(Don’t mistake that scowl for youthful ambivalence. This is the face of an angry feminist who hates having her photo taken. Absolutely done with your nonsense.)
The first time I called someone out for mansplaining, it was because of my dyspraxia.
Dyspraxia is a developmental disorder that affects physical coordination, as well as memory, perception, and sensory processing. Many people with dyspraxia struggle with tasks involving fine and gross motor skills, such as using a pen, riding a bike, or driving a car.
What does that have to do with mansplaining, you ask? Well, back in my first year of university, I was desperate to avoid conflict. As a painfully shy fresher living in halls of residence, the thought of arguing with my new friends and neighbours made me feel physically ill.
I had no idea how to respectfully disagree with them- that is, until one of those new friends made a breathtakingly ignorant comment. The conversation began innocently enough: offhand, I mentioned that I hated PE at school because of the way I ran, and how my dyspraxia affected my sense of balance.
My friend (let’s call him Adam) frowned for a moment, before asking if I meant dyslexia. Irritated, I tried to explain the difference between the two conditions.
“Dyslexia is more about processing language whilst dyspraxia is to do with coordination,” I replied, “although some people have both.”
My patient explanation wasn’t enough to convince Adam that I was right. “I’m pretty sure they’re just different names for the same thing,” he said, smiling as though I were a small child who still believed in Santa Claus.
By that point, I’d had enough: “I am dyspraxic. You hadn’t even heard of dyspraxia a minute ago. I think I know what I’m talking about.”
Adam went silent, and I worried that I’d overstepped the mark. Yet after a few seconds, he quietly apologised and never questioned my authority on the subject again. This conversation was one of many moments in my life where my dyspraxia and my feminism coalesced.
As a teenager, I felt uniquely ugly, unable to perform even the simplest of feminine rituals. Despite my best efforts, my clothes were always dishevelled, my hair eternally unkempt. For want of a steady hand, I suffered through years of smudged eyeliner, clumped mascara and mismatched eyebrows.
To be traditionally feminine is to be poised, passive and prostrate; instead I was clumsy, barely able to coordinate the left and right sides of my body. To avoid being noticed I was forced into a palette of neutrality, adopting low maintenance hairstyles and neutral colours to make my deficiencies less obvious.
I’m far from the only dyspraxic woman to have difficulty conforming to femininity. Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields and Shadow Minister for Children and Families, also struggled with her appearance as a dyspraxic teenager.
“It was always a disaster,” she says. “My makeup used to be all over the place and sometimes I wouldn’t bother at all, because it would look worse if I put it on.”
Eyeliner was a particular problem for Lewell-Buck: “I used to practice at home alone and every time it ended with the pencil in my eye and lots of tears.”
Dyspraxia has continued to impact Lewell-Buck’s appearance in her adult life. “Doing my hair is always a difficulty,” she says. “I can extend to either having it down or having it up in a pony tail, and that’s as far as I get. Even when I straighten my hair, I get my husband to do it for me because I’m so clumsy, I’ll burn myself or I won’t quite get it right.”
The experience of dyspraxic women like myself and Emma Lewell-Buck can and should trouble feminist campaigners. For me, everything changed when I realised that the things dyspraxia made difficult were also the areas of womanhood most valued by patriarchal society.
In a world that polices women’s appearances, dyspraxic women can struggle to fit the already narrow definition of what is acceptable. Traditional femininity encourages women to be ordered, categorizable, unwavering from an archetype unless that deviation is somehow alluring or exploitable.
Yet dyspraxia, with all its chaos, turns that concept on its head. I suggest that dyspraxic women reclaim the word slattern, with all its negative connotations, as a rejection of this demand for order. To borrow from de Beauvoir, dyspraxia is the entropic feminine.
Beyond the hazy world of theory, underdiagnosis of dyspraxia is something feminists should be highlighting. Dyspraxia is more common in men than women, with recent studies suggesting a ratio of two dyspraxic boys to every one dyspraxic girl. But in 2015, the Dyspraxia Foundation reported a diagnosis rate of three to one, suggesting girls with dyspraxia are being overlooked.
The reasons behind this worrying trend are complex, according to Dr. Sally Payne, occupational therapist and Trustee of the Dyspraxia Foundation. “Perhaps society isn’t looking out for the difficulties with girls because it’s perceived to be a male problem,” she says.
“If a boy isn’t very good at say playing football, that tends to get noticed. Whereas if a girl isn’t very good at physical skills and chooses to sit on a bench and chat to friends instead, that isn’t seen as particularly different.”
Dr. Payne also believes that dyspraxic girls learn to compensate for their symptoms: “I think girls and women are better at managing some of their difficulties by recruiting friends and colleagues, spotting their differences and finding their way around them.
“I’ve spoken to teenage girls who rewrite all of their work when they get home because they’re aware that the way that it looks is really important. There comes a point where those strategies aren’t effective anymore because the challenges are too great, so they tend to get picked up a little bit later.”
Research by the Dyspraxia Foundation in 2015 found that the average age at which men were diagnosed was 17, whereas for women it was 22. For Dr. Payne, this difference is crucial: “if you’re 17 you fall into children’s services, but if you’re 22 you’re over that. We know that diagnostic pathways are clearer for children and to get diagnosed as an adult is much more difficult.”
Emma Lewell-Buck believes that late diagnosis can also be a side effect of social class: “Parents have to fight for the diagnosis and then when they get it, they have to fight for the support. More often than not, it’s the middle or upper middle-class families who have the time and the money who can get what’s best for their kids.”
Lewell-Buck knows first-hand how later diagnosis can affect the development of people with dyspraxia; she was diagnosed at 27, whilst doing her master’s degree in social work at Durham University.
“I just remember thinking, ‘oh my god, if someone had told me ten years ago, my whole life might have mapped out differently’,” she says. “I might not have felt so desperate at times.”
Teenage mental health has been the focus of this year’s Dyspraxia Awareness Week.
In a survey of parents and carers of dyspraxic young people aged 11 to 18, 55% said that their child was frequently or nearly always anxious.
“One of the key things that came through from the survey was anticipatory anxiety,” says Dr. Payne. “Teenagers with dyspraxia worry that things will go wrong based on their previous experience of dropping things, tripping over, or appearing different to other people.
“The teenage years are a time when people are trying to fit in. Anything that makes you a little bit different will heighten this sense of anxiety.” That’s certainly something that I recall from my own teenage years.
Like myself, Emma Lewell-Buck feels that her mental health has been impacted by her dyspraxia. “That sense of chronic low self-esteem and lack of confidence stays with me now,” she says. “If I’m standing up doing a speech somewhere, I never hear the claps. All I see is the one person in the audience who doesn’t look like they’re engaged. And I think, ‘that’s me. I’ve failed.’”
What solutions can we offer dyspraxic young people, particularly those with mental health issues? As well as more awareness of dyspraxia and clearer diagnostic pathways, Dr. Payne believes role models in the media can help prevent low self-esteem.
“To know that there are other people out there who experience the world in a similar way, and are doing really well in spite of (or in many cases because of) their difficulties, that’s hugely inspiring,” says Dr. Payne.
Celebrities with dyspraxia include Daniel Radcliffe, Florence Welch, and Cara Delevigne, and on Sunday night the new series of Doctor Who introduced a dyspraxic character for the first time.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth saw Ryan Sinclair, a 19 year old factory worker with dyspraxia, struggle to ride a bike because of his condition. I’m not ashamed to say that I was so thrilled to see dyspraxia in Doctor Who, a show that I have loved since I was eight years old, that I almost cried.
But however much I loved seeing a character like myself on mainstream television, it struck me that there are few role models for dyspraxic girls who ever look as dishevelled as I do. Florence Welch and Cara Delevingne are hugely talented women, but are always beautifully made up whenever they make public appearances. Where are all the grungy dyspraxic women like me?
Being a woman is hard, and being dyspraxic can make that even harder. Feminism helped me understand that there was no right way to be a woman, and that my dyspraxia wasn’t something to be ashamed of. But more steps need to be taken to ensure that dyspraxic people, including women and girls, are afforded all the same choices that neurotypical people have.