white background, of Morten Harket of a-ha singing into a studio microphone in the ‘Hunting High and Low’ video – another image I’d draw repeatedly from memory. But again, it was the stark, visual aesthetic that got me.

I studied closely. And there were times I adopted the looks of others. When I was ten, everyone was wearing brightly-coloured hooded t-shirts, hi-tops and dungarees. God knows, I struggled enough with friendships, so I wanted to wear the same. I never got the appeal of shell tracksuits (another garment popular at the time), though.

The tie-dyed, hippie/grunge hybrid look of early secondary school was again adopted in response to what everyone else seemed to be doing. We younger kids took our cues from those in the years above us. And all the while, I watched the much older girls. And at home in my room, I drew versions of them, in pencil. Fashionable, conversing, enjoying their interactions. Happy in their social groups.

And there were times when I didn’t ‘get it’. As a much younger child,  I would wear my entire collection of brooches all at once, the motley assortment of metal jewellery covering, weighing down and distorting the shape of my sweater.  Later on, it never occurred to me that wearing a Girl Guides sweatshirt much of the time was unacceptable. It really was a lovely shade of blue. And white socks? Apparently they weren’t cool either. No-one ever told me.

As time went on, I started to branch out. When everyone else got black DM boots,  I asked my parents to get me bottle green ones. Slight variations on the norm really appealed to me. By the time the mid-90s arrived, band tshirts were my thing – always skinny fit; always the less prevalent designs – if lots of people appeared to have a certain band’s tshirt, I’d choose a design from their merchandise range that was a little more unusual. And the further I got through secondary school, the more it became apparent that I was never going to be cool, no matter what I did. And thus, the further I deviated from convention in what I wore.

I continued to read teenage girls’ magazines. Sugar. Just Seventeen. More. But I continued to be ‘meta’ about it; I never really bought into their diktat. I was an alien attempting to learn and adopt the culture of another species. Reading these magazines was more of an anthropological exercise than anything else.

And my fascination with fashion continued, even as I, myself, moved further and further away from it.

It amazes me now to think how much I’ve compromised over the years – especially when it comes to comfort. Vintage polyester was scratchy, unbreatheable, quick to snag. For a long time I was convinced that my ‘pear-shaped’ figure  dictated that I should never wear trousers. So I have often endured skirts with tights, even though the feel of tights, at times, makes my skin crawl to the extent that I actually want to vomit, especially on very hot or very cold days. For a long time, I loved the semi-tailored, androgynous look of slim, long-sleeved shirts and skinny ties, despite how much I detested the feel of full-length fitted sleeves against my forearms (although loose sleeves are fine), and despite how impractical, in sweat terms, shirts are when one’s main mode of transport is brisk walking. The underarms were always the first part of the garment to suffer.

Fashion is often impractical. Beautiful at times, astoundingly so sometimes; but comfort isn’t fashion’s main raison d’être. It still fascinates me, however. Fabrics fascinate. Patterns fascinate. Colour combinations fascinate. Shapes and outlines fascinate. And the ways clothes are worn, by real people, fascinates.

But recently, I’ve found myself returning to high street shops. Perhaps it’s nostalgia – many of the ‘looks’ from my teenage years – my formative years – are fashionable once again. And some of them are actually comfortable. Skinny jeans, whilst tight, have a heaviness, and exert a certain degree of pleasant pressure on the skin, that leggings and tights do not. They look good with DM boots – another item that, to me, look amazing whilst also providing a wonderful amount of positive sensory input to my feet and ankles, hugging them tightly as I walk. There are tops of interesting, unusual shapes, many of which are loose under the arms. Practical. I still hate shopping. I always will. Shopping as a preferred pastime is baffling to me. But I’ve managed recently to find things that I like, and that fit.

And then I’m out of the shop and away.

And all of this combines well with heavy eye makeup. I have never been keen on full-face makeup. Foundation cloys, clogs and stifles my skin. Powder dries it. I can never escape the acute awareness that I have additional layers of matter on my skin. And I hate it. I want to claw it all off.

But eye makeup. I love it. I wore elaborate winged eyeliner throughout my teens and early 20s. For a while I gave up – the time, the effort, didn’t seem worth it. But now I feel like I have come home. Eyeliner – and lots of it – is part of how I express who I am.

These days, I am probably shopping ‘below my age’. Because I no longer care. I will wear what works for me. But I will no longer sacrifice comfort. Maybe my top’s previous owner wasn’t autistic. But maybe they were. Perhaps, just as I cut out clothing labels to remove the potential for that excruciating scratching feeling at the base of my neck, that person was adapting a garment to make it work for them. Make comfortable what was stylish.

This subject matter may seem frivolous and vacuous compared to that of other recent posts. But clothes are part of our identity; they’re part of how we express who we are to the rest of the world.

For some – especially women, and other marginalised groups – clothing can be intensely political. I don’t know, perhaps it is, instinctively, for me. But I don’t think I’m making a statement. I’m just wearing what I want to wear.

With a recent formal autism diagnosis, I wish to live authentically. And part of living authentically is dressing in a way that feels authentic to who I am.

The Tyranny of Choice

[Trigger warning: sorry, it’s that EU Referendum thing again.]

This November just gone, with money given to me for my thirty-sixth birthday, I bought my first pair of Doctor Martens boots in quite some years. Metallic purple treated leather. Classic eight-eyelet, ankle-length style. By golly gosh, they’re comfortable, beautiful, and I love them.

I’d got rid of a previous pair of well-loved bottle green ones I’d had throughout my entire teenage years because they were leather, and in my early 20s I was going through an extreme, all-or-nothing vegan phase (obsessively thinking about something means never doing things by halves – veganism had plenty of rules for me to follow, and I needed that control). Leather was an animal product, therefore it was forbidden. Never mind I’d already owned the things for many years.I gave veganism up after five years of strict adherence, but it’s taken me over a decade to buy another pair of beloved Docs. Why now?

I certainly don’t yearn for my teenage years (I’m sure this blog will touch upon these experiences in due course – as a probable Aspie with oodles of memories of teenage angst, social anxiety and confusion, and so on, there’s plenty of material for me to draw upon and write about). Yes, DMs are fashionable right now, and that means there are more of them about. But that wasn’t it.

I guess, at the age of 36, as a parent and a woman with the figure of someone who’s gestated, given birth to and breastfed two children, and as a person with limited time to exercise and limited opportunity to just be myself, I’ve decided I’m sick of pandering to assumptions about how I should look or act.

I’ve also recently started wearing eyeliner again after years of no-makeup-except-on-special-occasions (you’ll never see me with full face makeup, though – the very thought of all that cloying, heavy, suffocating foundation covering my skin makes me shudder); I’m reverting back to the slightly more ‘alternative’ looks of my youth (hurrah for a 90s fashion revival!), albeit without the sweaty, scratchy, vintage polyesters shirts of yore (oh, the discomfort I suffered to look like an ‘individual’).

As for the Docs, I was yearning for an item of footwear that I’d always remembered as comfortable, durable, and very much me, transcending whatever fads or phases I might have been going through. And the way they fit, the pleasant surprise at how well they accommodate the orthotics I wear these days to correct my wayward biomechanics, the way they’ve creased along virtually identical ‘fault lines’ to my original pair, moulding themselves to my feet, and my gait – all of this made me seriously think I might just buy nothing but DM boots and shoes from now on, and forever more. Narrowing down the number of decisions I have to make – or at the very least making the decision-making process simpler – is something I find myself having to do more and more as time goes on.

Why is it I find decision-making so stressful? For me, it seems to be about information, and the very fact of there being too damned much of it. If I’m required to choose between two or more options, my brain is often overwhelmed by the need to consider and carefully appraise all the available information pertaining both to the pros and cons of each alternative.

I’m finding that my ability to manage the more challenging aspects of my autism has reduced considerably in recent years, and I think it’s simply down to having too much to think about, and minimal downtime, mentally, physically, or emotionally. Because of this, I really don’t want to have to spend unnecessary energy on choice.

And so we come back to that bloody referendum again. I said in my last post (the first for this blog) that I wouldn’t be dwelling on politics much on here.  But at a time when I was already overwhelmed – by the onslaught of stimuli both at work and at home, by too many decisions to make, by lack of sleep – I was somehow required to make a decision, like the rest of the UK electorate, on the future direction of our country. This necessitated agonising thought, analysis and internal mental debating (not to mention the overload of debate on social media) that left me exhausted. I, an educated, well-informed person with two postgraduate qualifications and an ability to think critically, did not feel qualified to make this decision. And so I was angry.

And I still am.

Angry at the energy it has cost me to weigh up the arguments for or against remaining in the EU (for what it’s worth, I voted to Remain, but I’m grown up enough to respect differences of opinion and see that these aren’t the be-all and end-all of a person).

Angry at the overload of blanket media coverage.

Angry at the energy I have spent on trying to construct meaningful, calm persuasive words on Facebook to encourage those on either side to continue to respect each other regardless.

And angry that we were ever even given the responsibility to make such a momentous decision.

All at a time when I am already overwhelmed.

Hey ho. At least my Docs are comfortable.