Friday, 8 June 2012

Because it is difficult, and because it is joyful: living, relating and performing with a visibly imperfect voice


Posted by Valentina

Most people I have met are afraid to sing. Though I loved to do so, I was terrified to sing for many years, having been told by various people close to me that I sang badly. An epiphany came when I saw the Lashings panto last December. The members of Lashings sang well, though many did not sing perfectly - I think the image of 'perfect' I have in mind is something like that in Glee, where people can burst into perfectly-tuned, soaring and completely-backed songs at the drop of a hat, and on screen, it all just *works*. The Lashers sang well, and confidently, and they didn't sound as though they had just stepped out of Glee - they sang authentically, and in a relatable, un-autotuned way. Occasionally one would miss a note, or another would start a line a little late, and yet they were up there, singing loudly and confidently to an audience who had travelled and paid to see them perform - the Lashers knew they were good.

This was a staggering realisation to me. I realised that my own singing voice might not be perfect, but it was fine: it could even be good enough to perform with. I decided that I wouldn't mind missing notes or singing too quietly - why was it that I'd been working hard on fiercely loving the rest of my body image for years, but had allowed myself to berate my singing voice? I went and spoke with Lashings after the show, and a few weeks later, sang confidently and happily in a room of houmous-eating queers at my first rehearsal.

I'm still working on my fear of singing badly, but there's something else that's even scarier. I have a visible speech impairment. And now I'm doing cabaret that doesn't just involve singing, but speaking as well.
I don't talk about it much, and I think I might be saying this in public for the very first time - you know, sometimes having this impairment is really bloody hard. I can remember once wishing I was simply mute, so that I could just stop trying, learn sign language instead, and speak fluently like that. (I was ten, and hadn't yet heard of the social model.) I struggled with it for years, and am still extremely aware of it every day.

Things have improved since I was ten. I've taken the approach of blundering through and doing whatever I'd like to regardless of my impairment, even where that's difficult. All my vocational interests involve talking with people, often in public: I've worked as a telephone fundraiser, as a waitress, on the floor of a feminist sex toy shop, in a youth group, as a sexuality educator, in various guises in healthcare, and as a workshop facilitator. Last year, I gave two speeches to the amassed attendees of the conference I run, as well as greeting almost everyone on the desk and compering the cabaret there. In workshops, discussions and debates, I'm noisy and opinionated, and I'm even working on my fear of ordering food in restaurants. I don't currently identify as disabled, as I don't feel like society's setup is preventing me from doing anything because of my impairment, though I do feel like I've past experience of being disabled as a result of it - for example, where it was more pronounced, or I was in a less-than-awesome social situation.

I do everything I'd like to - I'm not inhibited from teaching or public speaking because of my impairment. That said, on some days, (just as with other areas of body image positivity), it's more difficult to be confident, or to carry on regardless, and there are some activities that are scarier to contemplate doing. There's a part of me that is absolutely terrified of the idea of acting onstage.

What helps is knowing that to be visibly "imperfect" - to possess a body that doesn't align with society's arbitrary, and obviously extremely harmful, norms and standards - and to do awesome stuff whilst so, is an important and valuable piece of activism.

Take the example of fatshion blogs - we don't often see fat people looking happy, colourful and fashionable in the mainstream media. The existence of fatshion blogs helps to un-invisibilise fat people, and that's really important.

Trans people are also using the internet to become more visible, on their own terms - this blog "dedicates itself to showing that our cuteness and sexiness does not match cisgender expectations and those expectations can fuck right off."

(There is no way that my experience of a relatively mild impairment is comparable to the marginalisation faced by many fat people and transgender people - I'm simply using these as other examples.)

I have been told before, by other people with similar impairments to mine, that it is valuable to them to see someone with this impairment debate loudly, speak publicly, and teach. That helps. Knowing that my being visible as a cabaret performer with a speech impairment might help other people to see that doing so is possible - just as my seeing the Lashers sing helped with my fear of singing - that helps. Remembering that the work Lashings does is far bigger than I am - that helps too.

Most of all, singing and acting and speaking in public and doing all the things I do - they are so important to me, and so much fun: it seems a shame to let a social norm stand in the way of that. I'm thankful to have the politics and the social support to stand up to that norm and show it there are many more magnificently diverse ways to exist.


  1. xx This is a lovely post.

    I feel this too, especially around dancing for Lashings -- equal parts fear and dismay that OMG-I'm-not-a-professional-dancer-what-am-I-doing-putting-myself-onstage and joy at being able to do something that I love, alongside people that I love, in service of politics that I really believe in.

    Do you know this song? (link is to a YouTube video of Ani di Franco performing the song 'Joyful Girl'). It reminds me quite a bit of what you've said here :)

    1. Thanks so much : )

      I think you're an awesome dancer (and brilliant writer) and totally, hurray for all those reasons for doing it. It's like, I'm a big advocate for informal writing (like blogging) being as important as more formal, serious writing - I'd like to break down the serious blogging / non-serious blogging binary. This feels kinda similar - accessible, relatable, everyday performances for the joy of it ftw.