Difference. by Kate Marsh

It is difficult to explore the concept of difference without including an examination of ‘normal.’ In straightforward terms one cannot exist without the other. Difference exists outside our perception of the ‘norm.’ It is the unexpected or the unfamiliar. In specific relation to bodies, difference is a manifestation of ‘otherness’ or blurring of normality. One hand where there should be two, sitting instead of standing, signing instead of speaking.

The image of the ‘normative’ body is ingrained in our understanding of being human. It is an image that is presented to us through many channels throughout of lives; education, employment, the media – representations of difference in these contexts are largely from a position of segregation. We live in a world where the ‘normal’ body rules. We are ‘accepting’ of difference, charitable even, but there is still an underlying narrative of curiosity and freakishness relating to the ‘different’ body.

On the subject of the narrative of different bodies Garland Thomson suggests that ‘Conservative shapes make conservative stories. Extraordinary shapes require extraordinary stories.’ (Garland –Thomson 2009: 167). There seems to be a fascination with difference, we question how difference occurs, captivated by stories of difference, whether through ‘tragedy’ or ‘fate’ we want to know the story behind the difference.

It is possible that this interest in difference originates from our socialisation into a culture of normality, when we see difference we want to protect ourselves from it, to hold on to our sense of being ‘normal’. By staring and asking questions the different body becomes spectacle and somehow unreal. Being confronted with difference highlights the fragility of ‘normality.’ In a desire to conform and ‘fit in’ we disassociate our ‘normal’ selves from the differentness of others.

We all develop our own understanding of ‘normal’ through our individual experience of being in the world. By getting up each day and doing the mundane daily tasks I am ‘being normal’ in my ‘bubble’ of existence I am my own definition of normal. From the outside, however, I appear different, my shape is ‘different’ from the ‘norm.’ My body is unfamiliar to the normative gaze.

Difference is a marker of impairment, it is a characteristic of the disabled person – in medical terms impairment is often referred to as an anomaly, something to be fixed or normalised. This legacy of being perceived or labelled as different has informed the experience of impairment. Being different makes us who we are.

Difference as a currency can be empowering for those with impairment, there is a kudos attached to being away from the ‘norm.’ We are edgy, exciting, unique, part of an exclusive set, flying in the face of conformity. Of course this is a flawed observation, any examination of this idea reveals that we are all ‘different’ having the same ‘outline’ as another person does not make us the same.

For me personally, I wear my difference with pride, not necessarily because I feel different, but because my ‘difference’ is part of my whole being – in my experience of ‘normal’ life my ‘difference’ is always there. So I reject the cliché that there is no such thing as difference, I think the difference in all of us is to be embraced and acknowledged. Of course in doing this, the ’difference’ becomes ‘normal.’ In our embodied experience of life we are both of these opposing terms at any time and in any context. Constantly shifting definitions of our selves, our bodies and the world around us.


Garland Thomson, R. (2009) Staring – How we look Oxford University Press
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