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Representation Matters and So Does Your Story

My friend has just qualified as a personal trainer. She’s venturing out into the world of marketing, approaching gyms to offer her services—doing all the scary things we must do if we want our ideas to work out for us.

My friend has all the usual anxieties about doing this… and a little extra bonus one.

She’s 50 and she’s worried her face doesn’t fit. She’s strong and healthy but she’s not a 20-something, shiny, bronzed, perfectly toned and honed Instagram-model PT. She’s not wearing the latest expensive fitness threads. She’s not into sticking her butt into the camera and wiggling it to music. And she’s worried that’ll count against her.

It won’t, though—quite the opposite, I reckon, because representation matters.

Even when I was a 20-something perfectly toned runner, I was still afraid of setting foot in a gym because I couldn’t see me in there. I didn’t have perfect hair and makeup and the “right” outfit. And I had a lot of butt.

Is this place for me?

Twenty years on, I care little about hair and makeup and gym outfits but I’m even less likely to enter a gym because I rarely see a PT of my age. The subtle message is: this place isn’t for you.

And more: the PTs won’t understand what it’s like to live in a body that’s a little older and creakier. And the male PTs won’t get how much more everything hurts when I’ve got my period, and how actually it’s okay to slow down a bit right then.

So I’m really excited about my friend’s new foray into the world of fitness.

I had a guest on my Bang for Your Book Hotseat recently whose face didn’t fit, either. Adefunke runs an agency that helps adoption and fostering providers recruit appropriate and diverse candidates to their panels, because she noticed the people in charge of adoption and fostering are overwhelmingly white, and usually of a certain age… but the children they’re placing come from all backgrounds and ethnicities.

Her mission is to create true representation in adoption and fostering so all the children get the best chance they can, with people who understand their unique situations in a way that those without lived experience can’t possibly.

Ade’s visibility shows other people like her that there’s a place for them in this area.

Walking in your shoes

I had a conversation with a 72-year-old woman who is a healthy ageing specialist—she helps older women find and grow their confidence, because again, representation matters. Older women are more likely to listen to and learn from someone who’s there, walking alongside them, living similar experiences, and who truly understand what it’s like there.

Recently there was a lot of buzz on LinkedIn when a new medical textbook came out, illustrated by Nigerian medical student and illustrator Chidiebere Ibe. It featured a cutaway of a pregnant woman and fetus in-utero—so far so standard, except both mother and fetus are Black. There’s a massive lack of diversity in the medical field and one of the knock-on effects of that is that Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Asian women are more than twice as likely to die as white women.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is, and there’s a lot of nuance I’m not qualified to comment on—but what I will say is that we could start to address this problem by representing everyone in medical textbooks, in patient stories, in the stories we tell with and to each other.

Historically, patient representations have been white, male, and able-bodied (except when obvious exceptions must be made for pregnant people and disabled people) and this is a huge problem. It means medication is developed for white, male, able-bodied folks. PPE and medical equipment and safety equipment are created for male bodies.

(Read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez if you want to know the true extent of this issue.)

Representation literally saves lives

And then there’s my story. I’ve recently been diagnosed with ADHD and my psychiatrist sent through the diagnosis and a report—which was a big dump of information 2,000+ words long, telling me all the things I need to do next.

Which is a wonderful example of being trained well and being able to diagnose—but not truly understanding what it’s like to live something. Because if he did, he never would have presented all the information in that way. And so, I’m much less likely to listen to trained medical professionals (unless they also have ADHD) than to other people with lived experience, who’ve had a diagnosis later in life, and have started working on it. Because even though they don’t have the PhD, they get it. And all we really want is to be seen and understood.

Representation matters and our stories matter, not only because our stories help other people like us to feel seen and understood, but because they improve people’s wellbeing and literally save lives.

No matter how small our lives may feel to us, it’s the details that matter. Not the drama. Not the big events—but all the moments that make them.

Tell your story, especially if you feel like a misfit or an outsider because I promise you’re not the only one, and I guarantee your story will help someone else more than you could possibly realise.