I Used Clothing As Armor But Now I'm Using It To Express Myself

Explore me with your eyes, but don’t ask me too many questions.

I've always tried to express myself through my clothing, weaving allusions to subcultures and obsessions into the fabric I drape myself with.

My clothing is a billboard, and everything I wear carries a message, right down to the schlumpy flannel-lined jeans and cavernous coat I wear to walk the dog in winter. (The message right there is "I don't give an eff.")

I'm also a person who struggles with social anxiety. I love people, and crave being around them. However, it's a love affair that has often ended in tears -- or me hyperventilating in a bathroom while I lie paralyzed on the floor certain that if I leave something horrible will happen.

There's a lot of different ways I've learned to cope with my terrified, paranoid, and feral instincts.

Some of them are healthy, like relaxing breathing techniques, or giving myself permission to excuse myself and take a walk around the block at any time; having a really supportive group of friends who are mutually honest about their own issues has been invaluable as well.

Some of my coping instincts contribute less to my flourish. I drink too much, and I pave over my insecurity with loud obnoxiousness and weird outfits.

I use clothing as psychological armor, a way to deflect or attract the gaze of strangers. Compliments and curious questions from strangers inflate my ego, allowing me to stalk the streets with the head-flung-back certainty of one who knows they have an unalienable right to be there.

Cloaking myself in ostentatious finery is a way of refuting anyone’s doubts about my worth before they have them.

As much as it’s a way to draw people in, like the lush colors of a carnivorous tropical plant, it’s also a way to keep them out. Don’t go too deep, the unspoken message warns; let’s keep this relationship shallow. Explore me with your eyes, but don’t ask me too many questions.

I wrapped my unchecked social anxiety up in cotton, lace, spandex and marabou; and much like any sublimated psychological issue, it wormed its way out, and manifested in compulsive rules that strayed far from the mandates of popular fashion.

For a while, I became obsessed with color matching. I identified strongly with the subjects of this article, without the monomaniacal focus on one single color. When someone asked me what my favorite color was, I’d dreamily answer, “the rainbow.”

The compulsive side of my monochromaticism was not quite as candy-colored. I could only wear two colors at a time, pairings that brought out synesthetic associations in my mind.

Yellow and green reminds me of lemon and lime; green and black is reminiscent of the command-line computer programs used by 1980s bankers. Pink and purple are the colors of pastel femme unicorn princesses frolicking in Lisa Frank wonderlands.

It sounds cute, but consider the fact I also considered black and white colors.

The ability to wear purple, pink, AND white took me months of struggle and tears, and if you suggested that I throw some black on top of that I would have a meltdown faster than an ice sculpture in August.

Wearing the wrong color combinations in public made me feel like I was breaking the rules of existing in the world, and made me want to spend the day naked and crying in bed; never mind that these were all rules I invented.

More recently, I've been coping with the gender dysphoria that has ruled me intermittently since pubescence, and my identity as a genderfluid boyfemme. Sometimes vintage lingerie, glitter slicks, and fat sticky lipglossed lips are an indulgence, a way for me to lull myself into comfort with my own unwillingly feminine body.

I own my body, and I can make it look pretty, and my queerness is not up for debate no matter what I'm wearing. But sometimes I feel like a fraud and a fake and a masquerading transgender boy when I put on the dresses and cardigans that I've long decided are the cheapest and most flattering professional wear I can afford.

Sometimes the shape of my body poking through clothing sets off nauseating waves of dysphoria. Before I know it I’m cloaking my body in oversized t-shirts, strangling my lungs in too-tight binders, and camouflaging my curves with layers of denim and flannel.

I turn into a self-conscious nine-year-old boy in his big brother’s clothing, dripping with sweat and self-loathing.

I started maintaining separate wardrobes. Any pink polka-dotted undies sneaking their way into my teenage skateboard dirtbag outfits were another rule broken, setting off the same YOU DID SOMETHING WRONG AND ALSO PS YOU’RE WORTHLESS alarm bells that wearing yellow, blue, and red together used to.

Something that’s helped me relax the rules surrounding my gender expression has been the realization that if I was assigned male at birth, I’d be an extraordinarily femme boy, and that would be just fine.

I can’t imagine a world where I don’t love Hello Kitty. And if hypothetical AMAB-Cupcake is allowed to wear pink and paint his nails and still be genderqueer, then real life AFAB-Cupcake is allowed to, too. Breaking down the gender binary doesn’t mean making up more rules to enforce it.

Ultimately, if you choose to use fashion as a form of self-expression, it should make you feel more confident. It shouldn’t be something that you punish yourself for. I’ve realized how many rules I’d crafted for myself that didn’t make any sense, and worked out coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety that breaking those rules induces.

I’ve educated myself on femme invisibility in queer and nonbinary communities, and sought out sources of fashion inspiration that go beyond the popular image of genderqueer people as white, thin, tall, flat-chested, feminine of face and effortlessly masculine in presentation. I’ve bonded over my love of stereotypically “girly” things with other trans people.

When I think I’m being judged by strangers, I take a deep breath and remember that they’re just as wrapped up in their own internal self-revolving universe as I am, and any judgments they may be making on my personal appearance says more about them than it says about me.

This is not to erase the experience anyone who has been gender/body policed, bullied, held back, or harassed for their appearance; I feel for you. Your struggle is real, and your thrive is more important than the opinion of assholes.

Use your personal expression as a way to build yourself back up, not tear yourself down.

You create the rules -- which is another way of saying: there aren’t any.