Mia Hollenback on how Fashion & Art can Re-Define Identity

Photographs and words by Lexi Jude

Mia Hollenback, a gender-queer (agender) pansexual individual, breaks conformity, social constructs and ideas of sexual orientation and gender identity by expressing herself through art and fashion. Hollenback uses art and fashion as a coping mechanism for her mental health and understanding herself.

Hollenback grew up in a small town, very religious and conservative. Growing up with the expectation to follow specific rules of gender roles and to like a certain sex when she was internally struggling with identity was very challenging.

She was thirteen when she started obsessing over Harajuku fashion and questioning her gender. Specifically, she was interested in the Decoden and Lolita fashion. The dreamy hyper-feminine with Victorian-inspired outfits did not resonate with any specific gender. Harajuku fashion made her realize that she does not need to categorize herself according to gender.

Her friends and family always referred to them as a “tomboy” when she was growing up, and sometimes strangers would call her ‘mister’ or ‘gentleman.’ It didn’t quite bother her at first, but it made others around her uncomfortable. She was like a boy to a lot of people, but she was still a girl. So she kind of always fit somewhere in the middle, although she was not aware at the time.

“I feel like a lot of people tried to make me follow certain rules because I was born into the role of a girl,” said Hollenback. “It wasn’t until I started talking about gender in my first year of college with my peers and a really good friend of mine who moved out to Seattle. When I visited them there, I met a lot of people in the queer community. I never felt more at home there, and it hit me.”

When asked how to describe her “coming out” story, Hollenback replied, “Unsure.” Her process of ‘coming out’ was slow, and at time did not feel “queer enough,” ie, that she did not look a certain way to identify or be represented in that community. “I think there’s an expectation because there is this narrative of ‘love being who you are and [screw] the rest,’” said Hollenback. “That comes a lot from social media now. It’s a great way to find safe spaces when your actual environment is hostile or un-supporting of how you act or physically present yourself. Plus, coming out allows other people to define you again based on how you identify.”

Hollenback makes it clear that there is a major significance in disguising the difference between one’s gender identity and sexual orientation. “Whether we like it or not, we expect a girl to look/be a certain way, boys to look/be a certain way, and a gender-queer person to look/be a certain way,” said Hollenback. “But it’s not our fault, and it’s just the way our brains naturally categorize things, I think. But, again, I think that social media will help change that pressure. Maybe one day it won’t even matter, we’ll all coexist despite how we identify.”

In the end, Hollenback does not want her gender to define her. “Part of me doesn’t want to label it, but that’s why I like the concept of being agender. Identifying as that in and of itself is a protest to conforming to any standard,” said Hollenback.

Throughout her journey, Hollenback has experienced waves of dysmorphia throughout the process. She often found herself comparing her body to a man’s body. “It’s kinda [messed] up,” said Hollenback. “I love my curvy body most of the time, but there have been moments when I have found myself wishing I could be physically different and not have a chest or wide hips.”

Choosing the label “agender” has helped her cope with a lot of that dysmorphia, in a way where if somebody expects them to be a certain way, she can say, “good thing I’m not a girl” or “good thing I’m not a boy.” Art, specifically photography has helped her further with her journey and struggle with dysmorphia.

Her portraits are theatrical. She uses the lighting studio as her playground for experimentation. She physically alters herself with make-up, wigs, and costumes to help her fit into the narrative she is trying to tell. She is not becoming someone else but rather another form of herself.

Photography has helped her discover and understand parts of herself than ever did before. “Taking photos of people like me and myself gives me a sense of control over the situation if that makes sense. It’s always done with purpose. I love collaborating with others because the process opens up a conversation, naturally of course. It’s an intimate and grounding process,” said Hollenback. Hollenback was drawn to a video called “genderless fashion in Harajuku” and was intrigued by the interpretation that fashion can be genderless. “And I was like, hell yeah? Why do you have to categorize things according to gender? I mean, who the hell cares if a boy is playing with a Barbie or wearing a dress?? Why does it matter? Seriously??? Who is that hurting,” said Hollenback. She believed that fashion could influence an individual and how she chooses to express her gender identity and sexual orientation.

Here, Hollenback recalls the first instance of queer representation she saw and how it affected her: “Honestly, it was a manga in like seventh grade. I didn’t even think anything of it. It was just a cute lesbian story. I can’t even remember what it’s called. It was fan made, like a webcomic on DeviantArt or somewhere. It was interesting because it was something different than the mass media stuff that was in the movies or on T.V,” said Hollenback.

Through becoming more at peace with herself and the understanding of how she wanted to express herself, she learned to let go of what others judgments, or at least tried her best. There was a time where she felt very feminine and had long hair, and was okay with it.

Even though there were times when she was more masculine presenting, she did not feel she was contradicting herself, but just being who she was. “I like to think of myself as genderless, so I don’t have to abide by any rules. So in that way it helps me get out of my head, like, you don’t have to fit into any of the boxes you see (boy, girl, trans, queer, etc.). You can be. It’s easier said than done, but talking about it helps and makes it more real,” said Hollenback. The reaction she received from others as calling her “different or weird,” but not always in a wrong way. She realized that no one seems to be surprised by how she carried herself and how important it is to have people in her life that support her no matter how she identifies.

“I’m feeling radical, and I want to see all kinds of people down the runway,” said Hollenback. “Gay, Muslim, queer, size 24, trans, disabled, black, lesbian, you name it. We should all empower each other and lift each other up with us.” She hopes for a promising future for the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in the fashion industry when relating to sexual orientation and gender identity.