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. I think people should be prepared to be asked questions or even be judged, but that doesn’t make it right for others to do those things. If you want to dress a certain way (or have lots of tattoos, colorful hair etc), you have to develop a thick skin. Unfortunately, we live in a judgmental world. But I do think it’s victim blaming to say that someone should deal with it graciously or something like that. It’s realistic to expect it, it’s unfair to be told to accept it.

    Of course, there’s a huge difference between innocent things like non personal questions and compliments and rude things like really personal inquiries and stares or mean comments. I don’t mind when someone asks what my tattoo is or why I got it, or tells me they love my shirt and want to know where to get it. But I’m much more likely to be greeted with stares or people whispering behind their hands and that’s NOT okay and I shouldn’t have to deal with that.

    Continually saying that you have to accept all kinds of attention for dressing a certain way is the reason that it continues to get so much attention. If we tell people that they’re going to get attention for looking the way they want and they have to be willing to accept that in order to dress that way means that many will opt not to, and the few who do are okay with that attention or even seek it out. Which, of course, makes it less normal to see people in certain fashions (making them more interesting) and easier to assume it’s attention seeking and therefore okay to pass judgment.

    I have extreme social anxiety. If I dressed the way I wanted all the time, I would be in in poofy skirts and long socks or old fashioned dresses or costumes all the time, and almost always in rainbow. (The girl in that picture? Yeah, I would wear that. I even have those socks.) But instead, I have to wear tshirts and jeans all the time, because I can’t handle the stares, and I’m told from both sides that I have to be able to in order to dress the way I’d like.

    I shouldn’t have to be an ambassador. If other people want to do that, fine. But people in a minority (whatever that minority is, be it religious, racial or even something as seemingly unimportant as a fashion minority) should never be forced to be a certain way so they don’t give others a bad name or something as silly as that. The onus is on other people to stop being judgmental, not on the weirdos to meet the approval of the majority.

  2. I’ve always been on the weird side but when I started commuting to grad school in Manhattan I realised after a few months that I had unconsciously turned my outer goth to 11. Thigh length Morticia hair, 20 hole boots, 10g septum ring, the works.

    After some introspection, experimentation, and observation I realised that it was because as a small (and also unusually young looking) Latina woman going about my business I was COMPLETELY INVISIBLE as a person when I wore mundane clothing.

    As a goth people may have been freaked out by me but at least they bothered to address me in the ways you address a human occupying way too little space with you (i.e “oh, excuse me” “is this the uptown?” “Is this seat taken?” “out of the way asshole!”) rather than treating me like an object they were not looking to interact with at that point in time.

    I think it was one of the first times I really felt my minority status.

    • That being said I ALSO definitely see myself as an ambassador.

      My ink is not very public and my septum ring has long since been taken out, but my hair does tend to occupy a new portion of the spectrum every 6 months or so now that it’s gone from Morticia to micropixie and I can handle the bleach damage.

      The first time I went blue my public demeanor changed considerably. I was in my late 20s and found myself in the mindset that if I could be as gracious and pleasant as possible (within functional bounds of course) maybe my example could make it easier for other people to accept their less conventional kids/siblings/grandchildren.

      I also find that I dress nicer when my hair is technicolour so that it is part of a style rather than its own statement. Also: not for nothing it takes considerable effort, money, and bathroom cleaner to keep up candy coloured hair and it feels silly to look like a schlump otherwise!

      • “maybe my example could make it easier for other people to accept their less conventional kids/siblings/grandchildren.”

        I LOVE this way of thinking about it- and it works!

        In high school, my friend’s mom was on the school board. She got a small nose stud. After a couple of months, people started to notice. And the school decided that if a school board member could have a nose piercing and be a responsible member of society, maybe it wasn’t so bad if the students wanted to dye their hair “non-natural” colors and have visible piercings. So it totally happens that an adult doing something not normal can influence how people perceive kids who do something not normal.

  3. As someone who has had rainbow hair for almost 8 years, I’m pretty used to questions and comments from all varieties of strangers. I find that, unlike tattoos, I don’t have much trouble with people getting touchy, but I do get some hilarious comments, especially around Halloween. The truth of the matter is, I LOVE getting stopped in stores and on trains (in parks and on planes) for people to ask about my hair color, my tips and tricks, etc. Once a 4 year old girl looked at my (then) hot pink hair and exclaimed, “You are a beautiful girl with very pretty hair!” To date, my favorite compliment ever!

    • Little kids and women over the age of 75 are THE BEST when you have rainbow hair.

      My favorite is when I go wildflower purple or cotton candy pink, older women are always saying “oh! I wish I could do that! ” until I point out that it’s way easier for them then it is for me with my dark brown hair *laughs* most of them get kinda shy after that but the *really* cool ones get a little sparkle in their eye.

      My stock line for little kids is that I get to have rainbow hair because I work really hard and try to be extra nice to people. While it’s not *strictly* true (it’s certainly not causative) that attitude does help with the “making a living wage and getting treated generally like a real person while having rainbow hair” part.

      • That is my plan!!! As soon as my hair goes white (like 30+ years from now, hehe) it will constantly be weird colors that will not currently show up on my brown hair!

  4. I really wish I didn’t have to expect the attention. I just want to be happy about what I see when I look in the mirror. I’ll have so much fun putting an outfit together and fixing my hair and makeup, feel super good about myself, then when I leave the house and people stare at me I just want to crawl into a hole and never come out. So I end up wearing t-shirts and jeans and no makeup, feeling not at all like myself just so I won’t have flash backs to middle school and lock myself up in my room.

  5. I’m all for being polite and answering questions to a point. Just like I wouldn’t consider it rude if someone asked where I bought a shirt, I have no problem talking with someone about where I got my tattoos. But if people decide to take my appearance as an invitation for rudeness or harassment, then no.

  6. When my sister and I were little, our parents decided to homeschool us. If you think it’s a weird choice now, just imagine what it was like 30 years ago. Homeschooled parents were pretty much looked at as hyper-religious, militia-wannabee, social rejects who were *at best* neglecting the quality of their kids’ education. So it was impressed on us as kids that we had to constantly be putting homeschooling in a good light. Be sociable, show you take learning seriously, well-groomed, etc. People would judge our parents and all homeschoolers based on their interaction with me and my sister. We had to do what we could to improve their perception. Heavy stuff to lay on a seven-year old. (And the kind of childhood you get when a hippie marries a USAF major).

    So I guess I’ve never really known anything else. People always judge, even if you look as normal as possible – like the twelve year old in jeans and a t-shirt sitting over there reading a Star Trek novel. Turns out she’s one of those weirdo homeschoolers.

    But now that I’m in my thirties it is actually incredibly freeing. Maybe it’s because I’m reaching the age where I don’t give a damn; I just want to feel comfortable in my skin and look on the outside the way I feel on the inside (peacock colored hair). Maybe it’s because I’ve never known anything else really, so stupid questions, staring, bad assumptions, and being an ambassador are just a natural part of my life. Maybe it’s because I don’t care to prove that I’m weird anymore. Maybe it’s because I got so much shit and misery during the times of my life I tried to be “normal.” But to me it seems like such a small price to pay for being who I want to be.

    So now that I think of it my situation has reversed: Look at that weirdo over there with her peacock colored hair slicked into a pompadour – turns out she’s a totally normal human factors and systems writer.

  7. I live in Vancouver and it is people who don’t have tattoos that stand out. Summer on the bus is an education in body ink! I have 3 tattoos and haven’t had anyone try to touch them or me. I have had a lot of people ask “Are those real?” I guess I don’t look like the tattoo type. The most tattooed woman I know, my doctor.
    I used to dress to get more attention but after a couple of decades of getting slimed on by icky, creepy men, I am glad to be in my 50’s and am enjoying the invisibility that seems to come with it.
    Sooner or later I will go back to bright coloured hair. For now I stick with bright coloured clothes . . . no root show through.

  8. People will ask questions. People will ask personal questions because (the vast majority of the time) they are simply making conversation, satisfying a curiosity, and have no idea that “why?” could be personal.

    I have a line from Vivaldi’s cello sonata in E minor on my right forearm. I’ve played the cello for 16 years and that piece has always been my “white whale”. Once, after explaining it, an older man told me that I didn’t look like the classical type. I asked him why he would say that, and realization dawned in his eyes that what he said could be construed as extremely rude. He apologized, I forgave him, and now he will likely be more aware of what he’s saying to tattooed folk.

    After my first brand, I was picking up a friend at the airport, wearing shorts. If you’re not familiar with brands, the healing process is gnarly and it spends a few weeks looking just icky. That’s normal. At the airport, an elderly woman asked me about it and I explained what it was, the process, etc. She heaved a sigh of relief and said “that’s wonderful, I was about to tell you to sue that tattoo artist.” Turns out, she was fairly heavily tattooed, but always had to keep them covered because when she was younger, the general consensus was that only criminals, prostitutes, or sailors had tattoos. She got a bit misty eyed when she said that she was glad she lived to see a day when people weren’t judged by their tattoos.

    I have just never seen the questions as “they ask, I answer”. I ask my own questions, I’m always polite and well spoken, and hopefully I’m changing some perceptions. Sometimes my perceptions have changed. Every interaction is a chance to teach or learn or both. But if I’m genuinely not interested in chatting, I say “my sincerest apologies, but I am right in the middle of something that requires my full attention” or “that’s not an interesting story, thet’s talk about x”.

  9. I have 5 tattoos. i have to say I’m a tattoo creeper …. I look at other peoples tats and if they seem in a good mood i will at least say hey that’s a cool tat. Sometimes I will ask what a tattoo is if i can only see part of it. People who look pissed at the world I just let them be. When people ask me about my Tattoos I’m always willing to show them off chat a little about them. Some people get creeped cuz my chest piece is a pair of skulls one with wings and a halo one with horns. I’ve even been told I’m going to burn in hell for my tattoos by a little 90 year lady and her husband agreed because they are “devilish”. I have people tell me my rubber ducky tattoo looks like a kid drew it. I don’t let it faze me I grew up in a tiny backwards country town. I’ve been negatively judged for my differences my whole life , I believe if you wanna be small minded I can’t help you but i don’t have to hear your small mindedness.

    As far as wild clothing and hair goes I love it all and will ask how did you do it or where di you buy it because i would love something similar. I’m a tie-dye kind of girl and i can say even though its not that wild i still get followed around stores by sales people who are afraid I’m gonna steal something, waitress roll their eyes when i order cuz they think i won’t tip, customer service people will ignore me and even walk away from me all because of what i wear. So when i really want something i dress a little different but when I want to be me and comfortable, I ignore them or if I feel insulted I ask for their manager n complain.

    So it really is all about what you personally feel you can put up with. I have to say if your not a strong willed person and able to accept that some people will stare, some will love it and some will even tell you your going to burn in hell then you may not want to stand out too much or you may not wanna move to a small town. I say its all beautiful and the world needs color and diversity so Show your wild side and if it gets tough kick ass

  10. What really gets me bristly is when people get angry or impatient when small children call out their appearance. I have visible tattoos, facial piercings, and vibrantly multi-colored hair. Children often comment, usually loudly because that’s what children do. When their parents start to admonish them, I’m always quick to jump to defend their curiosity with “No! It’s totally okay. Do you mind if I let [him/her/them] touch my [hair/tattoo/nose ring]?” and then use it as a teaching moment that hair is just hair, tattoos are just colorful skin, and people are people no matter how they look.

    • YES! God, I wish there were more people like you. I get that things can be exhausting when the 50th person (child or otherwise) is asking what your tattoo means, but it’s such a great opportunity to be friendly and surprise people.

      (Street harassment is of course a different beast… but I’ve seen folks bristle at the gentlest of questions.)

  11. As an Ambassador to Weirdos as well as leaning more to non-binary gender fluid I do get a lot of “looks”. I have dealt with the looks and snide remarks for a majority of my life. Those moments when I have someone ask me about my look I really do light up and give them my passion. I put work into my looks and when they are noticed or even appreciated I hold on to that until the next moment. The best comment I got once ” You look like people used to look in my day, thank you for brightening my day” 😀

    At this point I don’t even notice the “looks” any more and enjoy the conversations all the more.

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