Style is a little excursion into self-expression… It is self-knowledge and self-confidence…, a life-affirming expression of your character and spirit.— Psychology Today1“The Value of Style”. Psychology Today, July 1, 2005.
“Personal style” seems to be one concept that likely either fills you with delight or makes you cringe. Not many people have zero opinion when it comes to style, their own or otherwise. What’s with all the strong reactions? These likely come from the fact that expressing who we are through personal style is one of the most basic ways we connect with others and with ourselves. Style is our calling card, our voice before we speak, our statement about who we are and, as such, it’s open to judgement. It leaves us open to judgement. No wonder people have the big feels.
So first, “style” does not equal “fashion”. Style is the collection of all the ways you express yourself. It’s your personal selection and arrangement of internal and external attributes and items in ways that are intrinsically pleasing. So yes, it’s the way you arrange your hair and clothing and it’s also your voice and gestures, the tchotchkes you buy and the emojis you text. It’s YOU, reflected in everything in your life. Fashion? Well fashion is one multi-faceted–and highly visible–portion of your personal style. It’s a heavy hitter, that’s for sure. But it is only one part of the recipe that is you in the world.
Who doesn’t know someone who says they don’t “do” fashion? That it’s trivial and superficial. That it’s a waste of time. That person might even be you. Guess what tho’. By championing your choice to have nothing to do fashion, you’re actually making a strong statement about your own personal style.
There is no escape. As a society, we constantly experience one another through all our senses. When we choose to shape our style, we are influencing the messages about ourselves others perceive. When we don’t, we are also choosing the message we send to others and, not incidentally, to ourselves. Which do you want?
Why does style matter?
Personal style’s most prominent role in our lives lies in its power to communicate. And communication, as we know, is top of the list in personal, professional, and community life. Clear, effective communication with our fellow humans can, very generally speaking, mean the difference between a relatively stress-free day and one filled with difficulty. When we communicate our thoughts clearly on any of the many modes of communication (through voice, non-visual cues, gestures, attitude, text, imagery, etc.), that’s one less social moment that needs addressing directly. Style can pave the way to less frustration, project goodwill, call out to kindred minds, and more by speaking on our behalf.
As you are probably painfully aware, difficulties with communication are hallmarks of the collection of traits known as autism. The ways we communicate most easily and most clearly with each other often don’t translate to those who don’t share our neurotype. It can be frustrating, to say the least. Add to that, for many of us, maintaining our bodies and minds on a daily basis is challenging enough so to think about how we communicate through style is beyond.
The good news is, when we realize that our style is reflected in all our choices, then even the selection of a blue toothbrush over yellow, salad over steak, fiction or non-fiction, becomes an expression of who we are, what we enjoy, and yep, what we want to say. We are inextricably bound to our style because it is *of* us. Style is a minion, communicating on our behalf before we say a word.
How do I choose?
One of the challenges of living on the spectrum can be self-knowledge. We can be so busy conforming to expectations in order to get along in the world, that we may lose touch with who we truly are. How do we choose if we don’t even truly know what we like? And what are the options to choose from anyway?
If this sounds like you, you’ve probably either been operating in a highly practical manner–clothing your body to keep from being illegally naked and dealing with your personal appearance in as easy-to-manage way as possible–OR you’ve been faithfully replicating styles seen in the media, maybe as a way to avoid conflicts and fit in. Many, many people, autistic or not, roll through life this way and they’re perfectly fine. But if you’re interested in living a little extra, read on.
How to find your personal style
You may think you need to spend a ton of cash on a bunch of rando stuff then quiz everyone who’ll listen as to which outfit looks best. Or maybe for you, the right style is the one that most closely matches the prevailing trends increasing the odds for acceptance and adoration. I have news for you. Your style can only be found by paying attention to your own damn self.
Each of us is born with a starter set of likes and dislikes. These are genetically based like how warm you feel on average2Everett-Haynes, La Monica. “Prefer Dry Heat to Arctic Chill? Genetics Might Be the Reason”. UA News, Jan. 8, 2014. or whether or not you enjoy the flavour of cilantro3“Salty or Sweet”. 23andMe Blog, March 5, 2015.. As you move through life, your experiences shape your growing list of preferences. Taken together, these become the ever-evolving you. So there’s one worry off your plate: your innate preferences are largely out of your hands. No effort required.
Whether you are aware of it or not, whenever you encounter something pleasant — an idea or taste or person you enjoy, for example — there’s a shift in how you feel. It can be subtle, so subtle that many people, on the spectrum and off, have lost touch with this feeling. But, if you’re patient and attentive, you’ll find it there, inside you, where it’s always been all along.
What’s it feel like, this shift? Here’s how you find out for yourself. Choose something you are pretty sure you enjoy. Is it pizza? It’s pizza, isn’t it? Okay, for this example, pizza it is. So the next time you find yourself in front of a slice, pause for a moment. Try to filter out as much of the outside world as you can (probably the most difficult part of this entire enterprise). Check in to see how you’re feeling in that moment, just before you eat your friend pizza. Do you feel light? Bright? Or maybe dense and heavy? Whatever the feeling is for you, note it. That’s step 1.
Step 2: Take a bite. Smell the pie as it’s lifted to your lips. Feel it in your mouth. Really be there with that slice in that moment. Laugh if it feels silly because it sort of is but know that you’re undertaking serious business, this connecting with your deep self. Check in again after a few bites. Do you feel any differently? Maybe yes or maybe you didn’t notice much. Either is fine. Just note what you’ve observed. For now, that’s it. That’s all you need to do.
Later, try again. Maybe something non-pizza related, to switch it up. Maybe what does it for you is petting the fuzz of a dog’s ear or crunching through leaves. Maybe it’s the sweet silence of a quiet, dark room. Whatever it is that brings you joy, pay attention. Deep within lies the secret to your personal style and, by extension, your communication with the world around you.
Feeling like you don’t have a clue about yourself is okay. It really is! Try asking someone who knows you well what they’ve observed that you enjoy. Give whatever it is they’ve mentioned a shot. Don’t have someone to ask? That’s okay too! Take it slowly, keep a notebook/app/confessional channel/whatever that, over time, becomes your own personal retroactive observer.
Find the shift
When you’ve been patient and attentive a bunch of times, think back to the first. Has anything changed? Can you sense any difference between your regular self and your experiencing-something-you-like self? That difference? That tingle, lightness, tightening of your stomach? That’s the inner sign you’re looking for. That’s how you know what you like.
Now, those bad things you’re thinking about yourself because it’s taken a ton of effort to parse out this feeling? Cut it out. What you’re doing here isn’t easy. You might be able to identify your shift after five tries or it might take fifty or more. How long it takes you to get there isn’t in the slightest way important. What is important is that you try. And only you will know when you get there.
I feel it. Now what?
Step 3: When you get accustomed to feeling that good shift, go ahead and test out your powers. Browse a shop. In person or online, matters not. You’re not spending a dime here. All you’re doing is exercising your joy muscle. Look through products and as you do, wait for the shift. Does the cheddar make you feel a bit tinglier than the gorgonzola? Voila, you have a preference. Purple shirt over black? Yep, preference. Look through celebrity photos and videos to see what types of styles give you that lift. Short hair? Confident voice? Sweet dance moves? Write these down. Making an inventory of the things in the world that bring you joy can only be time well spent.
If you remember where we started, we were talking about how personal style is self-expression and it encompasses innate parts of you as well as objects you choose. Now that you’ve found your shift and tested it out in the world, you’ll be more easily able to get your groove on for your own personal style. If a thing doesn’t tickle your ivories, move on. That thing, whatever it is, doesn’t belong as part of your self-expression. The real fun begins when you adapt your collection of likes into your everyday life.
It needs to be stressed again, you don’t need to spend money to express yourself. Experiment with your hair, how you arrange your clothing, even how you speak and stand. Everything is fair game in the quest for your true self.
That’s all fine for you but…
Think all this talk about personal style is fine for everyone else but not you because life? It’s true, life demands that we conform in so many ways but remember, we choose to what degree, when, and how. Even in rigid circumstances, you still have choice. Your workplace require a uniform? Even if your job is with The Rockettes, a group that strives for complete homogeneity, you can still express yourself in how you wear that uniform, how you speak, in your gait, and all manner of other, small, day-to-day choices. Even people in the most unfortunate and limited of circumstances find small ways to let it be known that they are unique individuals, distinct from all others. It’s human nature. Find the will then the way will find you.
Once you know what you like, you begin to know who you are. Self-knowledge is a strength that no one can take away. It is most definitely a “a life-affirming expression of your character and spirit.” So go ahead and don that uniform, speak their script, and behave as the responsibilities of your life require but know that the true you — your individual style that is borne of your true self — can and will always shine through.