There's no use in over thinking or trying to read ahead so I'm attempting to take things one page at a time. I'll be writing about a variety of topics including mental health, body acceptance, book reviews, and the things I make.
It’s just over a year since I received my official autism diagnosis. Obviously, I’m still the same person because I’ve always been autistic and having a professional confirm that doesn’t make it any more real or valid however, in the last year and a bit I’ve been letting myself be a truer version of me. I guess it’s because of the ableism in society that I felt I had to have that “official” label before unmasking in more situations, it made me feel that others would want me to verify my autistic-ness in order to behave in a way they consider to be autistic. Even though I (and many others) speak out against the use of functioning labels, I still experience people’s negative views and expectations based on the version of me they see on a regular basis. I still have to hear people saying things like “ah well, those higher on the spectrum usually are like that…” and have people telling me they disagree with my real-life experience of autism when they themselves are not autistic. I’m pushing back against the misconceptions and microaggression as best I can but it does get tiring and disheartening so, if you’re not autistic, we’d really appreciate it if you could listen to us and give some constructive support.
Anyway, let’s run through some of the things I’ve been allowing myself to do (or not as the situation might be) in order to be a brighter version of myself:
Saying no to things that make me uncomfortable/sad/angry and telling people that I am autistic and therefore not comfortable with the thing they just said and/or did – for a long time I would just go along with things other people wanted to do or expected of me because I didn’t want to upset them or cause any hassle. I would also just let people say things that I disagreed with or that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want them to think I was trying to impede their freedom of speech. That’s not to say I wouldn’t stand up for things I believed in, I just wasn’t great at stating my boundaries. One huge example if this was me continuing to go to laser quest when I was at university even though I didn’t really like it and it make me anxious. I wanted to fit in and to make friends but I would increase the likelihood of burnout. I finished university almost six years ago (absolutely unacceptable tbh!) and I have grown my sense of self and my ability to express my boundaries but in the last year I’ve been making more of an effort to do this.
Finding out what things bring me true joy – for instance, I have been making more of an effort to write things by hand and to write in my notebooks/journals because the action of writing calms me down and I like using my wide array of stationery. I also really like the sound and feeling of notebook pages when they’ve been written on and flicking through a lot of handwritten pages. On the flip side of this, I’ve been making executive decisions regarding the things that I don’t like. In the last year I’ve come to realise that I don’t actually like pears, they often taste like the smell of nail varnish remover and they’re always either too hard or too soft with either no juice or ALL the juice. Not to mention the weird grainy texture.
Using more stimming/sensory soothing when I’m anxious/stressed – I already did stim but I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing. Common stims for me include wriggling my toes and/or fingers, tapping my thumbs along each of my fingertips in a rhythm that gets quicker the more stressed or anxious I am, and fiddling with pens or other things that are to hand. Stimming gives me something to focus on and I’ve started taking one of those hair bobbles that looks like a spring (and which isn’t meant to leave a mark in your hair when you take your ponytail out) with me so I can twist it and run it through my hands rather than just tapping on the table.
Re-watching Stath Lets Flats – as you may have read in my previous post, the TV series Stath Lets Flats has been a comforting companion for me since November last year. I’ve watched all three series twice which is something I wouldn’t have done previously; I would have made myself wait until a new series came out (fingers crossed there will be one) and then re-watched the previous series to refresh my memory.
Not pushing myself to finish reading a book I’m not enjoying just for the sake of finishing it – I used to always finish books even if I hated all the characters, the writing was bad, or the story didn’t interest me but now I let myself just not finish them. Some books don’t start out great but get better towards the end so I do give them a chance but if I’m not bonding with the characters (e.g. if they’re extremely rich people who complain about things that are just part of life but they think they shouldn’t have to deal with because they’re rich) or if it’s a long, drawn-out ordeal then I put it down and read something better.
I bought a massive pencil case and organised all of my pens (and I told people about it in a way that you’d usually tell someone about a brand-new sports car or an engagement) – I do enjoy categorising and organising things like books, clothes, and stationery anyway but getting my massive pencil case and putting all of my writing pens and highlighters in it was amazing! I have a section for black pens, one for blue pens, and then sections for my other coloured pens which are grouped based on their type. I love going through the pencil case and finding a pen to use.
I’ve been more open about how my autism affects my day-to-day life – if something is difficult for me, rather than pushing myself to do it, I am honest and say that I might struggle or I might not be able to handle it at all. If I need time out at work, I get up and go for a walk to the toilets where it is quiet and take some deep breaths before returning to class. Instead of promising to go somewhere I know will be busy in order to socialise, I have started saying that this will make me anxious and either arranging to meet somewhere else or at a quieter time.
In general, I’m being kinder to myself and reminding myself that I can only do what I can do.
Trigger/Content Warning: heavy themes of ableism in the phrases listed.
It’s taken me ages to finish this post because I kept getting so angry thinking about my own experiences of these sorts of comments, both before and after I knew I was autistic, that I had to take long breaks between writing the sections. All of these things I’ve either heard someone saying about someone else or had said directly to me. While it’s OK to ask questions to get a better understanding, remember you can do some research from reliable sources rather than assuming an autistic person has to be your own personal encyclopedia. There’s also a high likelihood that autistic people will have had to deal with variations of these statements in the form of teasing and bullying so be mindful of this (although the best option is to just not say these things).
Of course, you might not realise what you’re saying is problematic but if an autistic person points it out, you don’t then get to go on about how you’re just not used to saying the better phrase or that you read something that mentioned “mild autism” so that’s what you’re going to say or that you grew up in a different time. You should listen to the autistic person and take notice of what they’re saying. It can be hard to see past all of the stereotypes in the media but there are books written by autistic people, there are autistic social media influencers and YouTubers putting out content, so we’re out there talking, you just have to listen.
Let’s get on with the list. I touched on a few of them in my previous post but I’ll go into a bit more depth here…
“You don’t look autistic”
Firstly, what does autistic look like? It isn’t only the white, male, middle class, mega mind character like Sheldon Cooper and it is hardly ever Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man. Yes, some autistic people have an exceptionally high IQ, can remember very specific information in great detail, or they might display savant-like talents but we’re not all like that and those who have these characteristics are few and far between. Like I said at the end of my last post, once you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person so even if you met someone with a distinctive look who happened to be autistic, you’d have a hard time finding someone else who looked exactly the same.
Perhaps people who say “you don’t look autistic” actually mean “you’re not carrying a big sign declaring your autism so I can’t believe you”. There’s a certain Catch 22 about any invisible disability or illness in that, if you try to mask your symptoms people don’t believe you but then if you don’t mask your symptoms then people think you’re acting up for attention or just pretending. Even if they do think you “look autistic” then you’ve still got to fit into their very narrow idea of what that should be.
“Oh, we’re all on the spectrum somewhere”
No. No. No. The below screenshots put into words very well my feelings on this:
If you identify with a lot of the characteristics of autism then it might be worth asking for an assessment but just having one or two, for instance liking a routine and being a picky eater, won’t make you autistic. It’s another way of devaluing our experiences, similar to saying “oh well everyone feels sad sometimes” to someone with clinical depression. Also, if we were all on the spectrum there would be no such thing as autism because everyone would have the same sorts of difficulties so there would be no notable difference.
“Don’t you mean you have autism?”
Always check with the actually autistic person but, for the most part, the autistic community would rather be people who are autistic rather than someone who has autism. It isn’t an illness or disease, it’s part of who we are. The majority of the community are proudly autistic and in a way, telling us it’s something we have is like telling us it’s something to be ashamed of. This is also one of those things that people respond to by saying “well I’m so used to saying…” which isn’t helpful if you’re not willing to listen to us. You wouldn’t tell a blind person “Stop saying you are blind and start telling people you are someone with blindness” would you? Well actually, I don’t know, you might do that but if you think you would then just think about it for a while and decide whether it’s an appropriate thing to do.
Anything tho do with functioning labels
Functioning labels are ableist AF and we would really appreciate it if you stopped using them! This goes for other disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental health issues too. As a neurotypical, non-disabled person you don’t get to decide how well someone functions in certain situations based on your idea of what is “normal”.
Even in medical/clinical settings, the use of functioning labels is being stopped because doctors and other such professionals are starting to realise that they aren’t useful and are actually really damaging to the autistic community. If you put an expectation onto someone based on how they cope and behave in a certain situation and then judge them on this narrow perspective, you’re not giving them the chance to exist outside of that expectation. Also, just because someone excels in a few areas of their life or because they struggle with something that you can manage with ease, it doesn’t mean that they’re high or low functioning. To paraphrase Walt Whitman: We all contain multitudes. I, for one, would be categorised as “high functioning” by a lot of people because I mask most of my autistic traits however, there are times when I feel completely out of my depth and cannot function adequately for the situation. For instance, I really struggle with communicating with people (even ones I’ve known for a long time) and when I’m in town or a supermarket, unless I’m with my mam and/or dad I can’t hold a conversation outside of the context of being in the shop because I don’t know what to say, I haven’t planned for having a conversation, I’ve only prepared myself to go in, get what I want and then leave. I can talk to the cashier but only really the pre-expected script that always happens when you’re paying for the things you’re buying. I also really struggle to function in social situations that I haven’t planned and which involve more than one other person. If you took these elements and isolated them from the rest of me you might think “well actually, they might be lower on the functioning spectrum”.
“X has an autistic son and she’s told me all about it”/”Y has a son who has autism so I’ll ask her about this thing you’ve just told me your experience of”
This really just comes back to LISTENING TO AUTISTIC PEOPLE and believing our experiences. I know some people who have “Expert by Experience” in their email signatures because they have lived as an autistic person all their lives so surely this makes them an expert? If we can call someone a specialist or an expert after they’ve completed one or two courses then surely we can give autistic people the same respect when they’ve lived years and years with the condition.
“So are you really good at Maths/Science/Music then?”
Just like neurotypical people, autistics are good at different things. We don’t all like science or maths so we can’t be expected to be good at them. Some autistic people are good at those things but some are amazing at languages, art, dancing, or embroidery. Some of us are just average at a lot of things because we take up new hobbies regularly then become fixated on a new one so the last thing is left behind. I think there’s also this expectation that being autistic means you have to have a learning difficulty/disability too so when someone is exceptionally good at a certain subject, they’re held in a much higher regard.
Not everyone who is autistic has a learning difficulty just as not everyone with a learning difficult is autistic.
“But you can make eye contact/have a conversation”
Yes, being autistic usually means struggling with eye contact but it is mostly assumed that this has to mean not making any eye contact. In reality, some autistic people can and like making eye contact, they might make too much. It’s also true that we struggle with communication but a lot of us are very chatty in the right circumstances (although don’t put too much importance on small talk because, well, what’s the point? Why talk about the weather or ask how someone is if you’re not actually interested in the in-depth answer we’re going to give?)
We’re always told we have to look someone in the eye to show we’re listening and taking in what they’re saying as well as showing that we’re telling the truth. How many times have you heard or said “look me in the eye and tell me that…”? I don’t know about you but I listen with my ears. Not looking at you when we’re talking actually makes it easier for me to process what you’re telling me, it’s one of the reasons I get on so well with the blind student I support; he doesn’t expect me to always be looking in his eyes and he obviously can’t look into mine so I don’t have to worry about whether I’m doing it right, whether I’m making too much or too little eye contact with him, and I can carry on doing the task I’m working on and get my words out properly while I do it. That being said, I do look at people’s faces and eyes when they’re doing the talking because that’s what I’ve always been told to do. As soon as it’s my turn to talk I usually look around the room or down at my hands which I also use to support the meaning I’m trying to convey. When I was younger I had some hearing problems so I relied heavily on lip-reading and now I still do this to make sure the shapes someone is making with their mouth match the sounds I’m getting through my ears.
“Well how come you have empathy and compassion?”
A huge misconception of autism is that it means no compassion or empathy. A large proportion of autistic people actually have too much empathy but we just don’t know how to show it. We can be so overwhelmed by the feeling that we start to shut down which results in everyone else assuming that we’re cold and unfeeling. This sort of links back to what I was saying about the functioning labels as well, just because we’re not showing our empathy/compassion/other emotions in a way that neurotypicals deems as “normal” it doesn’t mean that we’re not feeling them. You’be probably seen a variation of that (cliched) inspirational quote about judging a fish on its ability to climb a tree even though it has so many other talents, well judging an autistic person on non-autistic behaviour is similarly unfair.
“There was none of this autism stuff when I was younger”
Bullshit! As the below meme says, just because you didn’t see something before it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. I’ve never seen a blue whale but I know they’re bloody real! In our current point in time, science is doing pretty well and therefore scientists are able to diagnose more things, they can prove the existence of more things, so it only makes sense that there are more cases of autism because professionals are more able to accurately identify and diagnose it. The same thing goes for people who say “being LGBTQ+ is fashionable these days, people just jump on the bandwagon” NO NO NO. In theory (not always in practice because people are shits) it’s safer and more acceptable to come out as part of the LGBTQ+ community than it used to be, so of course you’re hearing of more LGBTQ+ people because they don’t have to hide it quite as much.
Continuing to talk at us as if we don’t already know the facts/statistics you’re telling or assuming we can’t advocate for ourselves because we’re autistic.
I told someone I was autistic and rather than thinking “Gemma must know more about her own lived experience than I do” they told me facts and statistics about the diagnostic process that I knew because I had literally just been through the process. They also asked me what “type” of diagnosis I had, whether it was “high functioning”, Asperger’s, or ASD. Even though I’d already pointed out that functioning labels aren’t used any more, they didn’t seem willing to listen or take this on board and I pointed out that Asperger’s isn’t really used any more because Hans Asperger was a big ol’ Nazi.
I’ve had similar experiences where people have been making generalisations or they’ve been talking about autism as if I didn’t know anything about it and when I’ve pointed out that I am autistic they’ve continued to assume that I can’t possibly know as much as them or that I must be wrong because I haven’t read the resources they have.
I know I’ve been quite brusque about all of these things and you may be thinking “it’s her autism”. This is partially true, I’m not masking for the comfort of others who might think this is all rather passive aggressive (or straight up aggressive). It not just that though, I want to be straight to the point and serious about this sort of stuff because I want people to take notice. I don’t want to be seen as brusque anyway, if a neurotypical person stood up for the autistic community they’d be seen as “brave” and they’d probably be taken more seriously. I don’t want to be “brave” either because that’s patronising. I just want to be taken seriously and for the stereotypes around autism to be broken.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. It’s been a bit of a long and rambling one. I really do appreciate all of the support my last post got!
Dear family, friends, people who have been my friends, those who know who I am but haven’t met me, and anyone who actually reads my blog,
I don’t feel that it will be possible for me to continue writing my blog without addressing a very large element of who I am. There are things I want to write about but it’s tricky to do so without acknowledging it; I find I have to dance around the edges and sometimes I just don’t bother blogging because what I want to say would give it away. I’ve had time to think about whether I want everyone to know and, while I’m still a bit scared of what certain people will say, I’m not willing to hide such a huge part of me, to mask myself for the comfort of others. If people want to see me in a negative light after reading this then that’s their problem.
I am here to tell you that I am autistic.
This might not come as a surprise to some of you, for others it will make you question everything you’ve ever thought about me. I don’t want you to say I don’t “look” autistic because what does autistic even look like? Sheldon Cooper or Rain Man? I don’t want you to feel sorry for me or to see me as a child. I most certainly don’t want to hear you say “oh well, everyone is on the spectrum somewhere” because they’re not! (More on that at a later date).
I got an official diagnosis earlier this year having been on the waiting list for 3 years (the national average waiting time) but I’ve suspected I was autistic since I was 16 or 17. When the doctor/psychologist told me I was definitely autistic I felt an immense relief and happiness because, in the best possible way, I had an explanation for why I am the way I am. Everything I’ve experienced so far seems to be in clearer focus, with more context. All of my strengths and weaknesses make more sense, and now I understand why working in a call centre wasn’t for me or why the sound of people eating makes me furious.
There’ll be some of you doubting this and thinking “well she had a conversation with me once and she looked at me”, or “she’s been to university and has a job”, or even “she has a sense of humour and empathy so how can she be autistic?!?” so let me something I heard last week that really resonated with me:
Just because someone is very academically able, highly verbal, and they can hold down a job, it doesn’t mean their autism has any less impact than that of the stereotypical ‘autistic’ person.
People have this idea that autistic people have to be either high or low functioning but who gets to say which category we fit into? Neurotypicals that’s who. How well I function in your society isn’t something you get to put a label on because for one, it’s ableist AF and for two, just because I appear to be making the right noises and doing the right thing with my expression it doesn’t mean I’m managing well. When I was in university I would go out and be “social” but while everyone else was chatting away and building friendships, I was struggling to keep up, trying to figure out how everyone else knew how and when to respond, and I became so exhausted by the interactions that I would be pleased to get back to my room in halls and not speak to anyone for a day or two. As far as I’m aware, no one really noticed on these social outings that I wasn’t coping because I would nod along and grasp small slithers of conversation where I felt I could contribute something relevant then go back to treading the fast-moving waters.
For 26 years I’ve become an expert in masking which means that I consciously and subconsciously hide the intrinsically autistic behaviours that neurotypicals/society deem unacceptable and I act like a “normal” person. In the last few months I’ve been trying to undo this but it will take a while to do a factory reset on myself and of course, there are always going to be things that I have to keep masking because I don’t want to be rude; for instance, I’ll have to partake in a lot more small-talk, I still can’t really shout at people for breathing or eating too loudly, and I don’t think anyone will appreciate me telling them I can’t trust their pet because they smell wrong.
Some of you might be thinking “but Gemma, shouldn’t you say you have autism not that you are autistic?!?” and to that I’m also saying no! At the end of the day it’s always down to the autistic person but most of us would rather be referred to as autistic rather than as having autism. It’s not something that we catch and then can be cured of like a cold and it’s just something we’re born with. It is who we are. Without autism I wouldn’t be the person that I am, it affects every aspect of my life.
Like I said at the beginning, I wanted to open up about this because I want to start writing more about my experiences and maybe even be of some help to other people going through similar experiences. I know I don’t have to explain myself to anyone and I know that no matter how much I tell people, some will still have their fixed view of autistic people and now they will apply that to me. I also know that it’s not solely the job of autistic people to educate neurotypicals so, while I’m happy to answer any questions you may have, I do encourage you to do your own research and look at things written by autistic people not just things written about us.
Remember, once you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person!
It’s roughly the 14th July 2015 and the weather has been good for the last few days so you’re a bit hot in the underground room. It’s your best friend’s birthday and you’ve convinced yourself that you’re having a great time because that’s what you’re supposed to do but there’s a worm of annoyance in the back of your mind because you invited someone and they cancelled last minute (no surprise there) even though whenever they suggest something you always feel like you have to do the thing. You kinda just want to sit down but there will be two more games after this one. You think about all of the other laser quest games you’ve played and wonder if this will be the night when you absolutely thrash everyone and be a consistent champion; it’s not impossible but quite unlikely because you’re just not feeling it tonight. As you sneak around in the dark feeling anxious and trying to avoid being barreled into by the people who always ignore the “no running” rule, you are struck by an enlightening thought: I don’t actually like laser quest!
In hindsight, I always knew I wasn’t a fan of laser quest. I protested before going for the first time, insisting that I probably shouldn’t go because the lights might give me a migraine. This could have happened but I was mainly just not keen on being in an unknown, dark room with strangers who were chasing me. Obviously I was persuaded to go, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this now but I was determined not to enjoy myself on that first night. From what I can remember, my first foray into the game involved me and three friends along with a group of children who were there at the same time and who we were grouped with to make up the numbers. I suppose it wasn’t a terrible experience but I ended up with minus points because the children were charging about, firing with not a care in the world so they got me without me even noticing.
I like winning (although I’m not a bad loser) and I think one of the main reasons I kept agreeing to go back was because I was determined to be at the top of the leader board. I usually went with people from university, either from my course or the societies I was part of and I once went with a group of young people as their end of NCS programme celebration. No matter who my competitors were I wanted to beat them; strangers, children, friends, relatives, they were all fair game. Over my many visits I did get better and more skilled (by skilled what I really mean is that I got better at hiding in the dark and making sure my random firing was in the direction of someone on the other team) until I was topping the leader board nine times out of ten. Knowing I was outscoring the competitive men I was playing against was extremely satisfying but it did mean that I couldn’t let my scores drop, it couldn’t look like the fluke it was.
Despite my success, whenever anyone suggested a trip to the local laser quest I would feel that same reluctance that I felt the first time I was persuaded to go. I even offered it up as an option once or twice but again, mainly so I could show I could win. My self-esteem was quite low so I guess being semi-good at laser quest and being able to beat my peers, who I saw as “better” than me in so many other areas, was a boost.
If you’ve never been to a laser quest (or laser tag or laser quaser, whatever you choose to call it), let me walk you through it:
First, you have to enter the building which is an experience in itself. Usually you’ll find a laser quest in an inexplicable location such as on an industrial estate, at the back of a bowling alley, or down some stairs into a basement-like scenario (that’s how the one in Sunderland was set up). The outside might look like a space station or some other sci-fi relic.
So, you’re through the door and before you’ve taken in anything else you’ll become aware of the lingering odour. I’m willing to bet money on all the laser quests that ever existed smelling exactly the same. For all I know it’s an air freshener only available to laser quest owners. It’s an unforgettable smell made up of a variety of factors; there’s that school changing room after P.E smell, undertones of a sugar-fueled kid’s party, a hint of that classic pub smell, along with a vague whiff of cleaning products.
If you’ve booked a slot then the next bit is relatively straightforward, someone from the group has to tell the person on the desk that you’re there. If you haven’t booked a slot then you’ll have to ask if there’s space in a game (or however many you want to do) then maybe wait for that time slot. Whatever your preference, the next part is the same: you have to choose a name to show up when you shoot someone and to show your place on the leader board. If you’re anything like me and you struggle to name things, this step might prove to be unnecessarily stressful and awkward. My suggestion is to just go with your real name or a nickname.
This is where there might be a bit of a wait until your game starts. I used to sit uneasily and hope no one would suggest adding extra games onto the end of our pre-agreed 3.
Next you’ll go into an antechamber which is dark and the only light comes from UV type lights that are probably also used with luminol at murder scenes. If you’re wearing anything white you’ll immediately realise your mistake and wish you’d worn something dark so you don’t stick out like a sore thumb. If you are wearing something dark you’ll be able to see any and all of the little bits of fluff/general debris that has accumulated on your clothes. The member of staff who ushered you into the dark room will tell you to get a heavy plastic vest from one of the hooks around the wall and hang your own things on said hook. Although the vests are all meant to be the same size, you’ll inevitably find one that you’re certain is for a child because your head won’t fit through the gap (the ones in Sunderland could be tightened/slackened to achieve this tiny head hole).
Once everyone is wedged into a vest clearly made for a person with the same body shape as a folded away ironing board, the member of staff will give you a safety/instructional talk. The main gist tends to be “don’t run”, “don’t lie on the floor to hide” and “don’t fire the lasers in people’s eyes” but only about 20% of the other people in there with you will take any notice. You’ll then be set free into the arena and given about 10 seconds to find a safe space.
Now you’re in the game you basically just try to hit as many other vests with your laser to score points. Some places have recharging points where you have to go when you run out of “ammo” or you’ve been shot too many times. The ones I went to didn’t have these and you could shoot as much as you wanted. In keeping with the sci-fi theme there’ll most likely be a selection of figures around the arena; aliens on hospital beds, a forest of concrete obelisks, that sort of thing. There’ll also be a variety of hiding places.
I don’t understand how the points system works so once the game is over you emerge, blinking furiously, into the light and go immediately to check if you’ve won or not. If you’ve booked more than one game then you’ll probably have a little break before your next one because all of the people who didn’t listen to the “no running” rule will be sweaty and breathing heavily. If this is the case then you’ll have to repeat the middle steps from this list however many times you’re going back in.
That’s it, the end. We would go for drinks and sometimes food afterwards but that’s optional (and I don’t drink alcohol anyway so for me it was a case of sipping fizzy drinks and trying to keep up with at least 2 different conversations)
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with laser quest, it just so happens that it’s not for me. I eventually had the epiphany mentioned above after too many visits to the dark, smelly underground arena. There were obviously times when I did have some fun but I now recognise that my competitiveness was the main motivator for going back time and time again. Yes, I did get some valuable “social time” that made group work easier when I was in university but I also could have been having a quieter night with friends or reading.
The moral of the story is: don’t let your competitiveness bully you into doing things you don’t really enjoy just so you can look cooler.
Humans are naturally wired to want to fit in and be part of social groups; back when we lived in the wild we had to form familial and social groups to ensure our survival. These days we don’t have to rely so much on other people for our survival but it’s still nice to feel like we belong somewhere, that there’s a “you” shaped hole somewhere to slide into. Everyone will have experience of not fitting into certain scenarios but hopefully those have been few and far between and now you have found your people. At the risk of sounding like I’m being purposefully difficult, I want to write about my own experiences of not fitting in and how I’ve come to accept that I don’t fit into as many of the social circles and norms that most of my peers do (I’ll likely do a big post on the reason behind why I don’t feel like I fit into most social situations but I need to spend a lot of time on that).
I think the first time I felt separate from others my age, people I should have just gotten along with no questions asked, was in nursery. I have a very clear memory of sitting at a small table with a teaching assistant and two other children, we were supposed to be counting with those different sized bears that were bright colours and always had vaguely teeth-like marks on them (now I’m writing this I am very aware that they might not be a universal thing or I might have made them up so I’m going to find a picture, hold on…). Anyway, I can remember the other two children, let’s call them Brad and Demi (because those were there names), being weepy and not being able to tell the teaching assistant what they were crying for. It’s possible that I was also upset but I’m quite sure I would have explained that it was because I wanted to go home to spend time with my parents. So Brad and Demi were there all upset and couldn’t count the bears, either because they were too busy snotting on them or because they weren’t that good at counting yet, while I sat arranging the bears and all I could think was how childish all the children at nursery were. I was 3 years old.
Throughout all of my school life I had similar experiences of being completely baffled by the behaviour of my classmates and saying the wrong thing, further cementing my difference. Going to university allowed some space for me to be myself but there were still limits to what people were willing to accept. For a while I forced myself to spend time in the pub so I didn’t miss out on socialising (I still didn’t drink alcohol though), I only ate things I thought were OK to eat when other people were there because I wanted to make myself smaller, and I went to laser quest when people organised nights out even though the only thing I truly enjoyed about it was winning (I could write a whole rant about laser quest but I’d better save that for its own post or we’d be here forever). All of this was in an attempt to fit into the social hierarchy that I saw no need for.
There were times when I was happy at university and I did find a few nooks to fit myself into but for the most part I was perched on the edge of conversations about things I had no experience of, wishing someone would start talking about books or dogs. It was difficult to get a good grasp of who people really were as individuals because they wore the same style of clothing and had similar hairstyles; I felt pressured to do the same but it just didn’t sit right with me. I was surrounded by strong-willed people who inadvertently reminded me of the people at school who excluded anyone different and I didn’t want to repeat the same experiences all over again.
The main turning point for me came in the coffee shop of my university building, I was waiting with a classmate who had just ordered a hot drink and I really wanted one but was under strict, self-imposed orders not to eat or drink anything that wasn’t “on plan”. I was getting myself into such a rut thinking about how miserable the rest of my life would be if I continued to squash myself into the narrow box others had built around me and I was putting myself in a bad mood. Time was getting on and I had to be back in a lesson soon, my self-hatred was growing and I asked myself what exactly I was going to achieve by not drinking the hot chocolate (other than being miserable). As soon as I stood up and joined the queue it was like my mind and body relaxed as one. I felt a bit emotional in the relisation that this was it, this was me not taking any more nonsense from society.
Another big factor was discovering bloggers like Bethany Rutter, Danielle Vanier, Lottie L’Amour, Callie Thorpe, and Becky Barnes as well as studying a module on gender identity and representation in the media. Something just clicked and I stopped caring about making myself smaller, quieter, plainer. I started wearing even brighter clothes, I bought ALL THE LIPSTICK and I cut all of my hair off and got piercings. When I do something I like to do it properly and I decided to properly not fit in.
Here is a list of some of the places I don’t fit in and I no longer care to try:
Parties – they’re often too loud and people want to talk to you. I was never a fan of going to parties when I was younger because over excited parents wanted all the children to dance and play party games that I had no desire to join in with. The thought of pass the parcel would make me start stressing out because I desperately wanted to not be the one to remove a layer of paper because I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond. As I got older I didn’t want to go to parties because you were expected to drink alcohol and dance around to music I didn’t really like. I felt obliged to go but only because I thought that I’d be even more of a social outcast if I didn’t. (If it’s a party with a small group of people that I know well and in a place I feel comfortable then it might be alright but otherwise, I am not having fun.)
Clothes shops like H&M – yes H&M have some jazzy patterns and have made an attempt at catering for plus sized customers but their main target market is thin people. Their sizing is completely off and the lighting in store is all wrong. Other shops (like New Look and sometimes Primark) often make me feel like I have a floating neon light over my head as soon as I cross the threshold, declaring that I am not meant to be there and I should just head for the accessories section. I know I have a massive advantage in being able to buy some items from high-street shops where so many people have no choice but to buy online but the things I can buy are limited.
Ideas of what an almost 26 year old woman should be – this would be true for all the ages I’ve been thus far to be fair.
The conversations my colleagues have about weight (gain or loss) and food – no matter how disinterested I make my tone and expression, no matter how much I try to steer the conversation in another direction, and no matter how silent I stay, people will insist on talking about dieting and “good and bad” food.
Fancy shops, hotels and restaurants – I haven’t been in that many fancy places but when I’ve been on holiday or shopping in Newcastle/other bigger cities and I’ve dared to browse a “posh” establishment, there’s always been that sense of I shouldn’t be here. I once went to Manchester with my youth group when I was about 16 and we went into Harvey Nichols to have a browse and to go into the cafe before we could check into the hostel. As a group of 4 teenagers and a youth worker, we were well presented but with backpacks and the wide-eyed wonder of working class kids in an expensive department store. Other shoppers didn’t seem best pleased that we were in their vicinity and some counter staff chuckled as we walked past (I just did a quick Google to make sure Harvey Nichols is actually a posh shop because once I said that I knew a relationship wasn’t going to work because he bought all his clothes from Debenhams and people laughed because apparently you don’t have to be posh to shop there and I didn’t want this to be a repeat of that but no, Harvey Nichols is a posh shop). I generally don’t like being in very very fancy places because not only do I have to work out and remember all of the regular level social expectations, I also have to figure out the posh ones.
The main way I make it clear that I am not interested in fitting in is by wearing colourful clothes, the brighter the better. Sometimes I colour coordinate my outfits but mostly I like to have contrasting colours. Living in a small, very white, very straight, very homogeneous town in the North of England means that it’s rare to see someone else dressed like me (even rarer for them to have a body like mine and be dressed in the same way) and it’s a regular occurrence to have people staring, pointing, laughing, and muttering. Don’t get me wrong, I do get annoyed and paranoid but why should I stop being me just to fit with their narrow idea of how someone should look?
I supposed you could say I’ve “taken off the mask” I’d been wearing for about 20 years. There are times when I have to put it back on to a degree because the situation I’m in isn’t one I want to open myself up to but for the most part I try to give off an air of don’t mess with this. I like to challenge people’s ideas of normal, of the gender binary, and of what fat people can wear (spoiler alert, we can wear whatever we’re comfortable and happy in). If you feel safe enough, I wholeheartedly encourage you to push the boundaries of society and break the mold, as it were.
Before we say goodbye, here are some ways you can stop fitting in:
Change your hairstyle – this could be with a new cut or just by changing the side you have it parted but you could also get rid of the lot or make it a bright colour. It’s just hair, if you don’t like it you can change it again.
Stand your ground – if you feel confident enough and safe enough, you could try speaking up for yourself and not backing down when others try to tell you what is good for you (there is an exception to this if, for instance, someone genuinely does know the best answer to something but you know your own mind and body and this should be respected)
Take up space – I don’t necessarily mean you have to put on weight but you’re obviously allowed to do that too, what I was thinking is you could take up the space you’re entitled to on public transport without squashing yourself up against the window or when you’re walking down the street and you move to the edge to let someone else past, don’t start walking on the road because the couple walking towards you refuse to stop holding hands and go single-file. Why are you putting yourself in danger of being run over just because two people can’t let go of each other for a few seconds? (it should go without saying that in the current situation you should be considerate of distancing etc.)
Wear the lipstick/blue eye shadow/dungarees/Hawaiian style shirt – do you like it? Is it going to make you happy? Then wear it! As long as you’re not hurting anyone then what harm is it going to do?
Listen to the music you like, read the books you want to read, and watch the films/programmes you want to watch – I spent too long trying to look cooler by listening to music I didn’t particularly enjoy and I agreed to watch films that the other person wanted to watch because I was too afraid of upsetting them by saying “no, I would rather watch this…” Start telling people what you like and don’t be ashamed of liking a certain boy band or of reading books that aren’t the “classics”. What’s cooler than knowing your own mind?
I hope you’re all happy with who you are but if not, I’m making this a sign for you to start pushing boundaries and to stop fitting in.