Gender Presentation – An Autistic Perspective

Jun 15, 2022

With thanks to The Autistic Wolf - Wolf Traverso for her contribution to this week's blog, the original article was written for Neuroclastic.

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 come 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. 

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, the 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.  

Don’t get me started on bras.  I hate them, but I have to wear them for work.  The 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 milder 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.