Clumsy is one of those “ugly duckling” descriptors — things people use to describe kids when we “hope it’s a stage” or that they will “grow out of (or into)” something. Chubby. Plain. Shy. Quirky. Clumsy.
I long ago realized that the Ugly Duckling story was itself bullshit, and yet I know I was both raised with and have also been guilty of this same bullshit attitude.
Every time I stumbled as a kid, my parents and other adults would say, “oh, you’re just clumsy.” I know they meant it as a way to make me feel better — trying to stop me from being self-critical, I guess — but they said it often enough that I believed it and incorporated it into my self image.
As I grew older and would trip, drop something, walk into a door, or whatever, I would remind myself “I’m just clumsy.” Clumsy became my crutch. Meanwhile, the media reminded me that being fat meant I was weak, unworthy, undesirable and unattractive. Clumsy didn’t seem to contradict any of that so I just resigned myself to it.
A couple of incidents during my last year of high school offered me hints that my self-image was flawed, but it would be many years before I’d understand:
- In gym class we had to do peer-led activities as part of our grade. One of my peers chose to lead us through an introduction to karate. As we were practicing the kicks, he asked me if I was a dancer. I snorted in disbelief but he added, “because you kick like a ballet dancer.” I was so stunned by the compliment that I’ve never forgotten it, but I also couldn’t process it. It triggered some pretty intense cognitive dissonance because it was in complete opposition to my self image.
- After having my grad photos done, I went to pick up the prints from the photographer. When I arrived at the studio, an 11×17 print of my photo was framed and in the front window. It was the first time I saw myself through others eyes as beautiful. (I still love that photo.)
Time passed and I forgot that feeling. Looking at the photo I saw past not present self. Over the years, I gradually closed myself off, seeing myself as a mom and a wife more than an individual.
Then I started taking selfies.
It took a lot of effort, and a lot of feedback to see myself as beautiful. More to see myself as sexy. I still felt uncoordinated and lacking in poise and grace; the idea that I was “just clumsy” persisted, even as my confidence returned.
This January, I started taking burlesque classes. At the end of our first class, we did some meditation and an exercise to help us release something that was holding us back. I closed my eyes and “the idea that I am clumsy” tumbled into my conscious thought.
We wrote what we wanted to release on wishing paper, set them aflame, and all but mine whisked up into the air and floated down. Mine sat firmly in place as it burned. I was disappointed at first but realized that the wish, like my feet, was firmly on the ground. I raised an eyebrow, amused at the universe’s sense of humour.
The next class involved us walking and making an entrance in heels and I felt hellishly awkward. I said so and was told by a classmate that I looked so graceful. I fought back tears during class but they flowed later and stayed with me for a few days. Graceful is not a word I have used to describe myself, ever. I also recognized that despite my wish to drop the idea I was clumsy, I had just chosen synonyms as my crutch.
My world had been rocked. I was facing a shifted reality in which my self image was contradicted by others and I finally accepted that they might be right. While I’d been told before that I was not, in fact, clumsy, this was the first time I’d actually heard it. To say this was profound is an understatement.
As I sat with this concept a few days, I started to listen. I heard other women excuse themselves as clumsy in a steady stream of self-deprecation. I realized it is just as toxic as “I’m so fat.” I suspect if I look at movies and television I will start to see clumsy contributing to the same “unpopular girl” trope.
The thing is, humans trip and fall and walk into doors. We fumble catches. We dribble soup or coffee down our chin. Our bodies are, for the most part, imperfect machines. It’s the entire reason we laugh at slapstick because we see ourselves reflected, if exaggerated.
I’m still having a hard time with graceful as an adjective, but I am OK with accepting I am average. It took a lot of years but I think “clumsy” is finally in my rear view mirror.