A friend has been giving us bags of her daughter’s clothing for many years. The daughter is a cheerleader, a dancer, a black belt in Karate, a popular girl. They give us Hollister bags packed with neatly folded t-shirts, denim skirts with sparkly embroidery, and camis of every color and style. Lately we’ve been reaching in those bags and pulling out lacy bras, animal prints……..items that I wouldn’t think to buy for my daughter with autism.
As early as fourth and fifth grade, it’s easy to see which girls are going to be popular: the ones with clothes from the trendy stores, the ones who have good haircuts, just right clothes. How do they know what’s in, and what looks good?
The bags of clothing inform me and challenge me. Typical teen girls spend a lot of time trying and retrying different combinations of clothing. Figuring out new looks and new identities. Trying desperately to be comfortable in changed bodies. As I pull the items out of the bags, I think: how do I know which cami goes under which shirt? When is it okay to show straps? Will these shorts cover the important parts? Teen girls beg their moms to go shopping, and hide clothes and make-up that don’t pass scrutiny so they can change when they are out of Mom’s sight.
How many times an hour does a typical girl adjust her clothing? How many times a day does she check her hair in the mirror? Unconsciously check her hair with her hand? How do I get my daughter with autism to check all of this when she is away from me? Which fashions will hold up with the least amount of tugging?
I remember when I was in middle school, banished to sitting on the hallway floor for passing notes in math class, I was approached by an older boy who reached out his hand to touch my breast. I told him to leave me alone. What would a girl with ASD do? Should we keep our girls covered safely with loose hoodies, dress unattractively, to avoid unwanted attention? Will that even make a difference? Rates of sexual assault for girls and women with disabilities are 2 times the rates of those without disabilities.
I look at styles in stores and on the internet. I think about what styles might work for my daughter, or other girls with autism. I look at what girls are wearing : the teens on Facebook pose provocatively in strapless dresses, leaning forward to allow a peek.
I look at celebrity role models and I get confused. I think about Selena Gomez, growing from Barney to Disney to Justin Bieber. Miley Cyrus, moving from Hannah Montana to pole dancing. Pretty Little Liars? Gossip Girls? Rihanna? Down the rabbit hole we fall….but it changes the story if mom is right next to Alice, pointing out the just-right bottle.
So we want our girls to look cute, and “in” and socially acceptable. We want them to explore and find their own identities. But…. what if they are stuck in Pokemon world? Do we push them to learn about sexy? We want them to have friends…….but do the other girls have to be so ….mature? How can our daughters have friends, when the other girls are interested in romance and Vampires, and ours are talking non-stop about Phineas and Ferb?
There are so many questions. Do we bring our girls to Victoria’s Secret and encourage them to replace sports bras with push up bras? Do we even tell them about thongs?
Schools with uniforms are a huge relief – although it’s possible to look attractive in a polo and khakis, there are no cut off sweatpants with “hottie” blazing across the behind. Maybe there is some middle ground. We can steer our girls to the fashionable comfort of yoga pants if they hate jeans. Tankinis cover better than bikinis. In social skills group, we play clothing bingo to learn all of the words: sequin, spaghetti strap, jeggings, poncho. I leave the Hollister bag at home, and pull the items out of a laundry basket. The girls are scared by lacy lingerie, but find the animal prints intriguing.
Formation of an identity separate from the mother is a critical development stage for a young woman. Do we allow our teenage girls with autism to stay safe in their obsessions with horses and princesses? How do we keep them safe, but push them to explore a whole new world?
I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole-and yet-and yet-it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me!
(Lewis Caroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)