What is "Masking" & How I'm Healing From It With Art
I'm working now on a show proposal for the Terrace Art Gallery. I applied for a grant to do it. Regardless of the grant monies, I'm doing the project. It's the biggest art project I've ever considered doing myself.
The show is based on part of my recent health journey. Unfortunately, this journey was a dark one and it's not that uncommon.
Until recently I wasn't getting all of the treatments I needed in my life. It turns out that I am autistic. The confirmation came when my daughter was diagnosed with autism last year.
Ironically, we're not that unique. Since the introduction of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, a series of conditions and experiences in autism by girls and women which hadn't been considered before, were finally included. Since previous autism research only studied boys, the data about autism has been largely skewed and prejudiced towards male/boy diagnosis and symptoms.
The most relevant generation that can see this is my own.
As a Millennial single mother, I'm raising a daughter who doesn't quite fit the mould and I see characteristics in her that I struggled with too, and I - along with fellow millennial women, are beginning to realize that the males in our society not only got access to funding and assistance, but they were listened to.
When folks ask me, what is a pop-culture example of what girls in your generation are going through?
If you don't know the case, then let me elaborate. The one and only Britney Spears, who is a reigning pop princess from my generation, has been under a conservatorship controlled by her own father for the past 15 years. Only this fall did a court judge finally rule in favour of Britney Spears getting counsel (her own lawyer) she could choose herself, and to get control over her own body. Up until this point she didn't even have that.
And what set off this series of events? Well, remember back when Britney shaved her head and gave the paparazzi what they deserved? Well, because it was captured all on camera in a way that deliberately makes Britney seem hysterical compared to the reasonable assumption that she was at a breaking point with disrespectful and dangerous paparazzi stunts, she lost a lot of her own fundamentally human rights at the hands of her own father.
Women aren't allowed to stand out on principal because if we do then it's likely going to turn our "viewer," or audience in marketing language, "off."
Yes, that's marketing jargon, but here's the relevancy. Women, like children, have been treated like we ought to be seen not heard. When we make noise or offer information, it's taken and claimed by men.
In 2002 Ashanti and JaRule broke the charts with a clever ditty, where even as a female sings on track JaRule's singing and mansplaining. Huh?! Read:
(A) You can understand that my love is pain
(A) And how I feel in vain, it's just a woman thing
(J) It's a man's world, but I understand.
Individualism, innovation, and authenticity are the key to surviving and innovating in a world that develops so quickly but why do we still train it out of our daughters and into our boys?
Studies have consistently confirmed that boys have more ready access and encouragement to reach for and play with toys that stimulate innovation and creativity, such as STEAM topics which have now seen a rise in many organizations supporting community youth.
And community support is important for all people. Not just women and/or men, but all races, all genders, all ability types, all voices, and all minds need to be supported when they interact with their community.
The problem is, what happens when most of your community has their own issues? What happens when there's undiagnosed mental illness in a family, or abuse run amok in a neighbourhood? What happens when an autistic runs into abuse and receives no support from their community? Can we blame them or the community if they fail to heal?
As an undiagnosed autistic I ran into the worst of bullying because I would not expect to be bullied.
Sounds silly but autistic brains react differently to social and emotional cues and that meant often I didn't recognize when I was being bullied until after the damage was done.
I often was challenged outright with hostility because I wasn't scared to speak my mind and say what I actually felt. In elementary school by my parents I was told it was a safe space to share, and in Kindergarten it was.
But when we moved schools for grade one and I didn't know anyone, I tried to treat it as a safe zone but I began running into gendered expectations from classmates that were silly. It was as early as grade three that I remember being called a "homo" for the first time. Why? For "not acting like a real girl." Sure, I'm a pretty girl to see, but some quality quickly identified me as "not typical." Ironically, I was wearing a pink track suit with care bears and glitter. Even bathed in "Girlie" I was easy to spot somehow. All I had to do was open my mouth.
This didn't just happen a few times though, this happened over a dozen times. I attended 13 different schools by the time I graduated grade 12.
I was supposed to learn to "mask" my identity to make others comfortable but I'd never been taught how. I'd never been taught what a "normal" girl could or "should" do, and in truth, if someone told me as a child I shouldn't have done something, it just made me more likely to do it.
I've never seen "Differences" with a clear divisible line as some people can. Some folks use race to divide people in their minds. I'd say that's racism.
To me, we can spend eternity dividing or uniting people. The choice is ours. I would prefer to unite people.
Some boys are weaker than girls and some girls are stronger than boys. Some people are more or less classically intelligent (IQ), some are highly spatial and can see things in their mind's eye before they build them, like architects, engineers, and so forth.
I was not a "typical girl" so I would have to learn to fake it till I made it.
As my daughter got older, I watched people begin to impart on her social messaging that they tried to stamp on me, "you should smile more, you look prettier with a smile." I never leave my daughter to deal with those gendered comments on her own because it's a generational issue.
Millennials (and younger) are trying to make sure we don't pass on these genderizing habits (or other habits) to our own children. I responded to that family member with, in a calm tone:
"What if she's curing cancer? You want her to look like a maniac smiling all the time? She's not a doll moving through the world to please you, if you wanna see more smiles in the world start with your own face."
Let me tell you, he did not smile.
While boys and now men our age aren't having to worry about pleasing men and women alike, women are and they always have. And women autistics aren't the only ones who mask, we're the only ones who have to. If you're a girl growing up and every family member in your female crew is into barbies, you automatically isolate yourself if you don't play with barbies.
This isn't a choice either. Especially in the case of autism, we act the way we are and people tend to react strongly to us in ways that turn us inward and shut off our communications skills.
When Tickle-me Elmos came out in the 1990's, kids my age were going insane for the damn things. They sold out three holiday seasons in a row and black Friday stampedes began in earnest for this doll, it seemed. The phenomenon lasted so long that it's been mocked on various television programs. But why? Why weren't parents and fellow children seen by parents and communities for what they were: The Future? (TM)
My generation is the "first time" according to some, "that women outnumber men in the North American continent" and this demographic detail was noticed during the Cabbage patch craze of 1983. Yes, I too had a cabbage patch and I loved their sweet, sweet smell. It'll probably be the cause of cancer in a few years, but damn, the feelings it evokes.
There were actual riots. And no, it wasn't just an "American Phenomenon," it was here in Canada too.
So what? One might say - what's the point?
Well, the world is waking up to what we're actually capable of but not at a rate that will help the planet, not at a rate that will help children and adults living from disadvantaged backgrounds including poverty, racial prejudice, gendered prejudice, disability prejudices, and many others. Our world is capable of better, and we all want better, but we're so easily divided by lines that others draw even when we don't have to be.
The point is that the shitty behaviours we all have because we're human, they start to pile up on people with less or no advantages in this world.
In autistic women, in order to cope with the violences against our ideas, the roughness of the reactions we have to deal with, over time we hide who we really are. We hide it behind sometimes a singular identity and sometimes behind multiple.
I had a boyfriend once who said he didn't like who I was around my family.
He was right.
I'm a horrible person around my family because if I'm honest, my family members don't value me and when I'm around them I mostly feel lonely. Mostly they see me as a pain in their ass. I learned from that ex's comment though. I've stopped doing my bit, becoming impractically annoying around them, and I've stopped feeding into the loop. Sometimes my inner debate nerd wants to come out Parliamentary-Style and start my six minutes with "Actually..." when family members say something ignorant. But it's not my responsibility. My reputation really isn't affected by them although they're constantly terrified my reputation will hurt them in some way.
Further, my generation of "autistic girls" has to consistently mask our own pain, our own differences of opinion, not because we're scared of the consequences of us saying so, but because sometimes those closest to us, whom we love, are the ones most likely to hurt us if we upset them. Whether it's their interpretation of the world and it's social expectations, or it's because our own childhood is triggering for them, we can't often spend time with our own family without masking. I often wonder if there's a single person in my family that knows who I am, or cares. I don't have to wonder, I already know the answer. I've lived away and outside of the home since I was 17 and the person who genuinely asked me about myself at family events is gone now. She's passed away and her ashes are on the other side of the continent.
In the last two years, I've been trying to decolonize but it's a personal journey fraught with pain and requires consistent healing. In the last six months, I've been de-masking. Taking down my social "selves" and progressing towards my own identity as an autistic woman who doesn't mask or shield my identity anymore. I've always been proud of who and what I am, but I didn't always have the details. Now that I do, I think I am ready to change much in my life.
This concept and unfolding of my identity is like the pulling back of the curtain metaphor, except it's not even a metaphor. It's reality. Autistics have to become excellent actors just to survive and move through the world with as little trauma as possible. When people think you're "retarded" like I've been called more times than I can count, they think they can get away with unspeakable things. They gaslight you at a higher rate, and people who are fence sitters on issues can hop to a side as soon as they see you've picked one. "No offence, but I believe..."
Actually, you're scared to be around my way of thinking because you think it's mental illness. You think it's devoid of "niceties," but since the invention of industrialism, "manners" have been used to keep the poor from complaining too loud for the rich who could hear them. These aren't behaviours that suit or benefit any human, to mask oneself and ones thoughts? It's a true catch-22.
True intersection is the place where all ideas and values can be compared without anger, malice, or prejudice; intersectional equality means the literal and subjective can be equal so that the person and the group are heard. If one person in this world experiences it, then there are many undiscovered who likely do too. When I've travelled, I've seen the reality - so when surrounded by Conservatives (for example) I won't willingly stop advocating for progressive and intelligent voices, despite the conservative right's penchant for verbal abuse.
My autism is what people call "bravery" when I voice an opinion in a room with people who disagree. When I talk openly about my experiences with sexual assault, poverty, family law, justice, the RCMP, and prejudice in my communities, I know that I'm putting people in the hot seat but I can't care. I'm a citizen in this country and I know that I'm in pain. I don't need a doctor to tell me I'm in pain, I feel it. That's subjective, it's not a truth for anyone else, but it's my truth.
Further, I'm a white single mother with most of an education: If I'm in pain, how is everybody else doing?
What I need are doctors who stop trying to put me on opiates for my chronic pain. Stop telling me I'm neurotic because I have *that gene* and stop telling me that the xray is empty so "there's nothing there."
I need doctors who think they're my friend and who want to help the person behind the billable 15 minutes they charge Northern Health. I need therapists. Ideally, a psychologist, an occupational therapist, and a physical therapist, but none of these are covered by disability. I don't qualify for permanent disability with the federal government because one doctor suggested "it could be temporary and improve with time," however, I only met that (male) doctor once and it's been seven years. Think it's permanent now?
Women need doctors who don't fall back on the research first because they know that research is overwhelmingly only studied in men, on men, and in male environments.
Women still don't have their own heart attack profile even though "Heart & Stroke" is one of the highest funded medical conditions in Canada, behind cancer. Women still, even five years after it was exposed, pay 7% more on personal products just because they're for women and they're made from pink plastic instead of blue plastic. But what boggles my mind is the audacity of companies that get called out and have the nerve to just shrug and be like: "Take it or leave it ladies," so our generation has had to evolve social behaviour beyond boycotting and as a generation we've successfully ghosted companies.
Part of what stems from women being capable of "masking" better than their male counterparts is likely that women are "expected" to behave better and more maturely. Remember this doozy of a meme?
This is all to say that these feelings of "unmasking" are the subject of this new art project and I'm really passionate and excited to tell you a bit about it. It will be a 20 panel and single sculpture art show in 2022. The show will focus on the domestic experiences of "masking" and explore the identities I have had to wear as I take them off and permanently retire them.
This art show is.... It's intimidating and deeply personal, but I feel this is the crux of being disabled and interacting with "society." I have always been on the margins in various ways my whole life but I could never truly identify it. Now I have a much more profound understanding of my own identity that I'm flabbergasted it took this long to figure out. I'm usually quicker than this!
Tell me, are you autistic or know someone who is? Do you or they "mask?" Have you heard of masking?
Let me know too if you're intrigued by this art show idea and/or want to get involved in helping it happen. If I do secure funding then I will be hiring some part time help and a local carpenter.
#démasqué2022 #démasqué #unmasked #unmasking #autism #autisminwomen #autismawareness #autismacceptance
JaRule & Ashanti Song Lyrics.
The Music Video:
And I'll note that the whole music video is like BET does "You're the one that I want" at the end of Grease.
Products for my Age Group: Marketing Frenzies:
"When the Tickle Me Elmo Toy craze led to a trampling" CBC: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/when-the-tickle-me-elmo-toy-craze-led-to-a-trampling-1.4921367
Cabbage Patch Riots News Video from Eye-witness News ABC7NY: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzfuo94KCe8
CBC article about cabbage patch dolls: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/the-crazy-cabbage-patch-doll-craze-of-1983-1.4456754
"The Dark Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids" https://historybyday.com/pop-culture/one-of-the-biggest-scandals-in-the-history-of-toys-the-dark-story-of-the-cabbage-patch-kids/
About Britney Spears:
Why Longtime Britney Spears Fans Are Demanding to #FreeBritney: It all starts with the singer's conservatorship that dates back to 2008.
Britney Spears Quietly Pushed for Years to End Her Conservatorship: Confidential court records obtained by The Times reveal that the singer has urged changes to the arrangement that controls her life, and her father’s role in leading it. (NYT)
Britney Spears on IMDb:
Britney Spears’s Father Jamie Suspended From Conservatorship After 13 Years (NYT)
Read Britney Spears’s Full, Harrowing Conservatorship Testimony in Her Own Words (NYT)
Britney Spears freed from father's 'toxic' conservatorship (CBC)
Autism Spectrum Disorder among Children and Youth in Canada 2018: A Report of the National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System
Most Recent Data: 2015, taken without consent perhaps? Underage and measured prior to the results of the changes from the DSM-5 diagnostic criterion changes. (and funding?)
Articles on Autism:
'A unique way of communicating': Canadians with autism share challenges, debunk misconceptions about autism