Monday, November 30, 2015

Dear KJ: My Parents Won’t Accept My Gender-Nonconforming Appearance

Jean asks: So I choose to not shave my legs and wear boy shorts and get disapproving looks and comments from my conservative parents. How do you suggest dealing with familial pressure on gender-conforming appearance? (Originally posted HERE)

First of all, I applaud you for experimenting with your appearance and self-presentation. It’s only through trial and error (and success!) that we develop a sense for what feels most authentic. It’s unfortunate that you and your parents don’t see eye-to-eye on your choice of clothing and grooming, but I’m optimistic that you can work through this with both your sense of self and your family relationships intact.
Mainstream media images of beauty and style promote a narrow vision of what girls and women should look like in order to be stylish and attractive. Typically, the images we see present a very narrow range of body types (ultra-thin) and women are typically gender-conforming in their femininity. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with girls and women who happen to be ultra-thin and gender-conforming, but it’s highly problematic when the same images make up 99% of the women we see in mainstream media. With pressures like these, it can be hard to carve out a path of our own, one that allows us to feel comfortable in our own skin (and hair!).
But what should we do when the style and appearance that make us feel most comfortable makes other people feel uncomfortable? My answer is to consider each situation in its own context. For example, if you were on the receiving end of disapproving looks or comments from your peers at school, I’d encourage you to stay the course (assuming you weren’t breaking any laws!), to try to not worry too much about what other people think, but to speak with your parents, a teacher or a counselor if you felt bullied. However, it’s a bit trickier when the disapproving parties are your parents (particularly if you still live with them, which I am assuming to be the case). In this case, you need to consider your need for self-expression in relation to your desire for a positive and respectful relationship with your parents.
As a first step, find out what, exactly, is bothering your parents. Do they consider your appearance to be a sign of your respect (or disrespect) for them? Are they concerned that your fashion and grooming choices will cause you to be bullied or treated poorly by others? Are they worried that people in their social circles will judge them regarding your appearance? I can’t promise that your parents will be able to answer these questions, but it might be worth asking them and really listening to their concerns. Do everything in your power to stay calm during this conversation, even if you want to scream and stomp out of the room wearing combat boots! Listen more than you talk. Remind yourself that the conversation can continue at a later time, once you’ve given thought to what you’ve learned.
Once you understand their motivations, you’ll have a better sense of whether it’s possible to navigate the terrain in a way that makes both parties happy. Maybe they simply need assurance that you’re happy with your appearance (parents sometimes assume that dressing differently is a sign that you’re depressed or struggling socially). Perhaps the solution will be to dress however you want most of the time, but you’ll agree to dress more conservatively for events involving their social circle. Maybe you’ll decide to dress more conservatively when you’re with your parents, but dress as you like when you’re with your friends (this is the good ole’ “change clothes once you get to school” approach). This may be the best of both worlds, but keep in mind that this could damage your parents’ trust in you if they find out.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that they won’t be able to understand your perspective, and/or will refuse to accept your appearance. They might insist that you dress more conservatively and threaten to take away some of your privileges if you don’t comply. This will totally suck, and I’m sure you’ll start counting down the days until you’re able to start an adult life of living independently from your parents, when you’ll have complete freedom to dress and groom (or NOT groom) as your heart desires. 
I realize that being flexible with your appearance might feel like you aren’t being true to yourself, but I encourage you to consider that your sense of style will likely change many, many times across your lifespan, as you encounter new trends, innovate with new looks, as you enter new social spaces and as times change. In the meantime, even if you decide to dress in a way that “preserves the peace” at home, I truly hope you won’t shave your legs, or anything else, if you don’t want to. It’s one thing to change your outfit; it’s another thing to change your body. I hope your parents can respect that distinction.

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