Canada·First Person

My autism diagnosis helped me accept my fashion choices and feel good in my skin

At 45, Julie Green was diagnosed with autism. That’s when she understood the term “fashion victim” differently.

My hypersensitivity to fabrics meant I couldn’t dress like many other women

Julie Green models three different outfits that do not irritate her skin or aggravate her sensory challenges. (Submitted by Julie Green)

This First Person article is by Julie Green who is a writer who was diagnosed with autism in her 40s. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I have a confession: I have never understood fashion or beauty. I've observed the rituals of other women as one observes an alien species. For decades, I tried to mimic how these creatures dressed and wore their hair, but it often felt unnatural and deeply uncomfortable to me. 

Then, at age 45, I was diagnosed with autism. It brought new meaning to the term "fashion victim" — namely, that certain fabrics can inflict literal pain in people like me. 

Although autism does not affect everyone in the same way, many people on the spectrum may be over-responsive to sounds, sights, smells, touch and tastes. I am fortunate that my sensory issues remain relatively mild and manageable. 

While I am slowly coming to terms with the hypersensitivity that forms a core part of my autism, the years spent circumnavigating 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 from every piece of clothing I owned, which was a risk itself since the cut edge could end up more jagged and irritating than the tag itself. The year my grandmother took up knitting was an especially cruel one. She bought a pattern and faithfully reproduced the same sweater in different colors for each of her grandkids, and so help us we were expected to wear those rash-inducing sweaters. From then on, I renounced wool, linen and countless other fabrics. 

Julie Green wears her favourite outfit in 1987. (Submitted by Julie Green)

I also renounced jeans with their stiff seams and buttons. Puberty inflicted a special kind of punishment. Finding a bra I could tolerate wearing for any length of time became a perennial struggle. I have never owned a pair of heels. Nor have I donned fancy undergarments. I have eschewed a whole host of beauty procedures I don't understand and which frankly sound like medieval torture. 

 Somewhere along the way I became convinced that I wasn't as beautiful, sexy or feminine as other women because I didn't — couldn't — look or dress the way they did. 

It's not all bad; being "low maintenance" has probably saved me a lot of money over the years.

But my hypersensitivity extends beyond simply choosing to wear comfy clothes and shoes. Some people on the spectrum struggle with basic grooming and hygiene rituals like hair washing or brushing. And that struggle can interfere with daily life. While in university, I once became so bothered by the sensation of the hair on my scalp that I shaved my head just to get relief. Doing so was a matter of necessity — not a radical fashion statement — and it left my self-esteem in tatters. Although I love long hair, I have mostly kept mine short over the years. 

Prickly collars and scratchy dresses were the hallmarks of my '80s childhood. Mercifully, times have changed. Many manufacturers have ditched sharp tags in favour of printed labels, and the world at large is a better place for it. There are less sadistic bra options available if you know where to look. And some genius created comfy footwear known as Sketchers. Even jeans (once my sworn nemesis) are softer. Brands have grown wiser, kinder. Or maybe I have simply grown wiser and kinder to myself. 

Julie Green prefers to wear comfortable shoes, such as these sneakers. (Submitted by Julie Green)

With so many people working remotely during the pandemic, loungewear became trendy. It was surreal to see usually stylish, more dressed-up women suddenly wearing my uniform. 

One day, I stumbled upon the jogging set of my dreams. It was a beautiful olive shade, fleece lined, and the second I put it on, I wondered where it had been all my life. I hurried back online to buy a set in every colour available, only to find the price had been jacked up, presumably owing to its popularity. 

Unable to justify the expense, I reluctantly emptied my shopping cart. At that moment, I wished the women of the world would return to their power suits and stilettos. You can have anything, I wanted to tell them, just back the hell away from the olive jogging set. 

Julie Green wears the olive jogging set that helps her feel comfortable in her own skin and embrace her autism diagnosis. (Submitted by Julie Green)

I no longer envy the fashionistas and have finally given up trying to dress like them. Instead, for the first time in my life, they are the ones trying to dress like me. It may have taken 45 years and an autism diagnosis, but I am finally growing comfortable in my skin.

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Julie Green

Freelance contributor

Julie M. Green is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, HuffPost, Globe and Mail, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent and more. She lives in Kingston, Ont., with her husband, teenage son, and Old English bulldog.