The Trouble With Difference
Guest Post by Julie Elizabeth Powell
In my book, Gone (a fantasy) I begin by exposing ‘normal’:
‘Normal. She despised the word. And what did it actually mean?
The dictionary told her, ‘conforming to a standard’, but where or how were these standards formed, and by whom?
In bygone years someone must have decided how people should behave, how they should look, and even how they should think or feel, branding, or ridiculing or even burning at the stake those who didn’t agree…’
‘… Maybe somewhere there was a mental monitor, she reflected, like in those TV shows that measured audience response? A monitor where minds were calculated on a scale from one to ten, by some ‘normal’ boffin, who weeded out the spoilers with the stroke of a pen, to be forever exiled.’
The reason this story begins like this is because Charley’s daughter had been severely brain damaged and is a shadow of her former self. In this instance, I think that ‘normal’ can be quantified – for there is nothing normal about being a twisted, suffering empty shell.
Who then decides what normal is? What is the measure of normal?
When you look in the mirror, what are you thinking? My nose is too big, my boobs too small, I’m too short, too tall, too thin, too fat, and so on.
In one of my books, The Misadventures Of Fatwoman, I take a look at how being fat affects lives of women; Andi’s in this case.
Andi is in need of an outfit for her husband’s ‘work’s do’ and becomes desperate as she trawls the shops:
‘She held the dress at arm’s length gripping onto its hanger, willing it to miraculously expand enough for it to slide over her blubbered body…’
‘I couldn’t fit my leg through that, she thought, as she continued to gaze at the misguided attempt at ‘bigger clothes for real women’.
‘She wondered what they meant by real women…’
So what is a ‘real woman’?
Having always to ‘fight the flab’ myself, much of the story is patterned through my own experiences, but I wonder how many others feel such shame and humiliation – men and women.
Although it is far easier these days to find clothes for larger sizes, however, according to the media, anything over size 10 (UK) is a large size. Blimey!
I think the media is responsible for much of this ‘anti-fat’ – even if you’re hardly that – mind-set. The majority of magazines only show near anorexic models to show off their clothes or perfume or make-up – and of course cars!
I know that sex sells, but really, at least 50% of drivers are women and maybe don’t appreciate the scantily-clad, young, air-brushed models prone across the bonnet.
It’s these images, in my opinion that push the idea of ‘normal’ to excessive limits, so that any woman (realistically) could never measure up.
There are books and articles that highlight the need for women to be perfect – wife, mother, career woman etc. – and though perfection is impossible it is still expected. Romance stories are rife with the idea of the perfect woman.
These misconceptions, therefore, must lead to the idea of difference (which could be argued to be the realistic norm) being wrong.
Nevertheless, what do we do when we fall outside what is deemed as normal?
In Andi’s case, she develops an inferiority complex, where she would rather hide-away rather than face the jeers from passing car inmates for example; “Eff…ing cows shouldn’t be let out of fields.”
“They’re just idiots, you know it, I know it, everyone knows it – they just see you as an easy target for their inbred, uncontrolled, lazy minds. You have to forget it.”
“I know you’re right, but it still hurts – probably because I agree with them.”
So she continues to avoid mirrors and hates to see herself through the eyes of others.
How she feels can be said of all manner of ‘not fitting in’; being different gives you a label, one that can be difficult to ignore.
History shows us that difference has caused millions of deaths, where one person decides that a particular variation is an excuse to wipe them out. Yes, that may be extreme, but the fundamental principle is the same.
So those who are labelled tend to stick together – in Andi’s case, she joins a ‘fat club’ but even then she feels the humiliation.
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen…”
It had begun.
Members were invited to queue for the weekly weigh-in and while the first scramble took place, Andi hung back, wanting to put off the inevitable.
After the initial wave of declaring gains and losses, Andi thought she’d better hurry, as she didn’t want to be the last, when the whole room of people would be alert and watchful.
There were five in front, her heart hammered so fast she’d might as well have been waiting for the guillotine – didn’t the head weigh quite a few pounds?
Four in front – two pounds gained; their owner shuffles away in tears of misery.
Three in front – three pounds down brings a sigh of relief and a snatched card before a re-weigh was ordered.
Two in front – remained the same, prompting a giggle and admittance to only a smidgen of sin.
One in front – hesitancy, a guilty look – five pounds gained; there can be only shame and punishment.
Andi’s heart plummeted into her feet, sympathy oozing towards the scurrying retreating figure.
Then came Andi’s turn.
She should have taken off her shoes, she thought, but then she always kept them on and she wanted a true reading, didn’t she?
There it stood, worse than the guillotine (at least with that you lost weight, she thought), those behind were becoming impatient.
There was no going back.
Beads of sweat crossed her forehead in sympathy with her palms.
She handed over the card, lifted her left leg, which suddenly felt like it was made of lead, onto the platform, followed with the right and closed her eyes, hoping that at least she hadn’t gained.
“One pound lost!”
Cheers filled the room.
Was that all?
After a time of scrimping, denying and monotonous counting every meagre calorie, after walking everywhere, except for running upstairs and even enduring the shame of being seen in a swimming costume – so what if she hadn’t as yet managed to actually swim – she’d only lost one measly pound!
She never openly admitted to the cheesecake.
Difference can be a source of motivation, and Andi does try many avenues to lose weight – fat club, swimming, diets – but the foundations of her fears and dejection began at an early age.
How many of us have thought, ‘if only I wasn’t so…?”
Being fat is deemed a sin, the owner’s fault, compared to some other ‘differences’, however, I still believe that the majority of humans steer clear of anyone who has that scary diversity.
I do admit that I am wary of those who have lost their brain, whether it’s because of disease, accident or birth, and that’s because I’m not sure what to do or say – I am afraid. I watched my own daughter wither away after she was brain-damaged at the age of two, and part of me was nervous of her. She was nothing but an empty shell, where had she gone?
I think that’s why I’m fascinated with how the brain works – memory, motives, emotions – all those reasons why people do what they do; those choices they make. But when that brain has been wiped or damaged, then what are they?
Religion can be useful to some, but maybe that very religion can erect barriers, in fact promoting difference through hate and fear. Belief, I consider, is separate from religion, and can bring an inner strength to some, but yet, it is sad when that belief is used to hate and kill.
So then, whether it’s physical, mental, emotions or beliefs that separate us, maybe walking in someone else’s shoes could help temper the fear? Or for those who don’t fit in, use that difference to be creative.
Next time you see a fat person, an alcoholic, any disability, someone dressed in religious garb, cultural differences, someone tall, skinny, a huge nose, cross-eyes, autistic, gifted, scarred, loud, quiet or mentally ill; rather than judging or discriminating, think about the whys. You don’t know that person, so who are you to judge them?
These variations come from genetics and the environment, and of course the choices we make, so why not choose to celebrate your difference and those of others – for we are all different if we really think about it.
The following is from Three Into One, a science-fiction short story about the mystery of difference.
What is difference?
Is it in how we speak,
How we look
Or how we see the world?
Is it the colour of our eyes
The swing of our walk
Or the very essence of
Whatever it is
Maybe we should embrace it
Rather than wanting to
Or kill it.
Next time there is
What about me,
How do they see me,
Do I care?
Should I care?
What in the end do
We need but
Regardless of change.
Thank you, Darcia, for allowing me to vent a little.
About Julie Elizabeth Powell
I cannot ignore my dreams, so many of them, with names and places and ideas that spark my imagination and compel me to write; to create stories, whether fantasy or horror, or mystery or psychological thriller or murder or even humour and adventure. So, my garden is sown, flourishing, with all manner of growth, and still the dreams come.
Julie Elizabeth Powell, my soul lingering within my imagination; maybe you’ll join me?
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