Normalizing Different

The “popular kids” and I have never been what you’d call close. In high school and beyond I have usually had a somewhat adverse reaction to doing what was mainstream just because. Even when I tried to blend in I did it so awkwardly that it was doomed to fail even before I bought my over-sized flannel shirt (yes, I grew up in the 90s, before flannel plaid was worn ironically in a tight-fitting style).

But one valuable lesson I have learned from them is this: if you act like what you’re doing is normal, other people probably will too.

Or, on the flip side, if you act like you are a freak, then other people will treat you like one.

The first time this post started rattling around in my head it was in the context of breastfeeding. If women continue to act as though it is something to be done exclusively in a separate wing of the house, in the car, sitting on the toilet, or worse, then it will always be something that is considered ‘other’ in some significant way. I’m not saying we should all insist on the right to walk around shirtless until our children wean at age 4 (like they do without social issue in Africa, I have it from friends who live in Tanzania and Uganda). Yelling loudly “I am not weird!” is another way of admitting that yes, in fact, you do feel disenfranchised in some way and have to cover your feelings by making a scene about it. It doesn’t normalize the behavior.

Another example of this that comes to mind is that I was reading a story a while back in which this woman was talking about the first time she refused a plastic bag at Target, since she was only purchasing one small item. Her telling of the story revolved around how everyone had treated her as though she was stealing the item and she was very uncomfortable the whole time. I have to wonder; what was her facial expression and body language like? Did she act like she was stealing it?

I have developed the habit of just calmly stating that I don’t need a bag, or a straw, or whatever. I don’t furtively glance at the cashier or my fellow customers as I say this, or act embarrassed to be refusing something they are offering (obviously this is trickier in certain situations…if a dear relative offers my daughter a piece of plastic crap toy certain to break and spread tiny beads of plastic all over my house it is much harder to refuse in a way that isn’t taken personally…I’m still working on that one!).

On the food front, I know people I respect who will loudly declare something to be ‘poison’ for everyone to hear in a somewhat misguided effort to educate those around them on the dangers of chemical additives in food. I’m not talking about how we explain things at home…I want to be clear with my daughter about why she can’t eat certain things. I tell her that there is just too much in them that isn’t food, so we aren’t going to eat it. Bless her, for a long time she didn’t even recognize most candy as something edible. As she’s gotten older, though, I just explain to her (quietly, off to the side…not on a soapbox for everyone to hear…) the reason we are not going to eat something. And then I tell her that other people have different mommies, so they might eat things that we don’t and it’s not our job to make them feel bad about it.

This is also glaringly obvious to me (now) when it comes to sharing faith. I grew up in an evangelical tradition wherein it was highly valued to be ‘bold’ in speaking the truth of God’s love to people. In practice it was often more of the same “I am not weird” rhetoric but dressed up in religiosity. Unfortunately, I was not able to communicate in a way that was at all sensitive to the fact that God might say different things to different people at different times. I was not even able to admit He might change the wording a little. If you tell people in an abrasive or confrontational way, “God loves you!” most people will be put off for the same reason that I suspect people reacted oddly to the woman in Target who was made to feel like she was stealing. If you act like what you are saying or doing is false in any way, it can be sensed. It will ring false and people can tell, even without realizing why they are put off by you.

So in conclusion………..if you really think you should do something, then do it and don’t be afraid to not act like a weirdo about it. Also, I’m certain there will be some point today at which I’ll need to take my own advice, as I do lots of stuff that some people might think is weird. Wish me luck with that.

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