The other night I was cut down to size. I was happy, I’d just had a piece accepted by a major New York blog and the editor said he loved it, my best friend (who I trust because she tells the truth about my work even if it’s shit) thought it was one of the strongest pieces I’d ever written, and I’d got some really positive comments underneath it. Also, another friend was back from Australia for the month and we were going out for a meal.
I wore my little black dress I keep for such occasions. It’s from Mango and it’s exquisite, very simply cut like a shift dress but with a beautiful lace pattern. I blow-dried my hair (I never blow dry my hair) and did my makeup beautifully, taking time to elongate my eyes – people tell me I have striking eyes, so when I feel good I try to play these up. I only do this for special occasions as I am self-conscious and feel awkward about people looking at me, but this night I was riding on a high. I’d earned it and I was going to be among good friends in a lovely Italian restaurant. It would be a wonderful night.
The restaurant was a small, family-run one not far from the pool where I swim, and I had recommended it over the chain restaurant my friend had originally suggested because I had been there before, several years ago with my mother and a close friend. When we had gone, the waiters had been friendly and attentive, the food was good, and they carved little roses out of tomatoes for my friend and I (maybe over the top, but I thought it was a sweet gesture.) Also, perhaps they needed the business more.
The evening started off OK. I was delighted to see my friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen for ages. There are people I love, people I feel I can be myself around, people who won’t judge me if I get fish sauce all over my chin, or whatever.
It happened about halfway through the evening when the owner, the one who had years ago made roses from tomatoes, came to give us cutlery or something, I can’t even remember, and I thanked him. He piped up after me – ‘Thank you’ – imitating my voice, and then laughing. My friends didn’t laugh and he must have seen my expression because he said, ‘It’s just you have such pretty voice’ – but he was still imitating it. ‘It’s OK,’ I said. I didn’t want to make a scene, but suddenly I felt uncomfortable, pulled up, cut down to size.
How dare I, the girl with the severe speech defect (caused by dystonia), feel good about myself, confident, happy? How dare I speak or have a voice? How silly of me to have expected to be treated with respect as a human being by a waiter. I was devastated, but felt quite rightly cut down to size. I should not have spoken, I should have remembered that all too strong lesson that years of playground taunts had taught me and kept silent.
Because here’s the deal – speech, meaning the way you sound, is so much more important than you think. It’s something which comes to define you, it points to who you are, where you’re from, so many things, and if you have a speech defect it singles you out, separates you, it overshadows the words you say and becomes the first thing that people hear. Your voice is a front door in ways just as powerful as your appearance; however, had I had a physical defect (say a scar across my face), I doubt very much that the waiter would have tried to draw attention to it, and had he done so I think that someone would have been angry. Why, then, is a speech defect fair game? And am I just, as it might seem, overreacting?
When I was a child, I learnt the art of silence. I would speak to my parents, my brothers and sister, carefully selected friends, but otherwise I stayed as quiet as possible, knowing that my high pitched voice would invite only ridicule, impressions, taunts. Perhaps this was why writing became such a big thing for me – not allowed a physical voice, I found one on the page. There the words I said would be judged not on their pitch but on their merit; there people wouldn’t dismiss me, they would look and see and care about the content. I wrote and wrote and wrote throughout my childhood, spilling all the words I didn’t dare say onto the page, and I did OK at school – though, to the frustration of teachers, I never dared to raise my hand in class. Of course I didn’t: I knew better than to do that.
I was perhaps 16 when I started to get more confident and began to engage with those around me as an equal. I think this was the time when people started growing up, and most of my peers were no longer as cruel and judgmental as they had once been. They accepted me, just like they accepted other people with disabilities (It is ironic that when we were younger the class had been told to stop picking on disabled students – this included me and a boy with Aspergers’ – and instead of helping things, it had just made it ten times worse.) But now we were 16, and things were better.
As I entered sixth form something miraculous happened – my spoken words began to have value, people started to listen, to engage, to include me in conversations. Slowly I learnt to speak, even with strangers, and I stopped expecting people to be dicks every time I said something. I could speak to someone in the queue at the shop and they would speak back and be pleasant. Sure, some people still were mean – kids asking me for directions, a drunk in the street who overheard me talking with my friends, but things were OK.
Throughout university, too, people were overwhelmingly OK with the way I sounded. There was the odd insult, or sometimes a question – which I didn’t mind as much. If someone says, ‘Why is your voice like that?’ I could tell them, and that was almost fine, except that it reminded me of it.
Sometimes boys fetishised it, saying I sounded like Marilyn. I didn’t really get that, but it wasn’t mean, so you know, I could deal with it, except it was a little weird. Once someone tried to record my voice at a party because it was ‘so unique and feminine’ – perhaps he thought he was complimenting me. Perhaps the implied compliment – the idealisation – made recording me (against my will) all right? I don’t know.
In some ways, I think a boy with a high-pitched voice may have been exposed to even more ridicule. That my gender protected me a little as by being high-pitched I was somehow, involuntarily, fulfilling some strange vulnerable feminine ideal that some men have. I knew a boy with a high-pitched voice once, and although we didn’t discuss it, I wondered what it was like for him. I also knew a girl with a strangely deep and low voice, and I once saw her get ridiculed for it just as badly. Maybe as my ‘defect’ played neatly into a gender stereotype, it was more OK than theirs. Or maybe it was more fair game for bullies, as they could fall back on the ‘but I was only being nice’ defence.
I don’t mind so much when people make positive comments about my voice – a girl in a pub told me she thought my voice was beautiful and she seemed to mean it – but there is a difference between that and fetishising.
As I’ve got older my voice has improved a little, but it is still high, still soft, still sometimes strained. I still struggle with things like job interviews, and answering the phone – but I do OK, and my friends accept me. A guy who asked me for directions once on hearing my voice said, ‘I don’t need help from you actually, you’re a fucking freak’ – and that got me. I ran home devastated, but the fact is that most people aren’t like that.
Why, then, was last night such a big deal? Why did I feel so bereft, so humiliated by something so small? Why did I go home and cry? It was, after all, a lovely night out with friends, and perhaps it is difficult for them to understand my reaction (or seeming overreaction.) The thing is, it goes back to that little girl who didn’t speak, who knew the answers but never raised her hand in class, who was taught that her voice was a subject of ridicule, so instead of speaking wrote for hours and hours and hours.
We talk about body image (and I agree, this is very important) – however, we often overlook something just as important. The way we sound is something for which we are equally judged, and assumptions are made based on our voices. Maybe this is the reason most people hate hearing themselves on tape. I don’t know. I just know that our words should be valued far more than the voice we say them in.