Weirdo ambassadors: Exploring the friction between attention-seeking and impatience

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Rainbow Stripes

A couple of weeks back on our tattoo etiquette post, there was some super interesting discussion about how some people see tattoos as an excuse to touch others without consent — which of course is never cool.

There was also some interesting discussion on all the attention tattoos can attract, and it reminded me of an ongoing issue I chew over with myself in terms of style and personal expression which is this: if I dress in a way that I know attracts a certain kind of attention, is it fair for me to get impatient when someone is curious about it?

I tend to side with Our Lady Of The Manners (a 40-something corporate-working eldergoth who dresses like this every day) on this issue, feeling that if you’re making a choice to stand out, you need to be gracious and patient with people notice you and have questions.

Not that people get carte blanche permission to touch your arm warmers or harass you for thigh tattoos, but that perhaps I practice a little extra patience when a 8-year-old has a million questions about my rainbow platforms.

Ultimately, as Gothic Charm School has said again and again: if you dress in a way that attracts attention, you need to accept that you’re acting as an ambassador of weirdness, and as an ambassador, it’s worth taking a deep breath and doing your extra best to be patient when people are curious.

Is it petulant to opt into looking weird, and then get crabby when people notice that you look, well, weird?

I flip flop though around the other side of this: is this a form of weirdo victim-blaming? You dress non-normative, therefore shut up and you don’t get to complain about it when people take up your time to ask ignorant questions? (And this is all completely separate from people whose non-normativeness isn’t really a fashion choice, like, say, folks who are non-gender-binary.)

I guess for me, I personally lean towards always taking perhaps over-responsibility for my actions, so if I know action X (say, dying my eyebrows pink) is going to lead to behavior Y (say, people asking me questions about them), I might make decision Z (don’t do it, because I don’t have the patience to deal with the questions).

For me, I’ve learned that I can only control my own behavior, so I make my decisions accordingly.

I’m curious about how you guys navigate this friction — when is it your choice to attract attention and deal with the resulting questions vs. when does society need to stop being so dang rude?

Comments on Weirdo ambassadors: Exploring the friction between attention-seeking and impatience

  1. To me the critical difference is “asking” vs “judging.” Anything that can be viewed as complementary or pleasantly inquisitive should be taken as that. I think this is true of pretty much any “obvious physical state” from red shoes to pregnancy. In my mind, it takes up too much mental energy to get angry/irritated/disappointed in people who are trying to strike up a friendly conversation (even if they can be a little cloddish about it).

    But judging is totally out of line and can be shut down immediately. After all, didn’t your mother teach you that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all?

    • A million times this.

      I’ve toned down my appearances since living in Indonesia (no more facial piercings, my hair is a natural color of red, etc…) but I’m still covered in tattoos and have ‘different’ haircuts and … I’m white. (SHOCKING!) Everything about me is different, even when I try to fit in.

      I get asked a *lot* of questions every single day and I’ve just gotten used to it. The most popular question isn’t even a question at all:

      “Miss, you’re fat.”

      Now, I’m no waif by any stretch of the imagination but I’m fairly normal by American standards: I’m 5’7″ and wear an 18/20/XXL and a size nine shoe.

      Compared to most Indonesians, however, I am a giant lumbering land whale. (I say that with love and good humor.) I can’t buy clothes or shoes here. There are very, very few people who are as tall as me, let alone as wide.

      When people see me, without fail, one of the first things that gets stated is a comment about my size. It was hard to get used to at first — I felt like people were constantly judging and mocking me and it made me feel insecure and embarrassed.

      I quickly realized, though, that I was *different* and my looks were *different* and that my size wasn’t being mocked. People were just addressing it — no different than if they had stated that I had white skin or freckles or red hair or green eyes (all other things that get commented on regularly).

      It took some time for me to understand that the only reason I felt like it was mean-spirited was because of my own internalized feelings about being fat. Why didn’t it bother me when people made comments about my red hair or pasty skin or green eyes or freckles? Because I never saw those as embarrassing traits.

      Now when I hear, “Miss, you’re fat.” I just reply with, “I know, right?”

      It’s not an insult. It’s not a compliment. It just is. And I’m fine with it.

      • I really don’t like the comments, whether they’re “judging” or not. I get “OMG, you’re TALL!” every single day (I’m 6’4″) and it irritates the crap out of me. It’s not like I don’t already know, and I wish they wouldn’t call attention to it– just leave me alone. I personally feel it’s rude to make comments about someone’s appearance that aren’t emphatically positive (something like “I love your hair! It’s gorgeous!” would be okay). I don’t know WHY people feel the need to point out the obvious to me, but I can’t stand it. I walk away, or ignore them, or answer rudely– not because I’m trying to be a douche about it, but because I’m sick of hearing it and I don’t feel that it’s anyone’s business in the slightest.

        I guess the main problem for me is that people are commenting on something I can never change, and something that I’ve always been extremely self-conscious about. I really don’t want to stand out, but I don’t have any choice. I wish people would STFU about it and just leave me be without feeling the need to ask a million questions about if I play basketball or if my parents/husband are tall.

        • There’s definitely a cultural component to it — if I was in the States and someone told me I was fat, I would be thoroughly offended. Here, though, commenting on someone’s appearance is considered benign — if not polite.

          Surprisingly, the thing I get the most negative comments about are my freckles. People HATE them and are always giving me advice on how I can bleach my skin or stay out of the sun or use makeup to cover them up.

        • Simply to voice the other side of it, your height is normal to YOU. You have lived with it every day of your life. To shorter people, it’s shocking and new.

          Imagine if you had never seen flowers before. You’d heard of them, but never seen them in real life. Someone walks up wearing flowers. Before you realize it, you could say “Oh my goodness, are those FLOWERS?” To the person wearing them, they’re just flowers. No big deal. But to you, they’re an oddity.

          I’m not saying that people pointing out your height isn’t annoying or even rude. But it could simply be that your height is a little bit of wonder in their world. You’re special to them, even if your height isn’t special to you.

      • “Now when I hear, “Miss, you’re fat.” I just reply with, “I know, right?””

        I tend to reply to anything inquisitive or positive about my piercings/tattoos/purple hair/wardrobe with politeness. I’ve had little kids say they don’t like my piercings, and reply with a smile and “well, then it’s a good thing you don’t have to get any!” and winking at their parents (who are moderately horrified at what came out of the kid’s mouth despite the fact that they may agree).
        If someone says “you’re fat”, I usually reply with “and you’re rude. At least I can diet!”

  2. You’re right. I should have said “obvious and _elected_ physical state” (which takes race, non-gender norming, natural hair color, glasses wearing, crutch having, etc out of the picture). I think you can’t really elect not to have “privilege,” so in this case what we’re really talking about is difference. I’m not saying that people can’t get frustrated by questions (feelings are feelings, of course) but that questions are fair game and it’s probably healthiest in terms of long term happiness to adapt to them.

      • I guess I would say that my response was more about outward appearances of “weirdness,” so I hadn’t really thought about something like polyamory. But in thinking about it more, I think that my comment still holds. If people are walking around holding hands with three people, then it’s reasonable to ask questions (again – respectful, non-judgey questions). I’m not sure how I feel about applying this principle to gay couples or interracial couples or anything like that, because then I feel like we’re getting into issues of privileged and derailment. It’s interesting to think about, but not really what I was thinking about when I read the original post and made the original comment.

  3. To me it’s always just… “it depends”?
    Most of the time questions about my clothing/appearance don’t bother me in the slightest, even when there’s an under current of judgement. But sometimes I do get testy. Maybe this is the 100th comment today about what I thought was an innocent fashion choice (or the only clean thing in my closet). Maybe the way you’re staring at my tattoos is pinging my creepdar and I just want to get away from you asap. And sometimes a tshirt is REALLY just a tshirt and you weren’t specifically wearing it that day to make a statement mister-douche-who-then-also-slapped-my-tattoo-because-why?

  4. I’m a shy, socially anxious person who has trouble figuring out how to converse with people on a regular basis; for me, bright hair, large tattoos, and whatever out-there clothing I’m wearing provide the conversation starters that I simply don’t know how to do on my own (you know, with words :P). It works wonders at conventions and while meeting new people, and it’s an inadvertent marketing tool for my freelance business.

    But there are, of course, plenty of people in everyday life (on the bus, in a cafe, waiting in line at the store, etc.) who notice those things too, and they very often cross the line into rudeness. Touching without permission is rude, no matter what part of me has caught your interest. There’s no wiggle room on that. Whispering, giggling, and pointing like a gaggle of middle school girls is rude, period (even if you ARE a gaggle of middle school girls). Asking questions is fine, as long as you’re not A) judging me (snide comments are a common one), or B) interrupting me in order to ask them.

    I guess I just always assumed that common courtesy still existed, and was the norm. I take the questions (and occasional compliments) as side effects to my efforts to start conversations. Anything past that is someone who never learned how to be polite, and it has nothing to do with my appearance.

  5. I think it’s fine to EXPECT that people will be but I don’t think that means you should think you DESERVE it. Yes, I think it’s victim-blaming. I think that folks should be accommodating to questions & inquiries, but only to their comfort level, and they should not feel like they HAVE to act in any certain way just because of their outward appearance. Just as folks who are doing the asking should not assume that this person is really representative of “weird”.

    But that’s an ideal world.

  6. I side with Our Lady of The Manners. I have a super colorful phoenix tattoo on my shoulder, and it’s often very visible. It doesn’t bother me when people notice it and ask about it, as long as they’re respectful. I think that’s the key. Folks choosing to stand out from the crowd should be patient with the natural curiosity/interest that comes with that, as long as it’s *respectful* attention. But no one has to put up with disrespectful attention, no matter what.

  7. I have to say I also side with Our Lady of The Manners, but I have to also admit that I have been privileged not to have dealt too much with impertinent questions regarding my appearance. The limited ones that I have had regarding my lip ring (“Did it hurt?” “Does food get stuck in it?” “How do you kiss someone with that thing?”) I have been very patient about. Same with my tattoo, but that’s not nearly as noticeable as my lip ring.

    I probably have a harder time when people ask prying questions about my personal relationships (queer lady dating a trans* bisexual lady, woo!), not because I don’t want to answer, but people tend to ask extremely personal questions and become annoyed or angry when I politely refuse to answer. However, that’s neither here nor there.

    • Hoping to help with the following, but if not, please accept my best wishes.

      I have been known to tell people that try to start fights, provoke me about something they disagree with, or who ask pushy, prying questions that “this is neither the time nor the place to discuss this,” and it’s usually pretty effective, especially if you’re cool and collected when you say it. You can’t rise to any subsequent bait to engage, but most people give up after a few tries. Treat subsequent attempts as if you are politely ignoring someone farting out of their mouth. Ignore and redirect to other topics. 😉

      Most anyone who asks prying questions is likely going to do so in public (office, restaurant, mall etc.) and for private matters, you can deem anywhere but a/your own private home “inappropriate.”

      I am also somewhat appalled by the gall of people who are politely refused information that is in no way necessary to them and dare to get mad at you for not gratifying their prying!(!!!!!!!!!!!) “Why do you ask that?” or “Why do you need to know that?” or, to escalate “How dare you” come in handy here. Miss Manners’ fighting words. 😉

      How do you refuse to answer and what are the replies like? To be clear, I don’t want your personal information. JUST to parse the drama and/or come up with cuttingly, crushingly, icily polite rebuttal phrases.

  8. I don’t know. Seeing someone with odd colored hair I believe can lead to several fairly acceptable questions, mostly regarding the how. What I do believe is impolite is asking why. I don’t go around asking people why they dye their hair blonde (or black) when clearly it’s not their natural hair color, why the fake nails or those ugly ass pumps. It’s a rude question and the answer can be a mere because I felt like it, so I don’t see the point in asking a question that sounds like a passive aggressive way to say they don’t like it.

  9. I grew up in a very small narrow minded town. My best friend and I were one of a handful of lowly goth grunge freak kids who were hassled and bullied ad nauseum. One of the more insidious methods was a constant stream of “why?” That cheerleader in first period didn’t actually give a fuck why I wore black lipstick or why my friend Neil was wearing women’s jeans or any other answer to the constant barrage of questions. Those kids weren’t trying to expand their minds or learn about us as people. The questions were a way to endlessly point out that we were freaks and different, both for their own amusement and so that we were never allowed to forget that we didn’t fit in. It was uncomfortable and unpleasant and for many years made me defensive about questions regarding my appearance, personal life and religious beliefs.

    Even now, 20 years later, I find myself taking option Z…trying not to set myself apart in my appearance because I live in a cultural armpit and I fucking don’t want to deal with it. Now if it’s a child or a teen or a person with genuine curiosity (where did you get that? How did you dye your hair that color?) obviously I’m polite and not bothered. But I don’t feel like under most circumstances a stranger has any business commenting on my appearance. I see lots of people walking around dressed in ways I wouldn’t, but I would never comment on it. I might give a second look to someone dressed in a strange and interesting way, but I’d try not to stare in a creepster way and I wouldn’t ask them why they chose to wear what they were wearing.

    I might be wrong, and am certainly influenced by past experience that is not probably universal, but unsolicited comments about how I look make me feel icky. Like when creepy guys tell me to smile. Also, the assertion that anyone who goes outside the norm is asking for attention is problematic for me. It implies that people who are excentric are not being authentic to themselves, only seeking external validation or to shock. This might be true in some cases but mostly I’d like everyone to look the way they want to look and be left alone about it. I certainly don’t like that I have to allow the potential reaction of others (and my bad social anxiety) to dictate how I look, rather than just dressing to make myself happy.

    • “Also, the assertion that anyone who goes outside the norm is asking for attention is problematic for me. It implies that people who are excentric are not being authentic to themselves, only seeking external validation or to shock. ”

      Definitely this! As a person who has had many a crazy hair color, I don’t like when people assert that I do it because I am attention-seeking. I never did it because I wanted the attention. I just happened to think I looked really good with cherry red hair. 🙂

      • I was thinking about natural hair. And I think that’s an example of people really being themselves, but it’s outside of the white mainstream. People are expected to change their hair to look more “normal” even if that’s a significant difference from what’s natural.

        • That makes me think of the recent flap of things like dress codes prohibiting natural hair. (Which makes me ragey). Who exactly decides what the arbitrary standard of “the norm” is? Is there a meeting somewhere? Do they issue a memo to the entire country? And in the case of natural hair, who decided that chemically treated hair is more “normal” than hair that naturally does what it was intended to do? How is it that we can even live in a society where anyone feels like it’s OK for them to dictate to anyone else how their hair should look? It makes me very mad.

    • I feel like there’s never a good reason to question someone’s motives when it comes to their appearance. The answer is always “Because I damn well wanted to, jerk.”

      I’ll admit that I’m terrible about creepin’ looks at people’s outfits and tattoos, but not because I think they’re weird- it’s because I like ’em! I love taking in other people’s personal styles (see: my gigantic pinterest board of outfits) and I really love tattoos. I try to keep my creeping subtle and non… well…creepy, though (and never, ever, ever touch, at least not without asking- I’ll occasionally ask to touch an interesting fabric I guess. There’s really no reason to touch a tattoo, it’s not like they feel different.)

      • That’s me too. I may be internally judgey about some outfits but I try hard to keep that to myself and get over it because they can wear whatever they want to wear. Tattoos I’m likely to check out because I like the art (had to ask my dude if I was going to cause an issue staring at tats on a guy who was rather scary looking but had nice ink, was told I should be okay). I might, very rarely, ask where someone got ink or purchased a cool wardrobe piece or ask about hair dye (how bad is it to keep up?) but I am unlikely to start conversations with strangers. So the whole idea of people randomly asking questions confuses me. Let alone touching. I love touch from friends and I might ask people I know about their tattoos and meaning, but I’m rarely going to ask someone why they made specific choices.

    • “I see lots of people walking around dressed in ways I wouldn’t, but I would never comment on it.”

      I also dressed differently in high school- I had several pairs of jeans that my friends and I had colored with permanent markers. And I normally wore them with an old fatigue green shirt of my dad’s from his army days on which I had sewed a big peace sign. And during college and after, my wardrobe consisted mostly vintage or hippie-looking clothing.

      And now I don’t even know how I dress. The other day I was wearing yoga pants and an athletic looking jacket. I also had my hair in a pony tail through the back of a hat. And one of my friends called me a suburban soccer mom! All those clothing choices were 100% functional, and my appearance was unintentional. Also, not a mom. After being on the other side for so long, it was shocking to be called out on looking “normal.”

      So I am a weirdo, but my appearance doesn’t reflect that anymore. I think the transition was gradual as my weird t-shirts and pants all got old and fell apart, and I apparently replaced them all with normal looking clothing because it’s easier to find. The soccer mom comment bothered me more than it should have. It also shows that the comments can go both ways- from normal to weirdo and from weirdo to normal, though I’m sure the former happens way more often than the latter.

      So now I am trying to decide… should I put more effort into my appearance so that it mirrors my personality?

      • I am sort of in the same situation. As my “freak” clothes wore out, I also gradually replaced them with “normal” clothing. Part of this is functional; I spend a lot of time digging through dusty piles of junk in some barn (or dumpster) somewhere, so it was necessary for my clothing to be durable and comfortable. But also, it was because I relocated from a “freak friendly” city where nobody looked twice at me, to a cultural cesspool where I actually had a woman run up to me in the grocery store and loudly exclaim “Oh, girl, your armpits are HAIRY!” I seriously have to sometimes make clothing decisions based on whether or not that hoodie is going to make some stranger try to lay hands on me for Jay-sus in line at a church yard sale. (True story. And it was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer hoodie)

        Last night me and the old man went to a meeting for our volunteer organization, and then out to eat. So I wore a nice shirt (that came from Old Navy, for fucks sake) that I love that has a rib cage design with a heart in the middle. It was low cut and revealed many of my tattoos. Otherwise I was in skinny jeans and docs, and my hair is a color found in nature because I’ve hennaed it for my upcoming wedding (instead of the four colored grown out hot mess it has been). And literally the ENTIRE TIME we were eating, some woman two tables over was staring at me like I was the most terrifying thing she’s ever seen. I mean, she could barely chew her food because she couldn’t take her eyes off me. I really wanted to say something nasty, but I didn’t because I’m apparently supposed to be some kind of ambassador for freaks and should be nice. Apparently, the bovine woman in the Applebees is the ambassador of assholes.

        • Whenever I encounter someone staring at me for an extended period of time, I suddenly turn towards them with my friendliest smile, wave at them, and enthusiastically say, “Hi, how are you?”
          Usually the starer will shrink away in shame. If not, they will return the friendly greeting and continue on their way. 🙂

    • BlueCanary, you hit the nail on the head for me.

      When people asked me “why?” growing up, they clearly were using it to mock me. Now, as an adult with tattoos that creep up under my chin, I often catch myself reverting back into “middle-school-mode” when what quite possibly is a well-intentioned person asks a question. I’ve learned to differentiate between the two.

      For me, the key is tone: now, just like back then, I’m able to tell when someone is being sincere and when they are trying to make fun of me under the guise of asking a question (like a tall, statuesque, arrogant girl at the pool this summer who confidently walked over solely to do the fake-question thing while her friends watched on, giggling.)

      The difference now is, as a grown up, I’m not going to get in trouble with a teacher if I sniff out a let them know I wasn’t born yesterday.

      • Yeah, you can really usually tell what the intent is. And I’m certainly not going to be an unnecessary asshole to someone who has a genuine curiosity. Though I might not have time to talk to them, or I might be having a bad day and not feel like being sociable. I reject the idea that because we have chosen to decorate our bodies we have to somehow be constantly “on” for other people. Sometimes I’ll talk to a stranger about my tattoos without a problem; sometimes I just want to buy my damn ice cream and beer and exit the Piggly Wiggly without human interaction, just like anyone else. And my decision to be a tattooed person does not, in my opinion, take away from my right to do that.

        • “sometimes I just want to buy my damn ice cream and beer and exit the Piggly Wiggly without human interaction, just like anyone else.”

          For serious.

          I have a strict “do-rag at The Home Depot” rule.

          I have enough trouble getting a shopping experience that doesn’t involve someone watching me to keep me from shoplifting (or directing answers to *my* questions to whatever guy I happen to be standing nearest).

          Add blue hair into the mix and I might as well be naked, waving around a bag of meth, and pissing on their registers.

          Home Depot isn’t the only place this applies, but it’s one of the more consistent.

          • Right? My dad was bitching the other day because he and my mom went into some snooty wine store and he felt like they were being hawked as potential shoplifters. And I was like, “Oh, poor baby, you think that was bad try being a middle aged woman with lots of tattoos, multi-colored hair and a backpack.”

    • This was what I was looking for in the comments before I left a comment. None of my clothes are chosen because I think they will get lots of attention. I disagree that if your clothes stand-out then you must be automatically courting attention. The main reason my clothes catch people’s eye is because I like to wear very colourful clothes and lots of different colours/patterns at the same time. Why? Because it makes me happy. I like bright colours and busy patterns so I wear what I like to see! I am still sometimes surprised when people comment on my clothes or accessories because to me they are not strange at all, just cheerful. Who decided that neutrals were normal or average? When I was a teenager I definitely tried hard to look ‘different’ (or rather, look more like the minority group of peers I was trying to impress!) and a lot more thought went into “but what does this outfit say about me!?” ha ha but I am in my 30s now and I’m not trying to make a statement, just trying to make myself happy.

  10. Really it’s a matter of how polite or impolite the person was before you strolled into their vision. I’ve had mothers tug their children closer when I pass. All the while their innocent kid is all “Mommy I love her hair!” Combined with “Was she born like that?” And really it’s cute.
    I’ve also been described as “dirty” because of my tattoos by my grandmother. Most of my clients expect a hairstylist to be eccentric and are not disappointed with my hair that looks like a My Little Pony Gone Goth hair. They seem delighted when I tell them I plan to teach my children their colors by dyeing my hair differently.
    Honestly I forget how non normal I look until I go to the doctors office or something. Just because we look different does not mean we are automatically judged negatively which is important to remember

  11. I have no problems talking to people about my tattoos and piercings (when I had piercings). It’s the people who touch me without uttering a single word to me, or STARE at me – especially when I’m trying to eat. Look, and look away. We are all curious creatures and if something catches my eye, I look. I’m not going to lie and say I’m not interested in a double amputee or something like that, but I wouldn’t just blatantly sit there and stare at them. It’s rude, be it staring at someone who’s disfigured, weird or ‘normal’. I had a guy sit there for the better part of an hour, just scowling at me because I had my septum ring in. I mean SCOWLING at me with disapproval laser beams shooting out of his eyes. Glad he was sitting there, judging me, while he sipped his 4th scotch rocks at noon.

  12. My opinion is going to get me slammed by a lot of people, but here goes anyway.

    If you’re dressing to attract attention, you should expect to get it. If you don’t want it, don’t seek it. That applies to people with visible tats/piercings, nuns/priests, people wearing pricey furs, guys wearing painted-on jeans, girls wearing tube tops and mini skirts, goths, etc. Those accessories/clothes/hairstyles were chosen as both an expression of self and a way to attract attention. It will sometimes attract the attention the wearer wants; it will sometimes attract the opposite. All unusual choices will get you condemned by some and exalted by others. Whether or not your dress qualifies as unusual is completely dependent on your surroundings.

    So to me, the obvious solution is to wear what you want and tell the rest of the world to fuck off (unless you’re a nun or priest). You can’t please everyone, so don’t bother trying. Be true to your own sense of style and accept the inevitable. Who cares if they think your tube top makes you look like a slut or if they think your bustle is weird? They don’t have to wear it. But don’t vilify them for noticing what you’re trying to show off.

    • See, the thing is that there are degrees of negative attention, and I don’t have to accept it as inevitable. In some places being female and going outside brings inevitable unwanted attention, no matter how conservatively you are dressed. Does that make it okay? I don’t think so.

      Sure, it’s inevitable that people might think my outfit is stupid, or slutty, or how could I possibly get a tattoo there, or whatever. I can’t control what people might think to themselves, nor should I. But I shouldn’t have to accept it if they treat me rudely or with hostility because of it.

      Finally, maybe sometimes those things are a way of attracting attention–but other times, they’re not, and they really are just for that person. The fact that other people automatically assume that it’s for attention, and take that as license to be rude, is not okay. If it attracts someone’s attention and they ask me about it nicely, that’s an entirely different story, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean it was my goal in dressing a particular way to start conversations with strangers. I’ll accept that as a side effect, but I reserve every right to vilify people who are mean about it.

    • What troubles me about that is the assumption that the decision to wear things like visible tattoos/piercings always includes some element of attention-seeking.

      The way I feel is that dressing/grooming in a way that reflects my personality is the default; any toning it down or hiding it is the active decision. So how could the former be intended to attract attention? Speaking as a “respectful attention welcome” kind of person.

  13. Oh, this article is super pertinent! Normally I dress pretty normally, but this weekend I went to SF Burning Man decompression and broke out a few of my rainbow accessories. Kind of like the feel of the pic up top, toned way down–pretty conservative compared to some of the other outfits there, but still noticeable on the train. There were three kinds of attention I got:

    1. On the few-blocks walk to the train and in line for tickets, I started talking to a guy who was super decked out in a dramatic goth outfit. He mentioned how he enjoyed getting “gussied up” for something like this, so I took that as my cue and we talked about his nose rings, colored contacts, and what we both wear at work vs. while going out. Very cool, even when he took out his 6-foot-long snake and wrapped it around himself (I’m not a huge fan of snakes). I enjoyed the juxtaposition between his tough exterior and how nice he was, so I’d guess he’s a great ambassador in general.

    2. While waiting for the train to go home, a guy noticed my bright rainbow socks and asked if I had just been at the Burning Man event and said he had too. I wasn’t too interested in chatting, though, so he picked up on my cues and left me alone. Fine.

    3. When I finally got on the train a bunch of really loud drunk guys in 49ers gear started making loud comments about my attire, and eventually said “nice socks” in a way that was probably not very nice. I said “thank you” and sat as far away as I could, feeling pretty uncomfortable. A bit later the conductor came and threatened to throw them off the train–as he told me later, they apparently said some things after that that were really objectionable, though I didn’t ask for details. Ick.

    I’m not sure what the takeaway is. I like wearing bright colors and rainbows sometimes, and it can certainly attract good attention from nice people. But when it makes me more of a noticeable target for a bunch of drunk dudebros on a train, even when they should be the ones responsible for controlling themselves, it makes me wish I had worn something more normal.

    • I felt a bit like I had wimped out, but eventually a major reason why I retired my royal blue hair was that I just couldn’t deal with the attention; I just really liked the way it looked, and didn’t realize that I was opening the door for lots of random guys to hit on me in the grocery store. (For reals, it was like it was a green light for bad pickup lines. I went back to more natural colors and it hasn’t happened since.)

      • Oh, I feel you. I don’t blame you at all. That shit can be exhausting. What is it about that stuff that short-circuits people’s brains and overrides normal human responses? I think there are too many sitcoms and rom-coms training men that if a woman’s appearance is at all different or noteworthy, you are horrible if you don’t comment about it because she only did it in hopes that you’d notice.

        Instead we need to change the narrative with more things like “My Short Skirt” from The Vagina Monologues –a lot of times, it’s for me, not for you.

  14. I totally side with Our Lady of Manners and (without reading more into her writing) I agree that we should all approach our social interactions with respect. But we need to recognize that privilege plays a huge roll in many of these interactions. Of course if we choose to make ourselves stand out from the crowd, we should be prepared for the attention that we garner. But that attention is colored by gender, sexuality, race, color, class, etc. “Standing out from the crowd” has long been relegated to minority status. And while we can agree to talk only about mutable (changeable) characteristics, those are also often markers of the other, the minority. For example, queer folks may dress a certain way or do their hair in a way that “stands out.” Does that mean that queer folk must answer questions about their clothes or hair with respect? What about when those questions trigger feelings of homo- and trans-phobia?

    Ariel, you addressed “derailing” above. I would like to add microaggressions ( to our vocab list. For me personally, being asked about my tattoo, especially by men, and ESPECIALLY if I am touched without my permission, is a microaggression that reminds me that many men consider my body their property. These microaggressions multiply into me never wanting to wear my tattoo out, for fear of the “attention” that it would bring.

    I would love for us to approach this issue from the other side: a discussion of how WE struggle with seeing people who are not like us, whether because of the clothes they wear, the way they do their hair, their tattoos, their makeup, etc. I suspect that many of us would say that while we might admire someone’s difference from afar, we would respect their autonomy, their privacy, and their agency by letting them live their weirdo lives in peace.

  15. I agree with others that expecting questions is part and parcel, but disrespect is NEVER okay. When I had my lip rings, I liked it when people would ask about them as it was a chance to educate that, yes, someone can have facial piercings AND be a successful career woman AND be intelligent AND be quite likeable! If someone ever made nasty comments about it, I was always sure to rise above them and ignore it. Let them look like the asshole.

  16. I agree that if you choose to dress a way that you know brings a certain response you should not be suprised when you recieve that response. Of course this often isn’t fair.

    If the questions are from someone I know, even if just a regular customer at work I do not mind asking questions and ask them right back. So while they are asking me about my velvet bustled skirt, chunky lace up boots and long flowing sleeves I am asking them about their jeans, t-shirt and comfy pumps (not that my boots aren’t comfy). I am just as interested in why someone chooses jeans and a t-shirt as they are about my skirt choice. When the questions are from a complete stranger such as someone on the bus or in the street (except, where did you get that?) then I am less comfortable about the situation mainly because someone is being a bit rude.

    I have found that as I become more confident I find myself having ‘weirdest person on the bus’ competitions. Right aggressive looking drunkard on night bus I will take that and raise you a goth with a walking stick knitting and grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I have found that when I own being wierd and having pride in the label wierd strangers comment less while people that know me, even just regular customers, make more positive comments.

    I have to say that if I think someone is looking good or I like something of theirs (hair, outfit, tattoo, whatever) I will let them know that I think it is great, because in my eyes I think someone telling you something you are doing is fabby it can be a nice thing, hopefully I’m not seen as some creep luring over a hat or bag.

  17. You say this like we’ve mastered, socially, the art of not calling attention to people who don’t want attention.

    Like, we wouldn’t touch a stranger’s baby or a strange woman (the non-rapists), but when it’s a pregnant woman, all hands on her belly.

    Speaking of, it seems most women want to just get through the day without being harassed by walking outside or getting a soda.

    I have tattoos and strange men just literally grab my arm to get a look. If I was a man, it would be too taboo.

    Let’s master bodily autonomy for the “normals” first, then worry about what’s ok and not ok with regards to those with “cries for attention”. Obviously we’re not very good at distinguishing these things all the time.

  18. I’m an attention WHORE and I know it. One of the major reason we had a fairly big wedding and I had a poofy dress is because I KNEW I wouldn’t happy not being the center of attention on that big day. I love drastically changing my appearance and explainging why. I love pulling up my sleeves so someone can admire my ink or dying my hair weird colors so people will ask why or comment on it (neg or pos). This is who I am and I’m learning to accept it. Drama queen I am not….but attention whore I am. Acceptance is the most important part. 🙂

  19. I take being commented on as an opportunity to show that weirdos can be awesome individuals who command as much respect as so-called normal people. People will judge, but I see a personal responsibility to respond with grace. I’ve changed a few minds and garnered a few apologies that way.

    • Totally agree!! whenever I answer nice and polite to kind-of-retoric-just-meant-to-intimidate-me-questions, I can really see how they feel ashamed for their behaviour. In fact I am not so different from them as I may look, but they are always surprised to find out, that my toilet seat is not spiked with studs and that my plan for my life is marriage, children and getting old in a nice and quiet place and that my mum raised me to be a friendly and good person.

  20. I’ve had blue hair a few times, and have always had a somewhat quirky sense of style. I also have glasses, am very short for an adult, and am left-handed, though I can’t really help those things. I’m a teacher, and find that approaching any question (respectful or not) about my appearance as if it was asked by a child works well. This means taking an honest and direct approach. I got asked why my hair was blue all the time. My usual answer was that I just liked the way it looked, or because I felt like making it that color. When people comment on my shortness, I usually say something along the lines of, “I AM short! But that means I don’t hit my head on things as much as most people.” When you own whatever your weirdness is, it diffuses a lot of situations, and when you turn it into a teachable moment, you end up with one less ignorant person out there.

    That said, I keep my hair its natural color now, because sadly, blue hair isn’t considered to be very professional in the teaching field. I am patiently waiting for public opinion to change, or until I can find a good enough excuse to convince my administrators to give me their nod of approval.

    • If I had kids, you could teach them and have blue hair. I don’t get why that’s an issue (unless it’s a private religious school and hair dye goes against their religion). Surely hair color is far less important than, say, whether or not you’re molesting the kids. You never see a blue-haired teacher on the news for child abuse. Maybe you could use that as your selling point with the administrators. “It’s those normal-haired teachers you gotta watch out for!”

  21. I don’t think you automatically have a responsibility to explain a bunch of shit and educate obnoxious onlookers, but I think you have the same general onus to be courteous as anyone else does. If someone is asking something (or commenting) in a polite and positive way, whether it’s about your appearance or, well, anything, I think the thing to do is give a polite response back. Make it short and conversation-endy if you want, but still polite. (If they’re asking in a backhanded or judgmental way, well then, all bets are off.)

    It’s not quite the same, but I drive a Mini and I cannot tell you how many dudes my dad’s age at gas stations have asked “Do you like that little car?” or “What kind of mileage that little car get?” (seriously, always those two, always that phrasing.) I am soooo not interested in having a discussion about my car or talking to strange men at gas stations, so I just say “Yep!” or “Pretty decent” and keep on doing what I’m doing.

    All that said, I’ve found that dressing a little gothy (especially with the addition of sunglasses) *prevents* a lot of people from talking to you, which is exactly the way I like it 😉

  22. I’m currently living in China, and although I rarely garner a second glance in America and many other parts of the world, here I am stared at ALL. THE. TIME. That group of giggly teenagers, pointing at you? Daily life. The older people standing and staring at you as you talk to your friends? Every time I go anywhere with my fellow teachers. A phantom hand touching (or pulling) your hair? Yep, that too. Gasps (or dead silence) when I walk into a room? Got it.

    I try to be calm about it, since I am probably the only black American they’ve ever seen in real life, but it is REALLY disturbing at times. And it’s giving me a peek at what it may be like to be a “weirdo ambassador” in the US and Europe. I think I’ve always been respectful the few times I’ve asked questions, but now I will be even more thoughtful about any approach I make.

    And, hopefully, these suggestions will help me in this situation!

    • I’m a white American woman and I got the same treatment in China – I have had people stare at me, obviously talk about me right in front of me, touch my hair (it’s very short and Chinese women don’t often wear their hair that way), even ask to pose with them for photos.

      Chinese people are very blunt about personal appearances – saying “Look at you, you’re white” or “Look at you, you’re black” seems to be just as acceptable for starting a conversation as “Nice weather we’re having.”

      It’s an interesting contrast to the way people treat things like race and body size here – in the US, no one would dream of commenting on these things (although they’re apparently fine with commenting on tattoos and clothing choice).

  23. I don’t think you have a right to lash out at people who are being respectful about it. But I don’t think you have an obligation to be patient either. Any time you don’t feel like discussing yourself, you are perfectly free to say, “I don’t want to talk about it.” The end. Your appearance does not obligate you to do anything, for anyone, ever.

  24. To me, going with the Metro is the best part of my day. Though I live in a big city, people still seem to be very curious for (and partly also offended by) wild style. I’d consider myself relatively laid-back metal-goth-grunge. But of course I can’t assume, others do that too.

    I always answer questions when I am asked (mostly to children), which rarely happens, most people prefer to just stare and whisper to each other, then I don’t see why I should interrupt or be annoyed. They wont stop if I get furious and I wont get a good mood from being furious. Questions are ok, starring is ok, laughing is ok, taking fotos is ok if I agree. You can not expect to be dressed like that and don’t provoke feelings and reactions. It would be nice, if everyone could dress like they feel and nobody would be offended or surprised, but then again… probably I wouldn’t put as much effort in my style as I do now then. Admit it fellow-weirdos, a big part of your style is just because you want to provoke and make them feel something, where is the point in looking different and spending 2 h a day with styling if everyone else is different as well?

    The only border that I pull is when people touch me or insult me on purpose. That is not ok. Then I always tell people that I have prejudices and not so nice feelings about them too and that I don’t fancy their style as well as they don’t fancy mine but that they can keep their insults and anger to themselves if I can. It’s a question of decent breeding, not of the looks of others, to let other people be and do what they want.

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