Language is such a powerful tool, isn’t it? Think back to some of the most wonderful things you’ve heard, the first time someone said ‘I love you, or when someone said ‘I Do’ in front of your friends and family, maybe the first time you were told you were super awesome at something? It can be equally as dreadful though, I remember the horrible comments people made to me when I was at school, the cutting words ‘friends’ used during arguments and the times I overheard people saying mean things about me.
As a dyslexic child, language was terrifying. I struggled to read and write to any passable degree. Thankfully, I always had a mouth on me and I was quickly able to hold my own in the classroom and the playground.
Getting older, and becoming a disabled person only cemented how important language was to me. Suddenly I started to better understand the politics of language and the power it could hold. I am quite particular about how I wish to be referred to as a disabled person, you can read more about the social model of disability if you wish to understand better.
I never gave much thought to how I used language as a fat woman, I didn’t think it held the same political significance as the language used around disability. But I give a lot of thought to it now. Those powerful little collections of letters have the ability to change your whole world. Normal. Crippled. Fat. Ugly. They conger up all kind of images, feelings and emotions in us, or at least they do in me. When I think about what it means to be normal, for example, I think about the years in my 20s wishing I didn’t need personal care from strangers to help me get my knickers on and off, or pleading with my own head to just stop making everything so dark and unbearable. I also remember wishing I was thin.
Today I went to see Francesca Martinez speak. She is a very funny woman, a total babe on so many levels, she also has Cerebral Palsy making her – in her own words – ‘wobbly’. She talked a lot about language had impacted on her as a kid, desperately wishing she was like everyone else, until she met an ass hole in a bar (obviously she dated the ass hole because she *is* a normal woman) and he questioned how she spoke about her self. When she explained she had brain damage, he laughed and said ‘no you’re not, thats just a label created by other humans to define you, you are perfectly you’. Excited at his response, but still sceptical that it could be that simple, she protested that the world made her feel ‘abnormal’ .. ‘you are abnormal’, he said, ‘most people on this world live in abject polity, you are lucky so take your head out of your ass and open your eyes’. The point here is nothing to do with what he was saying, but the revelation it left her with. She realised that she had the power to choose how to view her self but she’d been giving it away for all those years. The revelation, for her, that no-one was normal, that difference was normality, and diversity was life meant she suddenly felt part of the human race rather than the odd one out. Radically, she went one step further and reclaimed her body. She started thanking her body for what it provided her with, rather than giving it a hard time for not doing things in a way she felt ‘normal’. She realised that her body had nothing to do with how she’d been feeling, but actually living in a world controlled by powerful media outlets (mostly run by white middle class men) meant she didn’t stand a chance of being represented. They don’t want us to embrace our imperfections. That doesn’t sell anything.
Francesca speaks at length about this in a TED talk, that you can watch, here.
This may all seem very structured towards ability, but actually it straddles nicely into the body positive movement for all the same reasons. Whilst my being a disabled woman has absolutely made me feel abnormal and I’ve wished so many times for my body to do it’s job more efficiently, I’ve never wanted anything more than I wanted to be thin. To have a ‘normal’ body in the eyes of the media.
My journey to body acceptance is the biggest act of civil disobedience I’ve ever made. Because rejecting how the world tells me I should look is the most powerful tool I have in healing the damage I’ve done not just to my physical health, but to my mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing.