“We deserve to be seen for who we are” – Why Inclusive Design Is So Important

1 September 2021
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Marginalized groups’ bodies are bodies that exist in a world where they are not their own.

A world where everything is ought to be black or white, male or female, right or wrong.

My body is my body. I don’t believe in labeling it for someone else’s comfort.

My body is my home, the place where I should feel safe.

Making myself feel safe in my body is something that I work on every day, navigating social expectations and perceptions all while trying to feel like I own myself.

The thing is, we don’t owe anyone anything to prove our gender and deserve respect. Our bodies should be valid, no matter how we chose to express ourselves.

Dressing our bodies is a daily task that can create so much pain, discomfort, dysphoria for so many of us. It is a daily reminder that we will be misidentified, misunderstood, misgendered. Although we may feel comfortable and safe in our bodies, we might not receive that acceptance from others due to their failure to accept, to understand.

image description: Zoe and their partner, standing close together, with their two dogs.

Zoë (left) and their wife Marie-Ève and their dogs Kimchi (in Marie’s arms) and Mister Pickles, at their shop.

I have always felt at odds with my body. There has always been something somewhere that felt out of place, funny-looking, not socially valued.

When I first realized I was queer, I felt some type of relief. I felt that this new world was less focused on looks and more on acceptance. The 2SLGBTQ community immediately felt like a safe place to me. The embracing of our sexual orientations, our gender expressions, and our physical quirks made it so that the angst I was feeling towards my self-expression and self-acceptance lifted. The fact that I was part of a community that shed itself of what was considered “acceptable,” “expected,” “conventional” made me feel seen—but in a positive light.

Dressing myself the way that felt the most comfortable, and knowing that I belonged to a community that valued acceptance and uniqueness, made me feel seen for who I really was, for a while.

When I came out publicly, that newfound joy and liberation quickly faded. Once again, my body did not belong to me. I was told I did “not look queer enough,’’ therefore I could not be queer. Or that I was “confusing” people because they thought I was straight based on the way I dressed.

These invalidating comments filled me up with shame and pain, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why I felt so much shame about my body, when I felt so great being part of a community that celebrated it. I couldn’t understand how people who claimed to support me and accept me were so quick to invalidate who I was based on how I dressed.

Here, my body wasn’t my safe place not because I wasn’t queer enough, but because I was too straight passing…but not enough. Even with a shaved head, piercings and tattoos, “alternative lifestyle looks” as many people see them, I was still being categorized by the way I look and the body I was born in.

I only started truly feeling safe in my body this year, when I came out as non-binary. When I understood that my feelings of unease towards my body were caused by my understanding of myself, it clicked.

My body is my body, and I will no longer let my perception of my body be dictated by what is expected by others.

I don’t identify with my assigned sex at birth. I am more than what I was assigned, not just a woman. I know now my unease that I felt about my body taking space and being seen is not because I wasn’t queer enough to not be misidentified as a straight woman. I now know that it was because I didn’t identify with what I was being categorized and seen as: a woman.

I am “more than, and not just.” Now that I understand that I don’t need to abide by the social expectations of my gender expression and identification, I have never felt more free within my body.

Yes, I do struggle with some parts that remind me monthly that my body isn’t 100% reflecting my reality.

Yes, I do still struggle with the perception of others. I think that many individuals that identify as non-binary struggle, as well. What I mean is that we perceive that others feel we somehow owe them androgyny, or ways of clearly labeling us for their own comfort.

The thing is, we don’t owe anyone anything to prove our gender and deserve respect. Our bodies should be valid, no matter how we chose to express ourselves.

As a queer non-binary yarn shop owner, I use my voice to help amplify the voices of those that cannot be heard. I use my voice to make change in our communities.

Dressing our bodies is a daily task that can create so much pain, discomfort, dysphoria for so many of us. It is a daily reminder that we will be misidentified, misunderstood, misgendered. Although we may feel comfortable and safe in our bodies, we might not receive that acceptance from others due to their failure to accept, to understand.

As a queer non-binary yarn shop owner, it’s my duty to advocate for us: searching for garments, patterns and designs that help us affirm ourselves and make us feel safe, and seen.

When I look for shop samples, personal projects, or projects to suggest, I tend to gravitate towards those that offer certain features:

  • Inclusive sizing (XS to 5XL)
  • Diversity in project pictures—are garments shown on different body sizes and types?
  • Accessibility of pattern instructions—language, ease of reading, FAQ/help
  • Affordability of suggested yarns—do they rely exclusively on high-end yarns, or are less expensive yarns also featured

I tend to also look for patterns that don’t use much frills and lace, because these details are usually associated to more feminine genres. When you have a decent knowledge of knitting and reading patterns, adding or replacing certain details can greatly change a garment and make it more comfortable to wear, without necessarily inviting others to misgender you.

I look for these features and information to be in the publicly visible description of the pattern. If the info isn’t provided and you have to purchase the pattern just to see if it is something that would work for you, it isn’t being inclusive. Those 5$, 10$, 15$, could be put to better use, especially if the selected pattern doesn’t turn out to be as user-friendly as hoped.

It is also part of my responsibilities to challenge designers and crafters to create safe and accepting designs for our bodies, not just “mainstream” bodies.

When clients come into the shop and talk about their projects, many of them will state that they don’t love a certain finished object because the shaping/writing of the pattern/lack of sizing has turned them off. What I like to do is ask what is “wrong,” or what they didn’t like about the pattern, and take those comments and turn them into research data.

By understanding what bothers someone in a pattern, it’s then easier to search for patterns, and also easier to reach out to favourite designers and say “Hi! We love your designs but we have come up with a few issues that we would like to discuss to see if these changes could be integrated into current or future patterns.”

Finding patterns and designers that “look like us,” or represent us, is hard. That is why I strongly encourage designers to think of using more diverse models and sizing charts, and challenge them to create functional garments that are inclusive to all.

image description: the author and their wife with three customers in their yarn shop

Every body is different. Every body is valid.

Appropriately tagging or categorizing a pattern is something else that needs to be addressed. I remember the time I searched for a men’s short-sleeve knit top and the first eighteen results were camisoles and bralettes… all with the tag “unisex” and “men.” Designers and pattern-host websites should work to ensure that tags are appropriately used, and not exploited to inflate sales to the detriment of accurate browsing.

We deserve to be seen for who we are. We deserve garments that are designed with us in mind. We deserve patterns that don’t categorize us, reduce us, revoke our rights.

Having gender-inclusive designs is a starting point. These designs don’t mean to be sacks or formless garments. They mean to be gender inclusive, the same way a designer would design body-inclusive garments, or hyper-sexualizing garments. They mean to provide us safety and comfort, without owing anything to anyone, without compromising ourselves for the comfort of others who can’t understand. They are meant to make us feel like our bodies are worth being seen for what they are: accepted and celebrated.

Header image by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash; all other images credit Caroline Perron.

Copyright © Zoë Desborough except as indicated.
Image description: Zoë Desborough sits on a settee in a yarn store, working on a yarn project.

About Zoë Desborough

Quitting their PhD due to toxic work environment and relationships, Zoë decided to take on the challenge of becoming a first-time business owner: a yarn shop owner! Obsessed with crochet and fibres, and then knitting, the transition seemed perfectly logical, but somewhat risky. Flash forward to today, and their shop Crochet & Co. just celebrated its 2 year anniversary amid the global pandemic. Crochet & Co is not only a local yarn shop, but also a safe space for all; a place that promotes open-mindedness, support, and inclusion. Their academic background in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and their activism for the LGBTQIAAP community has allowed them to work with several organizations and businesses to better their D.E.I. practices and policies, as well as guest speak on different panels in the fibre community.

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