Comedian Francesca Martinez: 'I've accepted my cerebral palsy - now I'm calling on others to join the revolution'

After years of being defined by her cerebral palsy, the comedian, author and actor had an epiphany. She decided to stop trying to fit in and just accept herself – 'wobbliness' and all

Ever the procrastinator, I sat down to write my 2011 stand-up show one week before it was due to open at the Adelaide Fringe. I knew the title was going to be "WHAT THE **** IS NORMAL?!" and that it had been bubbling away in my head for years. I also knew that life, Facebook and Twitter had made it almost impossible to convert that bubbling into actual words that could be said out loud. Luckily, when I finally switched off the internet (it is possible, folks), the show flowed out over a couple of days in several terrifyingly easy splurges. I had, after all, been waiting to write this show all my life...

When I was two, I was diagnosed with athetoid cerebral palsy. As if this wasn't enough for my young parents to hear, the consultant also declared that I was mentally retarded. My parents knew that wasn't true. (They may have reconsidered this when, aged 10, I bought a Jason Donovan album.)

When the label "ABNORMAL" is slapped on you before you're out of nappies, your self-esteem is destined for oblivion. It would be years before I started to feel "abnormal" but, even when I began to wobble around on my feet, there were the stirrings of a vague unease in my stomach; a faint feeling that the world viewed me as a pity object – faulty, broken, disabled. Thankfully, my family forgot about my palsied brain, and smothered me with love, so I pushed away that distant discomfort and got on with living.

I rocked up to infant school with a crazily optimistic outlook, ready to climb trees, wind up teachers and seduce young boys. I'd decided boys were awesome probably before I knew what "awesome" meant. Junior school was nearly as much fun (aside from the "education" bit) and the presence of a palsy hardly registered on my radar. As unlikely as it might sound, I felt totally normal.

High school soon remedied that. There probably isn't an environment more effective at reminding you of your shortcomings than an all-girls school. I realised with shock that I was, without a doubt, ABNORMAL. Not just because of my disability but on account of various crucial factors such as my choice of music (Frank Sinatra was not cool, apparently). So when, aged 14, I won a part in Grange Hill, I was frigging ecstatic to be rescued from that teenage prison. However, even though the show was a hugely positive experience, my inner confidence remained as shaky as my balance. By the time I left, I had the self-worth of a wet sock. I had fully taken on board my classmates' views of me and had privately declared myself to be a loser who would end her days as a wobbly old spinster with only Old Blue Eyes to get her through those long lonely nights.

On the surface, I still appeared happy, but I was obsessed with trying to be "normal" all the time. Brain damage isn't easy to hide but I gave it an admirable shot. When the stress of trying not to be wobbly in public became unbearable, I stopped the "normal" act and faced my demons. By which I mean I stopped going out, moped around my house and moaned a lot to my brother.

At the beginning of 1999, I reluctantly joined a comedy workshop as research for an acting role. Standing (and visibly shaking) on stage, I addressed my wobbliness head-on. Instead of dying with embarrassment as people's eyes drilled holes through me, I felt something shift inside. Through a simple joke, I'd found a way to speak honestly about who I was. I had finally wobbled out of the disability closet.

Later, in the pub, Dylan, another student, congratulated me on my "electric" walk. He said he loved the way I talked and moved and shook on stage. I thought he was crazy. He was, but he was also beautiful. So I listened to him. And I'm glad I did because he changed my life. He made me realise that nobody is normal. I wasn't wrong or faulty or abnormal – I was just Francesca. Everyone on the planet is different and that is normal. I was just part of the crazily diverse species we call human. I could now see that my walk wasn't "bad", it was simply my walk. For the first time since I was a child, I felt proud of myself. That night, lying in bed, I apologised to my body for hating it for so long, and decided to like it instead. Finally, I wanted to be me.

Martinez aged 14, far right, playing Rachel in Grange Hill (BBC) Martinez aged 14, far right, playing Rachel in Grange Hill (BBC)
This radical shift in perspective transformed me from whingy git to a very grateful one in minutes. It allowed me to dump society's unhealthy aspirations and focus on what I did have. And it made me see that all the soul-crushing anxieties that had blighted my recent years had nothing whatsoever to do with being wobbly. The latter had just been a side issue. I was living in a world where self-loathing was absolutely normal.

Most people around me – including the obscenely beautiful and supremely able-bodied – suffered from terrible body image. And it had nothing to do with any kind of palsy and everything to do with a culture that religiously promotes impossible ideals. The real cause of my unhappiness was growing up in a world which continually tells us that we're not good enough, that we have to conform to a predefined set of parameters in order to be considered successful, beautiful, desirable. (This, despite the fact that most of those successful, beautiful and desirable people seemed to have an awful lot of breakdowns.) We're told to fear difference in ourselves and others, and that's why much of the media projects such an airbrushed version of reality. I wondered why physical perfection was always linked to happiness when it often appeared to cause problems. I mean, if being rich and beautiful leads to inner peace, wouldn't we all be buying self-help books from Kate Moss? So who did this ubiquitous superficial value system really serve?

Read more: Read the latest Edinburgh Festival reviews here

It became clear why this mass worship of conformity dominates our culture. It's not because it spreads light and joy and peace across the globe, it's because our society is built on consumption. And consumerism will only thrive if you can convince enough people that they're lacking in some way, and that what they really need is the latest product/outfit/look to be "normal". That's it. We're sold this lie so that we'll keep buying crap that we don't need. So that we'll continue to attempt to attain "normality" through purchases and surgeries and upgrades and iShit. Incessant advertising gnaws away at our self-worth and then generously steps in to fill the gap. Again and again. But this empty cycle of acquisition and obsessing about trivialities just leads to debt, unhappiness, and a deep dissatisfaction with our lives and bodies. It is a culture that is fundamentally at odds with the fact that difference and disability are a natural, normal part of life.

When I stopped pursuing someone else's idea of normality, I began to enjoy life again and my priorities changed. Instead of looking inwards and fretting about my numerous imperfections, I felt my perspective broaden. It became patently clear that I was ridiculously, extraordinarily lucky. A quick look outside my own tiny world was enough to make me feel guilty at my own indulgence. I'd wasted years worrying about the way I walked or talked, while millions of other humans lived in war, poverty, without clean water or food or shelter.

The power of acceptance: Francesca Martinez The power of acceptance: Francesca Martinez (Andy Paradise)
Closer to home, there were so many people who had grown up without enough love and care and support, who were lonely and unable to trust others or form healthy relationships. These disabilities were invisible but I knew they were far worse than being a bit wobbly. My childhood suddenly seemed more precious than anything else and I felt pangs of guilt for having taken that for granted. Being loved had given me everything I needed, and that, together with my new-found self-acceptance and appreciation for what I had, was all I needed to be happy.

The sinister truth is that this slavish adherence to superficial values not only fuels the endless fires of consumerism, it also disempowers people so that they are unable to focus on the really important stuff like protecting human rights, reducing inequality, tackling an unjust economic system, challenging the corporate takeover of our democracies, and averting environmental destruction. Promoting "normality" is a political choice that serves the powerful, while leaving the rest of us (ie "good citizens") dissatisfied and insecure. Who needs armies to control people if you can keep them busy chasing shiny things instead, or struggling to make ends meet?

That's why accepting yourself as you are is an act of civil disobedience. Because you're thinking for yourself. You're not partaking in a cycle that is destroying the environment and which functions by exploiting millions of people who are producing all this junk on poverty wages. And you're also freeing up valuable time and energy to focus on things that desperately need our attention.

Performing the show around the world has been an incredible experience. I've received numerous messages from people of all ages telling me that understanding why these pressures to be "normal" exist has freed them from those pressures. That's why I wanted to explore these ideas further in a book.

So don't let anyone else make you hate yourself. Embrace your body, whatever shape it is and however it works, because it gives you this wonderful, crazy, beautiful, fleeting experience called life. And because every single human right we enjoy today has been won by people focusing outward not inwards.

Join the wobbly revolution.

Francesca Martinez will be performing five dates of her award-winning show, "What the **** is Normal?!", followed by an interview about her new book with comics Frankie Boyle, Fred Macaulay and others, at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) starting tomorrow. See the EICC website for more details; eicc.co.uk

'What the **** is Normal?!', by Francesca Martinez (Virgin Books, £12.99), is out now

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?