Grace Hopper once said that the most dangerous phrase in the English language is “we’ve always done things this way”. As it so happens this is my all time favourite quote, but perhaps not for the reasons you would think. Yes, it speaks to my present and hopefully future of pushing boundaries and innovation, but where it really resonates with me is in its imagery around the concept of ‘Normal’ and its connection to my past. It is in reflecting on my past experiences that I fully appreciate the awesome power of ‘Normal’ and the danger it poses.
Now it is important to note that ‘Normal’ and I have never really gotten along, in fact in many ways I’d say we were destined to be rivals, as reflecting on my own life, ‘Normal’ has always been there at the root of any of the biggest struggles I’ve faced in my life so far.
It first started in primary school where I was told that boys like sport and that to not was blasphemy and meant that surely I was a either pansy, poof or worst of all, a girl (kids can be so cruel). Our battles quickly got more elaborate. ‘Normal’ would win some, I would almost win others. To add to what were already complex questions of masculinity (for a 12 year old, and matter of fact 24 year old) as I was entering puberty I found myself not really understanding what all the fuss was about with girls. I remember thinking that one day I would wake up and everything would just click and I would suddenly be attracted to girls and their breasts. Well that didn’t happen! My access to the ‘boys’ club was denied and it was but another thing which meant that I was not normal.
‘Normal’ still dominated the battle as I went to high school, nothing changed with boys still having to be sporty and only being attracted to girls. As many would relate to, any deviations from this prototype were met with a wide array of bullying tactics. From the classic verbal and physical abuse, to the excruciating speculation (doesn’t have a girlfriend + doesn’t speak to girls + hangs out with guys = flaming homosexual) and resulting denial regardless of whether claims were true or not. Don’t get me wrong, there was still a lot of good in life and while I certainly wasn’t normal I was relatively happy and things seemed to truck as long as they always seem to do.
It was around the age of 15 when I started becoming more conscious about my weight, my skin, my newfound facial and body hair, pretty much everything about me. It was also around this time I started to think about who and what I might like to be in the future. However, upon an initial glance my only available role models (ever so lovingly produced by big media) were men who had 6 packs, little to no body hair and were surrounded by scantily clad women. Even once I started buying gay culture magazines (secretly) or searching the internet (obviously deleting search history afterwards) I found the role models were of a similar nature, though surrounded by scantily clad men in speedos instead of women in bikinis. This conflict between who I was at 15 and who I thought I needed to be has been the defining battle in my rivalry with ‘Normal’.
This particular battle started in college and played out for the first few years of University, seeing myself enter into a spiral of dieting, intense exercise to the point of fainting, self loathing, purging, lying to family and friends that I had eaten when I hadn’t, not being able to eat anything without knowing the nutritional information and updating my calorie journal, interspersed with episodes of binging. While everything started off innocently enough (as it often does), my return from South East Asia after Year 12 in which I had lost around 12-15kg in as little as 6 weeks (combination of increased exercise and travellers tummy) was like throwing fuel onto an open flame. The days and months after my return were filled with “you look great”, “wow you’ve never looked better, skinny suits you” and “keep up the good work”. At the time, though unknowingly to their owners these comments cemented my fate and validated my (what I would now call misguided) efforts to lose weight, gain muscle and more. While I had no notion of it at the time, upon reflection I’ve realised that 3-5 years of my life was spent unknowingly battling an eating disorder and that ‘Normal’ almost won.
As wanky as it sounds, the pivotal moment in this battle which tipped the balance in my favour was learning to accept myself for who I was. Recognising that I had aspirations and dreams for my future life and future self, but understanding the need to love myself and be happy in the present moment (yes I am referring to mindfulness). In the end, I won that battle.
Now this hasn’t been the last battle I’ve had with ‘Normal’ and the war still rages on. In fact I have a growing suspicion our glorious rivalry will continue to the day I die. From the judgemental looks I get from walking around, to and from campus bare foot (rain or shine), to the conversations I have had with friends and housemates in which I’ve been told that “normal people give more than one word answers” (a reference to my strongly introverted self and friends/housemates uncomfortableness with silence), to choosing to drop down to part-time study while I found my passions (don’t worry, I found them).
So, to summarise while my rivalry remains ongoing with ‘Normal’ the balance is in my favour, primarily because I have a strong sense of self. I am an extremely introverted, white, cis gendered homosexual male with body image issues. However, and perhaps most importantly, I am me and I am not normal and have no interest in being so. I am and will always strive to be extraordinary.
So if you ever find yourself with the burning desire to use the word normal for anything, whether as a justification as to why someone’s behaviour is not appropriate or for how things are normally done, I want you to think twice about whether the world needs more normal or if perhaps what we are looking for is something a little more extraordinary.
* If anything contained within this article makes you feel distressed, please phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit the ANU Counselling Centre (www.counselling.anu.edu.au).
* For resources to support yourself or friends with Eating Disorders visit the Butterfly Foundation Australia (thebutterflyfoundation.org.au)
* For a life defining changing book read Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain.
* Also if you felt that some of the phrases in the article were familiar, you can thank Megamind for that.
Image via superfamous.com