I'm a tattooed, blue-haired mom dealing with mental health stigma: do I need to tone down my look?

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I'm a tattooed, blue-haired mom dealing with mental health stigma: do I need to tone down my look?
Are people basing my parenting on my style choices?
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I'm an aspiring writer who never returned to formal work after my children were born. This year we're celebrating our 19th wedding anniversary. We live in a gorgeous NY suburb and have a mortgage on our dream house. I volunteer with the PTA and the wider community; I garden, cook, bake, and craft. We don't smoke, rarely drink, don't do anything illicit. We put a lot of time and effort into making sure our children feel loved, respected, and heard, but we also have firm boundaries and reasonable expectations for them. They aren't spoiled, but they do have everything they need and most of what they want.

We sound idyllic, don't we? Close family, living comfortably, emotionally literate, and we even have legit British accents. Why am I asking for advice from the offbeat community? The trouble is that my hubs and I have tattoos and a wardrobe full of Star Wars clothes. I have piercings, blue hair, and a fondness for chic style with subversive elements. All of this was fine to start with, I was used to working extra hard to earn people's trust, I saw myself as an ambassador for my offbeat tribe.

Recently we've been working through challenges relating to mental illness — minor but requiring therapy and medication. I've lost some friends over it, people who could overlook the superficial stuff, until it seemed less superficial.

Logically I KNOW mental illness doesn't discriminate. Logically I KNOW that I should ignore those people and focus on the people who are sticking by us. However, even if I'm just being paranoid about the likelihood of our children being taken from us, it's tough to think that choices I've made about my appearance might negatively impact my children in a significant way. They've had friends be told to keep away from them by parents, they've had malicious rumours spread about them. Possibly even worse, some of their friends think we're cool.

I know I shouldn't care, we're so lucky to have so much love, and lucky to have the resources to get the treatment they need. I just can't find a good balance in my head between expressing my identity in how I present myself, and keeping some of it under wraps for the sake of my teen daughters. My wardrobe has toned down a LOT in the six years we've lived here — should I go back to being a brunette who tends to stick with long sleeves in the summer? – E

In light of recent high-profile instances of celebrities succumbing to their mental illnesses, it's hard not to have mental health at top of mind, as if it wasn't already most of the time. To say that stigmas about mental health and seeking help for it have come a long way is an understatement. Many, many of us are embracing the care and feeding of our mental health just as we do our bodies. But the sad truth is that just as many are not. Just as many are using it as tools to avoid making policy changes or to "other" victims and perpetrators of crimes. Mental health has both a growing understanding and a growing willing ignorance around it.

So when I hear that your offbeat outward appearance (fully unrelated to any mental health issues) is taking on new meaning from an association with mental health, it's troubling but unsurprising. Thankfully, it seems like you rationally know that it's all bullshit. Your blue hair and nerdy proclivities have nothing to do with your fitness as a parent or within a family. I know those touchpoints to your identity are often what KEEPS you grounded when things get rough up in the noggin.

Changing the minds of the people who are challenging you about it or rejecting you isn't an easy task and probably distracts you from your own needs and the needs of your family. So it comes down to taking care of your mental health needs and arming your teenage children with the tools to care for their own as well, and to push back when confronted about whatever issues they perceive to be negative.

Here are a few resources to help them with feeling like an "other" or being rejected because of their uniqueness or the difference in their families:

And for YOU: I'm glad that you're on a path with therapy and medication with a strong support system. My first instinct is to have you not make any changes to your appearance for any reason other than your own reasons that you've discussed with your therapist. They can also help you talk to your kids about how to deal with other kids and their parents. Ultimately, you're right that it isn't likely that anyone will take away your children or anything so serious. Most likely you'll just continue to confront the walls that you've already dealt with since forever as your style evolved. It just takes learning coping mechanisms and ways to deal with it, and you seem tough as hell and super capable.

Homies: help us out! How would you deal with this situation?

  1. The people who are being garbage won't stop being garbage just because you dye your hair. If you feel like it would be a relief *for you* to blend in a little better on the day to day, then sure, maybe go natural (don't wear long sleeves in summer though, it's just not worth it.) But if this community of kids and parents already knows you, and has already made up their minds about you, a small change in appearance probably isn't going to change anything. Especially if the judgments they're passing have more to do with mental illness than blue hair :-/

    11 agree
  2. i'm not sure how helpful this will be but….it sounds to me like you are living in the wrong community (geographically speaking). having never lived on the east coast, and it being well over a decade since i lived in a suburb, these judgments you are facing sound DEEPLY rooted in ideological issues (in the minds of those judging you).

    both my spouse and i faced this all the time when we lived in the midwest…and that was BEFORE i had purple hair, tattoos, and multiple piercings. for us, it took moving to a place that welcomes and celebrates our quirky/offbeat/nerdy selves to feel we escaped that judgement (for example, you sound like you'd TOTALLY fit in seattle, where we live)… i know moving isn't always an option. just know that you are perfect and wonderful and valid AS YOU ARE. there is a whole wide world, and greater community, out there that will celebrate YOU for YOU and will except you, quirks and mental "illness" and all

    5 agree
    • We just moved back to the Pacific NW from a small, rural town in the midwest. I grew up in Wisconsin & lived away for 25 years (in Seattle for almost 20 of it, where my children were born & raised). When we moved back to Wisonsin I had forgotten how very judgemental & intolerant of ANY difference (no matter how small) my little Northern WI town could be! It sounds similar to the suburban life described above. After 3 years in WI, we were happy to get back to the Pacific NW last year. We now live in Portland, OR (my now adult teenager is in Seattle). Both my kids are in their teens. They were Ok in Wisconsin, but seem happier here. For me personally, I feel that living in a place that is more accepting has greatly improved my mental health (I suffer with depression). I am happier, less stressed & feel that I am a better, more attentive parent. It takes strength to stand up against the unfounded judgements, but do know that you are teaching your kids a valuable lesson; it is ok to be exactly who they are & they should never be ashamed of that. Best wishes for you!!

      4 agree
      • i grew up in WI!!! just outside m'waukee. everytime i visit my family (parents & sister still live there) it's a weird jarring dissonance of nostalgia and judgement.

        1 agrees
  3. Have you asked your kids? They know the community and they understand their experience better than everyone else. Yes, teens have a contractual requirement to be mortified by their parents – and at the same time they often have a good grasp of relationship dynamics and community norms. My daughter has frequently surprised me with her assessments of the families we know and her understanding of the way kids are affected by their parents' choices. I would talk to them – and then I would ponder what you want to model for them. I'd love to tell my kid she doesn't ever have to worry about what other people think. What I have told her instead is that people make judgments for a lot of dumb reasons, including clothes and tattoos and piercings, and she can make her own decisions about how much she wants to adjust her presentation to manage that. It's a useful skill for a young adult to learn (much as I hate that it's necessary).

    9 agree
  4. Your health – mental or physical – is no one's business but your own. If people you have shared private details with can't handle Your Truth, you are better off with the smaller tribe of people that can. Surround yourself with people who love you and understand that your blue hair is no more extreme than a suburban soccer mom with platinum highlighted hair and dark eyebrows. Don't change your appearance if you think that will adversely affect your mental state. For example, I have had purple hair for over 2 years, and went natural for a few months for cost savings, but it exacerbated my social anxiety because I didn't feel like ME. So I went purple again. Because fuck everyone if they don't like it.

    12 agree

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