More Than Numbers: a chat with Lissie
Last week I wrote an introduction for my More Than Numbers project, which you can read here!.
This project, for me, is the articulation of issues I've been thinking about for a long time. It's the start of something that I hope will grow and be of value to more people than just me. I am passionate about interrogating how we can handle the judgements that society places on us and that we place on ourselves. I think it's about time we found ways to be more open, and agree that we are more than the bodies we live in and the numbers attached to us - our height, our weight, our age, whatever.
Some wonderful women have agreed to be interviewed so that I can put their views out there on this subject. The first is my dear friend Lissie. Lissie and I spent two of our formative years together, with a big gap in between! We were at the same school for a year when I was ten, and then she reappeared in my life quite delightfully when I was studying my degree and she popped up at the same University and college for her postgrad. Lissie now lives in Worcestershire in her own lovely flat, and I can always be assured tea on tap when I visit. There are always adventures to catch up on; she sings in a choir, sails, and also coxes a women's rowing team.
When I go to interview her, I start with the easy question - why did she agree to be interviewed for this blog feature?
‘Because I hadn’t seen you for ages and it seemed like a good excuse!’
Honest response then! I have outlined the premise of what I’m looking at though and she has some immediate observations. ‘It’s definitely true that it’s about more than our bodies,’ she agrees, when I posit that the social restrictions and judgements made about bodies extend to issues of identity and capability. Lis nods: ‘Being short, being a woman…’
Lissie has dwarfism and associated medical conditions, including arthritis. Having known her for a good few years and seen the challenges this can create - albeit ones she takes readily in her stride - I had assumed they would be the focus. Of course, I am wrong and there's a lot more she wanted to discuss.
Lissie is gay, and has only been open about it in the past year. The process of acknowledging it to herself and to her friends has been such a recent one that it turns out this is what she wants to talk about the most. However, she's very much at pains to point out that this is not the only identifier, just as her medical history doesn't define her either. She’s had 28 years of living with that and has never let it limit her in any way that was avoidable. She recently underwent surgery to have both her hips replaced, and has been back in the water since, both sailing and as a cox.
Going back to the body chat, Lissie points out that we can categorise ourselves in unnecessary ways as well. ‘I learned that I look and feel a lot better when I wear clothes that actually fit me – when I put on a 14 instead of trying to squeeze into a 10 because it’s a number that’s more acceptable. When I’m in a 14 and it fits me, I feel fine, and no one knows it’s a 14. And it doesn’t matter.’
I ask if she can tell me about the areas in her life where she felt like she was held back or unfairly judged based on tags or categories applied to her.
Lissie takes a moment on this one. It's clear there are several contenders. The ‘obvious’ have been mentioned – being female, being short, being gay. The fact that she refers to them as obvious is enough of an indication in itself that being any of these things carries innate stereotypes or judgements.
She recounts a recent incident, when she went to buy a car. ‘I have pedal extensions that allow me to reach to drive properly, and I’ve been driving fine without incident for years. I went with my step-brother to look at some cars and when the salesman asked me what I was interested in, I said I wanted a 4x4 with a raised chassis. He looked me up and down and started to suggest other cars, including a Ford Fiesta. “That’s really similar to what I have already,” I pointed out, and he said this was a good thing. “I think it would suit you,” he told me, before pointing out that it had a raised seating position (i.e. the seat could be pumped up, just like in every other car) and more boot space, which wasn’t one of my criteria. He had three of the type of car I wanted on the forecourt and wouldn’t show them to me! My stepbrother was silently fuming beside me as I outright asked to look at those specific cars and the salesman tried to put me off.’
She intimates this was just another incident among many. I ask where she thinks the source of those judgements lies, and she tells me it’s always the case that people make assumptions about what she can and can’t do. ‘Even my dad does it: “oh you’re too short to do that safely”, although I’ve clearly proved the contrary. He’s never even seen me drive but I’m perfectly safe!’
I wonder whether Lissie feels like these judgements have been more internal or external factors for her to deal with. Does she feel she's been restricted in her own mindset, or has it been externally imposed?
The answer is both. With her height and the way her mobility has been limited and then improved over the years, she’s always had a very can-do approach, and the only limits really were the physical ones.
‘I only realised when I went to University how many allowances my friends at school had made for me. They say they didn’t, but it became obvious that they had, because at Uni no one was making those allowances. If they wanted the group of us to go to a club they would pick the furthest one away that I couldn’t walk to, rather than the one 500 yards down the road. I didn’t always like to point out that this was a problem, but when I did, they still wouldn’t change their minds – it didn’t occur to them. I literally couldn’t walk that far.’
At school Lissie played a significant role in the CCF and while at University took up coxing, which meant early starts and hours on the river in physically demanding conditions. It clearly never crossed her mind that these were things she couldn’t do, and it doesn’t seem like anyone tried to dissuade her either.
Coming out as gay, on the other hand, has been a lot more difficult. ‘When I told my best friend, she said she had known since we were 18. At that point I would have said no way, although looking back I was very conflicted about it. I restricted myself – I hated myself for a while, actually. I thought I couldn’t be gay.’
I ask what she thinks was the source of those self-imposed judgements.
There’s a pause; this is clearly a difficult question. Lis has become open about her sexuality relatively quickly in comparison with how she expected to be, once she had acknowledged it herself. Initially she was terrified at the thought of telling anyone, more because she expected their criticism than that she’d heard any.
‘My first girlfriend was someone I met at a summer camp, and it was a very intense experience – not just because I fell in love, it’s just an intense experience working on one of those camps full stop. You’re busy all the time, and you’re surrounded day and night by all these people whom you’ve never met before, and will probably never meet again. You form strong bonds, but actually they bear no relevance to your life outside of the camp.’
It was in this context that Lis was first persuaded it was ‘safe’ to be honest about being gay. ‘My girlfriend pointed out that no one at the camp had any preconceived ideas of who I was, so why would it matter to them? And if it did, it didn’t make any difference because I wasn’t going to see them in the outside world once the summer was over.’
Even so it was a major step, and Lis recalls that she worked herself into a panic preparing to tell her best friend from school.
‘If it had gone badly with her, I don’t think I could have faced telling so many of my other friends so soon afterward. As it was, people have been so fine about it, there’s hardly been any awkwardness at all.’
Within a few weeks she had told most of her good friends and some of the wider circle, and it’s now fairly common knowledge, although she has still kept it a secret from a few key people – her father, her godparents, and some other relatives. These are the ones whom she feels will be most judgemental, and she can’t see any way in which telling them won’t provoke outrage.
‘My godparents are such deeply religious people,’ she explains. The reaction she expects is still holding her back from being completely free about part of herself, and she’s not ready or able to address that yet. ‘My dad came in to find me and my stepmother discussing the music I would want played at my wedding. Not only did he think the music was wrong for a wedding, he told me how absurd it was to be thinking about a wedding when I don’t even have a boyfriend. My stepmother and I just looked at one another (she knows I am gay). If he can’t even indulge some ahead-of-time wedding discussion, how would he feel if he knew that if I was going to get married, it wouldn’t be to a man?’
I ask why she’s so adamant that he would react so badly. Wouldn’t it make a difference that she is his daughter?
‘No, it wouldn’t. I see how he is about other people we know who are gay. And in his view all lesbians are feminists, and a feminist is one of the worst things you can be to my dad.’
Added to that is the stigma of sex, which Lis has identified early on as one of the things gay people seem to get asked about. ‘It’s impossible for me to tell someone I’m gay and not feel like they are thinking immediately about the sex part of it,’ she says. ‘You can almost see it on their face. I feel like I’m actually saying, “I sleep with women.” If you tell someone you have a boyfriend, they engage in conversation very easily – what does he do, what have you being doing socially, shall we have dinner etc. You tell someone you’re gay or you have a girlfriend and there’s just this awkward pause, like they don’t know what else to say.’
Because she has witnessed the sex question on several occasions, although not been asked herself, she feels even more nervous about telling certain people because of what she imagines they will be thinking. ‘It could well be in my head but I’ve never heard anyone ask a straight person, “so how do you have sex?” I mean it’s just not something you ask. It’s like when you’re gay people are so curious they think it’s ok to pry.’
There’s clearly a frustration that it’s the sexual part of how she identifies as gay that comes in for so much questioning. ‘My friend was asking me how I know. Well how about the fact that I fell in love with a woman?’
I ask what her process has been in handling any stereotypes or judgements that have been applied to her.
‘Well firstly I had to handle how I felt about myself. No one so far has out-and-out judged me for being gay.’
Lissie says that if she had felt completely free in her thinking on this, she probably would have wanted to date girls from about the age of twelve. Years later, still not acknowledging to herself how she really felt, she remembers a heart-to-heart in her room at uni with her best friend whom she had known all through school. ‘Neither of us had had a boyfriend for some time. And my friend turned to me and said, “I might be a lesbian.” And she was saying that if she was a lesbian, we shouldn’t be friends anymore. So I just said, “It’s okay, I think I’m a lesbian too, we can both be lesbians and be together.” It was just a late night confused thing; she’s now married to a man and has children, she’s not a lesbian. And at the time I thought I was saying it because she was my friend and I wanted us still to be friends. But now I realise I was probably madly in love with her and I just couldn’t admit it.’
This uncertainty lasted through her postgraduate studies, during which time she had a friend who was openly gay, and who came on to her one night after a ball. ‘I was like, “um, no, I’m straight,” which she really didn’t believe. She asked if I was sure, did I want to try it. And I was so conflicted at the time because I thought I could be gay but I still didn’t want to acknowledge it, so I said I was definitely straight, I said no to her. I often wonder how different it would have been if I had come out, if we’d had a relationship.’
Retrospect has allowed Lissie to assess past incidents in the light of what she now knows about herself, but at the time there was a lot of self-repression and confusion, which I get the impression she regrets. For a woman who has handled so many physical challenges without much complaint, handling this has been much harder.
What she would want to say if she was in a position to advise someone who was facing similar challenges, either from external or internal judgements about them?
‘Just to do it. It’s like ripping off a plaster. I was scared but it’s been fine.’
I ask whether it’s been her experience that other people in similar circumstances have felt the same as she has. It’s a definite yes, but it has mainly been because of the fear of other people’s reactions than because of the reality so far. I don’t know if she feels fortunate that her coming out has been accepted, but I doubt she would use the term ‘fortunate’ to relate to this. She clearly feels very strongly that no one should be judged on the basis of sexuality or gender, regardless of circumstance.
‘I would really love to be able to say, “I’ve met someone,” and for the person I was speaking with to be happy. Good, you’ve met someone, you love someone, you have somebody in your life. The gender of that person wouldn’t be assumed, wouldn’t come into question as part of a value judgement about me or them. That people could love someone just for who they are.’
Lissie adds that being gay is ‘who I love, not who I am. I don’t think it should be the whole of a person’s identity – it’s not like straight people walk down the street shouting about who they sleep with, why should I effectively do that? You can walk past plenty of gay people and not know they’re gay because they’re just living their lives.’
I note that our discussion hasn’t neatly fitted into the parameters of this project as far as what I expected us to talk about, i.e. how we are ‘more than’ the numerical tags of height, weight, age, IQ etc. that we get judged on. But this doesn’t matter. The basis for discussion has remained the same – addressing how society and social structures can make us feel restricted in ways we don’t need to be.
I’m not writing a scientific research paper so I don’t have a theory I need to prove. However, I would theorise that all the above has been a lot to do with identity, and how individuals deal with how they identify themselves and are identified by others. Understanding ourselves is a big part of being able to tackle judgements, whether they are self-imposed or otherwise.