Should Jokes About Minorities Be Off Limits?

7 Feb

 
Ofcom, the communications regulator of the United Kingdom, has concluded that comedian Jimmy Carr was in breach of the code of conduct when he cracked the following joke on The One Show last November: “I tried to write the shortest joke possible, so I wrote a two-word joke which was ‘dwarf shortage.’ ” He then looked squarely into the camera and said, “And if you’re a dwarf and you’re offended by that, grow up.”

The scandal at face-value seems odd. Carr’s joke is fantastically boring to those of us with dwarfism. (A joke is indisputably boring if it’s easy to prove that anyone who might attract such a comment and who has graduated primary school has heard it a kajillion times before.) But not only is it far from the most distasteful thing Carr has ever said—his cracks about pedophilia come to mind—but it is far from the cruelest dwarf joke he’s ever made.

In 2009, in an episode of the BBC quiz comedy show QI, host Stephen Fry rattled off a list of 19th-century circus freaks on Coney Island. Trying to suppress a giggle, he said, “There was Bonita—I don’t know why this is funny—the Irish fat midget.”  

The audience exploded with laughter.

Carr immediately looked at Fry agape. “You don’t know why that’s funny?”

I share a love for QI with my partner so fierce that we had once joked about using the theme song for our wedding procession. I also am not skinny,  belong to a family named Sullivan, and have achondroplastic dwarfism, so it’s hard for me to imagine any sort of joke that I could take more personally without it being addressed to me specifically. What better way to be reminded that so many adults would secretly side with the playground bullies if they could than seeing the audience and creators of your favorite show crack up over your very existence?

QI was never reprimanded for it by Ofcom, however, because it is on much later in the evening in the U.K. than The One Show and does not require its guests to sign a form agreeing to comply with family-friendly standards of comportment. Ofcom reports that the BBC responded to its complaint about Carr on The One Show thusly:

The BBC said that “any humour alluding to disability has the potential to offend and, although the BBC received very few complaints on the issue, the One Show’s Editor… sincerely regrets any offence that has been caused by it”. The BBC recognised the “need for sensitivity and careful consideration in respect of the inclusion of material of this nature”. It added that “The One Show is heavily involved with the Rickshaw Challenge initiative that raises money for Children in Need, and in that capacity has worked closely with young people with disabilities including achondroplastic dwarfism. The production team is very well aware of, and sympathetic to, the sensitivities of those affected by disability to humour that alludes to it.”

The problem with imposing standards for offensiveness in humor is that we have all had our jaws drop in disgust, and we have all urged a disgusted person to lighten up. This is why the most current theory about humor is founded on the concept of benign violation. A joke makes you laugh when it strikes the perfect balance between fun and shock. It fails when it comes off as too soft or too harsh.

QI was reprimanded in 2011 for quips about a Japanese man who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. The show had until then featured many jokes about World War II, but none involving the crimes against humanity, or any specific victim of the war.

In 2013, the satire magazine The Onion for the first time in its history fired a staff member and issued a public apology for referring to 9-year-old Quvenzhené Wallis as “a c**t.” Critics pointed out that sex jokes can be funny, jokes about kids being annoying can be funny, but sex jokes about a specific child referred to by name are indefensible.  

Similarly, Ofcom argues that Carr’s second line (“And if you’re offended by that, grow up!”) is what placed him in breach of the code of conduct. They found unacceptable his “apparent suggestion that those with dwarfism would not be justified if they felt personally offended by his attempt to derive humour from their condition.”

It seems easy to argue why I hope for a day when non-dwarfs no longer double over at the mere mention of my existence, just as they no longer double over at the mere mention of other minorities. Yet it is enormously difficult to argue what to do to ensure that day will come. I began this blog by documenting all the different sorts of media—both the high-brow and the dreadful—that took cheap shots at dwarfs. In the four years since, I’ve never been at a loss for material.

For now I feel we should keep the rules simple. I propose a telecommunications ban on jokes about people with dwarfism except by people with dwarfism. If the public so desperately needs puns about height and size, then give Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis and Leonard Sawisch and Meredith Eaton more screen time. And if Jimmy Carr thinks that’s unfair, he should grow up.

I know about a limb-lengthening procedure that could help him out.

 

 

Everyone’s Sexuality. Everyone’s.

31 Jan

(Via)

From the Archives
 

Don’t read the comments. Don’t read the comments. Don’t read the comments.

That’s what raced through my mind as I read “The Challenges of Having Sex As A Little Person” at The Atlantic. Of course I read the comments anyway.

And I was only slightly startled to find nothing but solipsistic snickering and overdone puns. The Atlantic doesn’t win any points for ending the article on a pun, either. But praise is due for addressing the topic at all. Based on an extensive interview with Dr. Marylou Naccarato, who has Kniest dysplasia, the article takes a wonderfully sex-positive approach to the experiences of people with dwarfism and the physical obstacles they can face in bed.

As per nearly every feature on dwarfism in the mainstream media, there are some factual errors. For example, one dwarf couple is quoted claiming that people with achondroplasia require “no medication, surgeries, special needs, nothing.” (See here for a list of the many complications we are at risk for.) But Naccarato is doing great work that is revolutionary in light of the fact that Little People of America, and probably most disability advocate organizations, repeatedly shy away from the topic of sexuality.

A simple reason for their silence is that almost all disability organizations comprise just as many parents and relatives of disabled people as disabled people themselves. And who wants to debate the best way to masturbate with mom or dad sitting next you? A more sinister reason for the silence is one of the building blocks of modern prejudice against disabled people: that is, the presumption that they are innocent, and therefore asexual. Most positive portrayals of disabled people are cute and cuddly. Is it the only way society can accept us? Refusing to see a minority as anything but asexual is to deny them their full humanity, on par with slut-shaming, prude-shaming, queer bullying, and objectification.

Before I go any further, let me say this: I do not want to talk publicly about what I do in the bedroom and I do not want to know what you do in the bedroom. My firm belief in sex-positive feminism and equality does not mean I think that you are sexy or exciting or impressive. Unless we’re close confidantes or I’ve indicated otherwise, please assume I don’t want any mental images of you and your naughty bits, no matter what they look like.

That said, I fully support anyone’s right to desire any sort of consensual sex imaginable. Without double-standards. Without the pressure of competition. Without the nuisance of others turning their personal preferences into rigid rules.

Take, for example, the way virginity is so frequently turned into not just a game but a high-stakes tournament. When and how did you lose it is an idea all of us are expected to base much of our identity on, even as adults. This is despite the fact that, according to medicine, virginity doesn’t exist. After all, what kind of sex does a guy have to engage in to officially “lose” it? And what about girls born without hymens? When exactly do lesbians lose their virginity?

Like race, virginity is a social construct and, in the words of a very wise person on Tumblr, what can be socially constructed can be socially changed. Last year the great Tracy Clark-Flory interviewed acquaintances about the sexual experience they considered to be their “first time.” The glorious thing about her inclusive project was that it revealed human sexuality to be just as diverse as everything else about us. Some defined their first time by their first orgasm, others by a particular first touch or experience of being touched. The problem with her stretching the definition of “losing your virginity” so broadly is that it robs competitive, insecure people of their ability to set standards with which they can gloat and put others down. Wait, no. That’s another glorious thing about it. There really is no problem with recognizing everyone’s experience as equally valid.

Failing to include everyone not only causes unnecessary humiliation, but it causes us to miss out on opportunities for true enlightenment. To quote the authors of You Can Tell Just By Looking: “Sexual minorities—people whose sexual desires, identities, and practices differ from the norm—do a better job talking about sex, precisely because they are constantly asked to explain and justify their love and their lust to a wider culture and, even, to themselves.” The more you examine harmful traditions, the less necessary they become.

This does not mean that minorities have better sex. Indeed, too many activists in the sexual revolution end up repulsing readers and listeners when they allow pride in their sexuality to devolve into arrogance, insisting their sex life is better than yours, rather than merely different. For a year, the BDSM club at my alma mater ran the slogan: “I do what you’re scared to fantasize about.” Not helpful. And kinda pathetic the more you think about it.

I will never judge someone for liking any particular kind of consensual sex, but I will judge anyone who tries to turn sex into a competition to calm their own self-doubts. Whether you’re a wise-cracking online commenter or a sex-positive pioneer, true sexual liberation is about moving beyond the middle school clique mentality, not indulging in it. It’s pretty much the least attractive thing there is.

 

 

Sometimes Beauty Is Easily Recognizable

24 Jan

Fashion Shoes...(Image by Thomas Leuthard used under CC license via)

 

Sometimes beauty is easily recognizable. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes fashion is a statement. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes street photography is a burden for those whose bodies are more likely to be photographed than others’.

Feel free to share your ideas about this, in or outside of the context of the above photograph by Thomas Leuthard.

 

 

 

 

Can We Understand What It Is Like To Hear Sound for the First Time?

17 Jan

listen(Image by Jay Morrison used under CC license via)
 
In the 1990s, Cristina Hartmann was one of the first of a few hundred deaf and hearing impaired children in the United States to undergo surgery for a cochlear implant. She has written extensively about the experience of hearing sound for the first time after the implant in her right ear was activated, most recently this month on Quora.com:

My mother was the one who told me, “Raise your hand when you hear something.” That statement left me baffled. What was I looking for? It was a bit like searching for Waldo when you didn’t know what he looked like.

In that tiny, windowless room deep in the large Manhattan hospital, the audiologist began tapping away at her keyboard. Everyone stared at me, even a woman standing in the doorway whom I had never seen before. I felt the heavy weight of expectations on my shoulders. I had to do something. I concentrated very hard, searching for the mysterious, indefinite Waldo. Whenever I felt anything, an itch or a breeze, I raised my hand slowly, searching everyone’s expressions for whether I had gotten it right or wrong. Nobody gave me any confirmation, so I went on guessing. Twenty-five years later, I realize the whole thing was a show that I performed. I knew this was a momentous event, and I didn’t want to disappoint….

As a congenitally deaf child (who was a bit long in the tooth at 6), I had never formed the neural pathways for my brain to even begin processing auditory stimulation. In the fashion of the ostrich, my brain ignored the strange stuff, and I remained as deaf as I had been an hour prior…

It took months and plenty of therapy for her brain to adapt. Thirteen years later, the activation of a second implant, this time in her left ear, proved a more harrowing experience than the first:

As the audiologist began the beep sequence, I burst into tears and involuntarily clenched the left side of my face. She looked up, puzzled. “Why are you crying? You’ve had this before!” she said. The pain was like sparklers going off on the left side of my head. The stimulation, as little as it was, completely overwhelmed me.

Even though I had already laid the neural pathways for auditory stimuli for my right ear, my brain was unprepared for the stimuli coming from the left side. Since my brain had already experienced this type of stimuli, it could process it, but it was still sensory overload. That stuff hurts. It took me months to acclimate myself to the new implant, but in the meantime, I cringed every time I turned it on. As I said, laying new neural pathways takes work.

Hartmann was later told by the mother of another patient, “Once they started with the beeps, [my daughter] screamed and cried.”

Such narratives exist in stark contrast to the YouTube videos of newly activated implant users laughing and smiling—and, in one case, crying for joy—that have been bouncing around the Internet with far greater frequency. While both narratives provide important information for those considering cochlear implants for themselves or their children, they are also an important contribution for the greater public in our understanding of what it means to be deaf.

It makes sense that crossing out of the world of silence into the world of sound is just as disorienting as its opposite. A hearing person with a middle ear infection strains to perceive the sound of speech, and a deaf person with a new cochlear implant strains to tune out noise pollution: the knocks of a radiator in another room, car doors slamming on the street, wind, footsteps, not to mention the countless background beeps and clicks of the Digital Age. After all, when a baby leaves the womb, she does not instantly adapt to her new home. She comes out crying. There’s too much light and not enough warmth. And, if she is not deaf, there is too much sound.

Speech is no less difficult to learn than Sign language, just as English is no less difficult than Chinese. The ease with which we learn one form of communication or the other depends entirely upon our personal experience and place in the world. For those of us who have grown up hearing speech, the viral videos communicate something very different than for those who grew up in Deaf culture.

While the experiences of utter delight portrayed in the videos are valid, their popularity contributes to an oversimplification of the issue. Watching a toddler smile upon finally hearing his mother’s voice for the first time sends a very strong subliminal message: Being deaf must be worse than not being deaf, and therefore anyone would want to join the world of the hearing. But the general public as an audience is already biased toward the hearing world’s standards of happiness. We are moved by the sound of loved ones uttering our names but not at the image of them signing our names because our culture does not rely on—and therefore does not highly value—Sign language.

This what inspired Lalit Marcus, the daughter of deaf parents and an active promoter of Deaf culture, to pen an article for The Wire titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Share Those Emotional ‘Deaf Person Hears for the First Time’ Videos”:

I want to make it clear that I don’t have a problem with people who choose to get cochlear implants. Medical decisions are painfully personal… I’m all for people making the health choices they think are best for them. What bothers me are the maudlin videos produced out of someone’s intense, private moment that are then taken out of context and broadcast around the world. What bothers me is how the viewer never learns how the individual came to the decision about their implant, which factors they took into account, whether their medical insurance covered it. Sometimes we don’t even learn their names.

This gives me pause. I consider the clip of me removing my casts to look at my newly lengthened legs, which featured 15 years ago in the HBO documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale and last year on Berlin’s public station. The moment was simply joyous—as was the moment I stood up, let go of my friend’s hands and took my first steps—but the story behind it was abundantly complex. Which hopefully both documentaries portray.

I have endeavored to communicate that through this blog and all the media work I have done for the past 20 years.

Limb-lengthening and cochlear implant procedures are markedly different in several ways. Limb-lengthening, for example, does not threaten to endanger another language. But it does threaten to break ranks in the dwarf community through the controversy of altering versus accepting extraordinary bodies. Both procedures have proven to evoke vitriol among their proponents and detractors.

Hartmann reveals:

Most of my deaf friends were good about my CI. They didn’t mind it, except for the fact that my speech therapy cut into play time. That being said, people in the Deaf community felt free to make pointed and derisive comments about my CI. I still get these comments, even almost 24 years after my surgery. To some, I’ll always be a CI-wearer and a turncoat.

The CI advocates aren’t any better, if not worse.

I have very pleasant relationships with many parents of implanted children and CI users. I, however, have also been called a failure because I still use [American Sign Language] and don’t speak perfectly. I’ve also seen a mother run across a room to prevent her child from signing to another deaf child. I’ve been scolded for making gestures and looking too “deaf.”

The debate, of course, is ongoing.

But for those of us not faced with opting for or against a cochlear implant, we are faced with the challenge of overcoming our bias and remembering that Deaf culture is no less valid than the hearing culture we inhabit. Especially when those admittedly tantalizing videos wind up in our Facebook feeds.

 

 

The Best Picture Books for Preventing Prejudice

13 Dec

Book sculpture (Image by Ellen Forsyth used under CC license via)

From the Archives, one of the blogs most popular articles:

 

Perhaps you are looking for gifts for little ones this holiday season. Or perhaps, like me, you simply know a staggering number of kids who will all have birthdays in the coming year. For either scenario, here is a sample of excellent—i.e., not boring or ugly—picture books that help raise diversity awareness through reading. All of these books have been featured in my workshops for pre-school teachers about helping minority children feel represented and teaching all students to see minority kids as their equals. They are divided into five categories based on objective.

***

Books That Know Not Every Family Is Upper/Middle Class with a White, Straight, Biological, Married Mom and Dad… The most delightful thing about pre-schoolers is that they have almost no idea what “normal” means. Of course they are surprised by the extraordinary, but they don’t place value judgments on it until someone older teaches it to them. Critically analyzing the media images and stories kids consume is crucial because the media not only educates them about the world beyond their doorstep, but it instills them with subconscious ideas about what kinds of people society believes deserve to appear in books, film, and television. Kids are of course individuals and some may be temperamentally predisposed toward narrow-mindedness, but a preemptive strike against prejudice never hurt anyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis (available in German & Spanish) – A story of adoption as told from the point of view of the child. “Tell me again how the phone rang in the middle of the night and they told you I was born. Tell me again how you screamed. Tell me again how you called Grandma and Grandpa, but they didn’t hear the phone ’cause they sleep like logs…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams – A story that portrays poverty without uttering the word. The daughter of a single working mom tells of the day they lost everything they owned in a house fire. They’ve been saving up every spare cent they have to buy a big comfy armchair for their new home ever since. In the end, Mom finally has a place to lie back and rest her sore feet when she comes home from work at the diner, and her daughter can curl up to sleep in her lap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Homes by Claire Masurel (available in French & German) – A boy proudly shows off his two homes. “I have two favorite chairs. A rocking chair at Daddy’s. A soft chair at Mommy’s.” The parents are portrayed as having nothing to do with each other, while always beaming at their son. “We love you wherever we are, and we love you wherever you are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (available in Spanish) – Ezra Jack Keats was one of the first American illustrators to feature everyday black children in his stories. All of his books portray kids growing up in inner city neighborhoods. This is a brilliantly illustrated, very simple story about a boy enjoying freshly fallen snow in every way possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis – Written in verse, Susan swings, makes faces, sings songs, plays tricks, splashes in the water, rides on her dad’s shoulders, races in the back of a go-cart. Susan also happens to use a wheelchair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Makes A Baby by Cory Silverberg (available in German & Spanish) – A book about reproduction (sperm, egg, uterus) that leaves out gender (mom, dad, man, woman). No matter how many people want to ignore it, plenty of kids have been born via IVF, surrogacy, and to LGBTQ and intersex parents. This book allows those kids to have a conversation about where they came from, while emphasizing that your family is the people who were waiting for you to come into the world.

***

Books For Extraordinary Situations That Have To Be ExplainedThese stories get into the specifics of certain disabilities, conditions and diverse backgrounds, but there is no reason they should not be read to every child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking Big by Susan Kuklin – This book is out of print, but well worth the search, portraying a day in the life of an 8-year-old girl with achondroplastic dwarfism. She is great at painting, but needs stools to reach things at home and school. She has friends who hold her hand so she won’t get left behind on hikes, but she talks openly about the kindergartners who call her “baby.” She loves going to Little People of America meetings, but she loves being at home with her mom, dad and younger brother best of all. This book accompanied me from pre-school to 5th grade, read aloud by my new teacher to the class at the beginning of the school year in order to explain why I looked different from the others and to encourage my classmates to be upfront with their questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Have A Sister My Sister Is Deaf by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson– A day in the life of a hearing girl and her deaf sister. They play, argue, and help each other out, while explaining deafness as a mere difference in terms young kids can understand. The story has a gentle, poetic rhythm. On a deer hunt, the narrator explains, “I am the one who listens for small sounds. She is the one who watches for quick movements in the grass.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Book of Colors by Rosana Faría (available in French, German & Spanish) – Like the illustrations, everything is black for Thomas, so when it comes to colors, he smells, hears, and feels them. “Red is as sweet as a strawberry, as juicy as a watermelon, and it hurts when it seeps out of a cut on his knee.” The images are embossed for the reader to touch. The Braille alphabet is provided at the back of the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People by Peter Spier (available in French & German) – A superbly illustrated celebration of human beings and cultures all around the world. We have different skin colors, noses, hair styles, holidays, favorite foods, alphabets, hobbies, and homes, but we’re all people. It should be noted that this might be a bit of an information overload for children under 4.

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Books About Moments When Diversity Is Considered Disruptive… These books empower kids who have been teased or interrogated for standing out. They can also be used to teach a bully or a clique how to understand and accept harmless differences. Some teachers rightly express concern over introducing the problems of sexism or racism to a child who has never seen a boy in a dress or a black girl before. Doing so could foster the notion that we should always associate minorities with controversy. Save them for when conflict does arise, or when the child is old enough to start learning about history and intolerance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman (available in Arabic, German, Panjabi, & Urdu) – Grace is a master at playing pretend. When her class decides to put on the play Peter Pan, she’s told by some know-it-all classmates that she can’t because she’s a girl and she’s black. She shows ’em all right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (available in German) – Penguins Silo and Roy live in a New York zoo and are utterly inseparable. The zookeepers encourage them to take an interest in the lady penguins so that they can soon have baby penguins, but to no avail. Silo and Roy build a nest together and end up adopting an egg. When Baby Tango is born, the three of them couldn’t be happier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Be Me – I’ll Be You by Pili Mandelbaum (available in French) – A biracial girl tells her white dad she wishes she looked like he does. Dad explains that he is milk and Mom is coffee, and she is café au lait. He says she is beautiful and sometimes he wishes he looked like her. Soon they’re dressing up in each other’s clothes, she’s braiding his hair, and he’s powdering her face. She wants to go into town and show Mom. On the way, they pass by a beauty shop and Dad points out how many white women are curling their hair and tanning their skin, while so many black women strive for the opposite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Sick of Pink” by Nathalie Hense (currently available only in German, French, Japanese, Norwegian & Portuguese) – The proud musings of a girl who likes witches, cranes, tractors, bugs, and barrettes with rhinestones in them. She knows boys who sew pretty clothes for their action figures and who paint daisies on their race cars. When grown-ups shake their heads and tell them, “That’s for girls!” or “That’s for boys!” she asks them why. “That’s just the way things are,” they tell her. “That’s not a real answer,” she deadpans.

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Fairy Tales Beyond White Knights and Helpless Princesses… Even the most iconoclastic of people have their fantasies of love and heroism shaped by folklore. Yet the idea of revising Western fairy tales to make them less stereotypical has been met with a strong backlash. Whether or not you think it’s appropriate for kids to read Sleeping Beauty, Little Black Sambo or The Five Chinese Brothers, there is no harm in providing them with additional legends about love, valor and wisdom to make our cultural heritage more inclusive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children of the Dragon by Sherry Garland – Selected tales from Vietnam that rival any of the Grimm’s fairy tales in adventure, imagination and vibrancy. Many of the stories are supplemented by explanations of Vietnamese history that provide context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sense Pass King by Katrin Tchana – A girl in Cameroon outsmarts the king every time. Besides being one of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century, Trina Schart Hyman was a master of ethnic and socio-economic diversity in her many, many picture books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tam Lin by Jane Yolen – A Scottish ballad wherein a young maiden rescues her true love from the clutches of the evil faerie queen. In the end, she wins both his freedom and her clan’s great stone castle back. Not suitable for easily frightened children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer – A fearless girl triumphs over a ghost, a witch, a troll and a devil on her way to Grandma’s house in the bayous of Arkansas. Some of the best illustration there is. Think Little Red Riding Hood had she managed to outwit the wolf on her own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Talking Eggs by Robert D. San Souci – A Cinderella story of sorts set in the backwoods of the American South. An elderly wise woman uses magic to help a kind, obedient girl escape her cruel mother and spoiled sister. In the end, she rides off to the big city in a carriage. (With no prince involved, this one passes the Bechdel test.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King and King by Linda de Haan (available in Czech, Dutch & German) – It’s time for the prince to hurry up and get married before he has to rule the kingdom, but every princess who comes to call bores him to tears. The very last one, however, brings her utterly gorgeous brother, and the king and king live happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch – After outwitting the dragon, Princess Elizabeth rescues the prince only to be told that her scorched hair and lousy clothes are a major turn-off. She tells him he is a bum. “They didn’t get married after all.” She runs off into the sunset as happy as can be. I have yet to meet a child who does not love the humor in this story.

***

The Best Book on Diversity To Date…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horton Hatches The Egg by Dr. Seuss – A bird is sick of sitting around on her egg all day, so she asks Horton if he would mind stepping in for just a minute. He is happy to help, but the bird jets off to Palm Beach the minute she is free. Horton continues to sit on the egg while awaiting her return. He withstands the wind, the rain, a terrible cold, and three hunters who insist on selling him and the egg off to the circus as a freak show. Throughout it all he reminds himself, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.” After he becomes a media sensation, the bird comes back to claim her prize.

Whenever I used this one in the classroom, I would ask the kids whom the egg belongs to. The 3-year-olds, with their preliminary grasp on logic, would always give the black-and-white answer: “The egg belongs to the bird because eggs go with birds.” The 4- to 5-year-olds would invariably go the other way, plunging into righteous indignation over the injustice of the bird’s demands: “The elephant! The egg belongs to the elephant because he worked so hard and he loved it so much and she just can’t come back and take it!” In the end, the egg cracks open and out flies a baby elephant bird, who wraps his wings around Horton. This is Seuss at his best, showing that loyalty makes a family.

 

 

No One’s Magical Object: Albinos, Dwarfs and Any Body You Can Think Of

6 Dec

Turning Green on Anatomy(Image by Wolfram Burner used under CC license via)

 

In his otherwise spectacular book, Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon issues a false point I myself have issued in the past: that we dwarfs are the only minority on earth to be associated with magic and mythology. Perhaps it is easy to forget that blind people have been associated in the past with “seeing” into the future and disabled children of all sorts were believed to be cursed by if not the very spawn of the devil in the Medieval and Early Modern cultures of Europe. But we should not forget any of this when considering the current scandal surrounding the abuse of albino people in Tanzania.

A BBC investigation in 2008 revealed that some adherents of supernatural belief systems in East Africa today advocate severing and stealing the limbs of albino people to keep as good luck charms. A harrowing documentary, The Boy from Geita, airing this week profiles the victims of such a crime.

Tuvalo Manongi, the U.N. ambassador to Tanzania is fighting back, arguing that the film’s trailer unfairly portrays his country as a land of bloodthirsty heathens in need of Great White Western enlightenment. The documentary does accuse members of Tanzania’s legislature of secretly condoning the practice, implicating some of its members in the sales of the body parts. The Canadian director, Peter Ash, stands by his story and says Manongi isn’t one to talk: “[Manongi] probably doesn’t hang around people with albinism for 12 hours a day and weeks on end in [Tanzania] like I do.”  Ash himself has albinism.

Post-colonial social justice activists generally agree that the best way to expand human rights in other countries is to support the activists in said country, no matter how few their numbers. Ultimately such locals should lead the charge lest foreign aid organizations indeed act out of ignorance of the local history and culture. Tanzania Albino Centre and the Tanzania Albinism Society are two organizations dedicated to combating the problem.

As an outsider, I have little else to offer other than the demand that we as humans let go of any beliefs—supernatural or otherwise—that fetishize extraordinary bodies. I’ve been asked by Western Wiccans and Lord of the Rings fanatics if I as a dwarf feel a connection to my “magical” history. People with dwarfism, intersexing conditions, and many, many other rare diagnoses regularly have to endure and/or stave off fetishists when dating (as in “I’ve always wanted to f*** a little person!”) or simply going about their everyday lives.

The ability to see beauty and interpret art in the rainbow of human bodily diversity is one of the greatest feats of the human imagination. But objectification is never okay without consent. And openly voicing our fetishes regarding certain bodies drowns out the voices of those who have no choice about owning those bodies. We’ve got a lot of work to do before this becomes universally understood.

 

 

Body Dysmorphia & the Dangers of Operating Out of Insecurity

29 Nov

Reid reading(Image by Miguel Tejada-Flores used under CC license via)
 

At the beginning of Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan’s character watches her new high school friends indulge in body-bashing in front of a bedroom mirror:

“God, my hips are huge!”

“Oh, please. I hate my calves!”

“At least you guys can wear halters. I’ve got man-shoulders.”

“My hairline is so weird.”

“My pores are huge!”

“I used to think there was just fat and skinny,” Lohan thinks to herself. “Apparently there’s a lot of things that can be wrong with your body,”

While most women in the Western world are well-acquainted with this mentality, such self-hatred also occurs in men, albeit more covertly. Body dysmorphic disorder affects between 1% to 2% of the population and is distributed equally among men and women. And if they have the means to pursue cosmetic surgery, they can become addicted to it.

In an article appearing at The Huffington Post last week, 27-year-old Reid Ewing (pictured above), who plays a run-of-the-mill hunk on Modern Family, revealed his seven-year struggle with body dysmorphic disorder and his subsequent addiction to cosmetic surgery. After describing in detail his self-hatred in front of the mirror and his misery after each of the several surgeries, he turns his lens to the doctors who were only too ready to put him under the knife:

Of the four doctors who worked on me, not one had mental health screenings in place for their patients, except for asking if I had a history of depression, which I said I did, and that was that. My history with eating disorders and the cases of obsessive compulsive disorder in my family never came up. None of the doctors suggested I consult a psychologist for what was clearly a psychological issue rather than a cosmetic one or warn me about the potential for addiction.

People with body dysmorphic disorder often become addicted to cosmetic surgery. Gambling with your looks, paired with all the pain meds doctors load you up on, make it a highly addictive experience. It’s a problem that is rarely taken seriously because of the public shaming of those who have had work done. The secrecy that surrounds cosmetic surgery keeps the unethical work practiced by many of these doctors from ever coming to light. I think people often choose cosmetic surgery in order to be accepted, but it usually leaves them feeling even more like an outsider. We don’t hear enough stories about cosmetic surgery from this perspective.

Not long after I had decided to stop getting surgeries, I saw the first doctor I met with on a talk show and then in a magazine article, giving tips on getting cosmetic surgery. Well, this is written to counter his influence. Before seeking to change your face, you should question whether it is your mind that needs fixing.

Plastic surgery is not always a bad thing. It often helps people who actually need it for serious cases, but it’s a horrible hobby, and it will eat away at you until you have lost all self-esteem and joy. I wish I could go back and undo all the surgeries. Now I can see that I was fine to begin with and didn’t need the surgeries after all.

I have written extensively about my decision to undergo six years of limb-lengthening. In the many, many conversations I have had with people in person, on panels and in print about this decision, I have emphasized that it was not for cosmetic purposes and that anyone who would do it to counteract feelings of bodily inferiority should refrain. Ewing’s stories of screaming at his scars and feeling anything but satisfied with himself are precisely why.

And for the majority of people who are not at risk for such all-encompassing self-destruction, it is still worth asking ourselves as a culture if the aforementioned tradition of bonding through body-bashing brings us any self-esteem or joy.

 

 

What the Stubblefield Rape Case Means for Disability Rights

22 Nov

Words as skin(Image by Maurizio Abbate used under CC license via)

 

When people continue to believe in a method that has repeatedly been proven not to work, what harm can it do? Does it matter that an herbal supplement is ineffective if someone who uses it says it truly makes them feel better? Does it really matter whether or not primates can learn American Sign Language or parrots can learn to read English out loud if it makes animal lovers so happy to believe that they do?

Misinterpreting animal communication can of course be dangerous. In 2007, a Dutch woman who insisted she was bonding with an ape at her local zoo refused to believe the primatologists’ warnings that staring directly into a male gorilla’s eyes and showing one’s teeth—i.e., smiling—triggers aggression. She refused to believe this even after the gorilla broke out of his enclosure and attacked her.

But what if someone assumes a living person is communicating with them? What if they assume said person is confiding their wishes and life choices in them? What if they can do so because we don’t share a common language with the person they claim to be speaking for?

Facilitated Communication, a.k.a. “FC,” is a method developed in the late 20th century to help severely disabled people with little or no speech communicate with others. By supporting their patient’s hand or arm, a trained facilitator could theoretically help the patient type out sentences, thereby “unlocking” intelligence previously obscured. The method was considered a breakthrough for patients with diagnoses ranging from severe autism to severe cerebral palsy. It was touted as a miracle for their loved ones, who understandably wanted nothing more than to be able to hear their thoughts, wants and needs.

Anna Stubblefield is a philosophy professor and disability rights advocate who, until recently, taught seminars about FC at Rutgers University. What she did not teach her students is that FC has been condemned over the past three decades by the American Psychological Association, the American Association of Pediatrics, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Federal Trade Commission, and the New York State Department of Health, among others. Double-blind testing generally reveals the facilitator to be subconsciously guiding their patient’s typing, rather than simply supporting it. This year Sweden banned FC in schools nationwide.

Professor Stubblefield adamantly rejects the classification of FC as a pseudoscience. Her mother was a pioneer of the technique. When one of her seminar students asked her in 2009 if it could perhaps help his severely disabled young adult brother—referred to in the press as “D.J.”—she agreed to treat him. A 20-page report in The New York Times Magazine chronicles Stubblefield’s increasingly intimate relationship with her patient, eventually culminating in her announcement in 2011 to his family that she and D.J. were in love. She planned to leave her husband and two children for him. As his legal guardians, D.J.’s family told her she had overstepped her boundaries and requested she leave him alone. When she did not, they eventually filed charges against her. They testified that gradually Stubblefield’s claims to D.J.’s interests and values—typed out in their FC sessions—had begun to sound suspiciously like things she would want him to say. Stubblefield was sentenced last month to 40 years in prison for sexual assault.

Another proponent of FC, Martina Susanne Schweiger, was convicted last year in Queensland, Australia for performing sex acts on a 21-year-old patient whom she believed had reciprocated his love for her via FC.

I’ve written before about widespread prejudices against disabled people and how often it denies us our sexuality. But disabled people also suffer sexual abuse at rates far higher than the general population. Most are taken advantage of by their family members and/or caregivers. Stubblefield and the remaining proponents of FC argue that their critics are ableist for denying D.J.’s capacity for intellect and intimacy. The prosecution argued that Stubblefield is ableist for assuming she knows what D.J. wants.

The desire to be the next Miracle Worker is understandable and so often noble. Who doesn’t want to help those in need? And the lure of the controversial in the pursuit of justice is not uncommon. From Jodie Foster and Liam Neeson in Nell to Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer in I Am Sam to Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle in Reign Over Me, Hollywood is rife with love stories and courtroom dramas about a misunderstood outcast who has finally found the one open-minded hero who understands him, believes in him and then must fight the cold-hearted, close-minded authorities from keeping them apart.

Yet red flags should go up whenever there is a risk that a self-appointed advocate is putting words in someone’s mouth, no matter which side that advocate thinks they are on. Particularly when their patient or client belongs to a highly marginalized minority.

News of this case has elicited many head-shaking responses along the lines of, “Well, they all sound nuts.” One of the jurors told NJ.com, “I was like…‘You’re going to leave your husband and your kids for someone like this?’” Disability rights advocates rightly bristle at the infantilizing of D.J.—not to mention the salacious headlines that seem obsessed with his personal hygiene—while ultimately declaring the case incredibly sad. Yet we rarely use “nuts” or “sad” to describe male teachers convicted of seducing students unable to give consent. We describe them as predators or abusers.

Abusers of course rarely think of themselves as such. Child molesters are often convinced their victims were flirting with them. Few would consider themselves sadistic. Most are simply skilled at rationalizing their behavior to themselves. But regardless of what they believe their intentions are, abusers by definition deny others power in pursuit of their own.

The Stubblefield case and the Schweiger case highlight a very uncomfortable fact for disabled people everywhere: that some of the caregivers and activists working and sometimes fighting on our behalf are doing it to feed a savior complex. And anyone with a savior complex is not truly listening to those they claim to be helping.

Addressing this problem becomes increasingly difficult when we consider how very young the concept of disability rights is over the course of human history. Living in any other era, most of us would have been abandoned by our families in asylums or elsewhere. Ancient Spartans advised throwing us off cliffs after birth. Some modern philosophers, such as Prof. Peter Singer, still advocate infanticide for some. Awareness of all this often makes us feel compelled to be eternally grateful to anyone who offers us any sort of support or help, regardless of whether or not it is truly helpful or respectful of our boundaries.

That we do not yet have the means to access D.J.’s thoughts and desires is indeed tragic. But opposition to FC does not mean we damn severely disabled people to the realm of hopelessness. On the contrary, accepting criticism of FC can only help to improve upon the ways in which researchers develop better practices and technologies. Relying on discredited methods would not have gotten Stephen Hawking his voice. Annie Sullivan prevailed with Helen Keller because she not only relied on rigorously tested methods but also shed her status as Keller’s sole communicator by enrolling her in an interdisciplinary program at the Perkins School. The ability to kill your darlings is an ingredient of innovation.

And any true investment in disabled people and the methods that best assist them must be accompanied by the credo activists began using around the time D.J. was born: Nothing about us without us.

 

 

This Is How You React When Someone Finds Your Stupid Little Joke Offensive (And You Know They Might Be Right)

1 Nov

From the Archives

 

Really, With the Gay Jokes?” “The Rape-Joke Double Standard.” “Has The Onion Gotten Too Mean?” These are the headlines to just a few of the several articles appearing this week about comedians and conscience. All of them make excellent points, but the problem with trying to explain why a joke is offensive is that it instantly kills the mood. Culture critics aren’t professional comedians and thus they almost always end up being viewed as the more uptight of the two, even if their arguments are rock-solid.

And yet, the best comedians are pretty good culture critics, as Dara Ó Briain proved years ago at the Theatre Royal in London. Amidst his cracks about the idiots who ask you to remove your shoes in their home, the idiots who confuse astronomy and astrology, and the idiots who think the IRA had uniforms, he talked about a time when he was the idiot:

Last year I told a joke, and this is not a good joke, I have no excuses.  It is a terrible joke, but it was about the musical Billy Elliot. And “What was the composer’s inspiration for Billy Elliot? Elton John – do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”

I know. It was rubbish. I didn’t mean it as an attack on Elton John, or as an attack on the gay community. I meant it as another joke in the glorious tradition of jokes involving the word “in.” As in, “Do you have any Irish in ye? Would you like some?”

Okay, so he explained he didn’t intend to trash homosexuality. But he didn’t leave it at that. He went on to talk about the backlash from the LGBT rights alliance Outrage, who said the joke contributed to a culture of hatred against gay men in Britain. Ó Briain explained:

And the thing is, your initial reaction is when somebody does a complaint like that is to get all tough and say, “It’s only a joke, for Jesus’s sake, relax.” Swiftly followed by arguments about civil rights and comedy’s obligation to say the difficult thing and freedom of speech. Which is a fairly lofty point to bring in to back up something as bad as that joke about Billy Elliot. You wouldn’t go to Strasbourg to the European Court of Human Rights with that as your argument: “Oh, my lords and ladies of the court, Elton John? Do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”

He went on to clarify his political stance, emphasizing that “there is no pedophilia-homosexuality relationship at all,” showing he was brave enough to break character as a comedian despite the risk that always carries of losing the audience. He then addressed that risk as well:

And some people think it’s very politically correct of me, but then, I’m Irish. And if anyone’s benefited from a good dose of political correctness on this island, it’s the Irish. Remember the good old days with all those jokes about how stupid we were? And then a memo went around some time in the Eighties, when you [Brits] all said, “Oh, Jesus, we’re not doing jokes about the Irish anymore? Okay, fine.” And it just stopped. And thank you very much. A bit overdue, but thanks very much nonetheless.

He went on to tell a joke about a bunch of drunk Irishmen, reveling in the fact that he was allowed to tell it and the British weren’t. He then said, “But again with the whole Billy Elliot thing, the reason I backed down so fast on that was because I received one letter of support.” Removing the letter from his pocket, he proceeded to read the message sent by a group of conservatives in Northern Ireland who applauded him for taking a stand against the forces of sodomy. “If you ever use the phrase ‘forces of sodomy,’ it had better be a gay heavy metal band that you’re talkin’ about!”

It’s rare that comedians are brave enough to admit that their joke was a fail. But I’ve never heard a comedian own up to it so fiercely and admit the ways in which he’s personally benefited from the political correctness movement. By changing his target from the group he originally attacked to himself, Ó Briain proved not only the sincerity of his regret but the breadth of his comedic skill.

And I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Whenever comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy, it sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original. Ignoring the “PC police”—i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do—they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right? Wrong. We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t. We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique. And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?

Or, in the words of another Irish comic, Ed Byrne: “I see comedians making jokes about fat people being lazy, and I just think, well, they’re not as lazy as comedians who get easy laughs by picking on fat people.”

 

Originally posted May 12, 2013

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exchange

25 Oct

(Via)

From the Archives

 

As Halloween approaches along with all the stomach-turning caricatures of minorities and foreigners, I find myself repeating the same question over and over: When is it okay to wear or adopt something from a culture you don’t belong to?

Obviously, the most offensive appropriations rely on inane stereotypes most people I know would never go near. But this doesn’t mean that globe-trotting, multicultural enthusiasts—like myself—can do no wrong.  Since the 1960s, upper/middle class whites dabbling in other cultures has been celebrated under the banner of “Diversity!”  But from the point of view of certain cultures, Nigerian writer Jarune Uwujaren argues, it’s often just another chapter in the long tradition of Westerners “pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.”  American Indians do not appreciate headdresses used as fashion statements.  Hindus do not applaud non-Hindus flaunting bindis.  And Mexicans don’t enjoy seeing Day of the Dead re-appropriated as just another Halloween costume. 

Yet the Mexican Día de los Muertos is the result of Catholics adopting what was originally a pre-Columbian tradition.  Modern German children meanwhile have taken to celebrating Halloween, much to their parents’ chagrin.  There isn’t a holiday on earth that hasn’t been adapted from something else, leading atheist comedian Mitch Benn to observe, “If only practicing Christians can celebrate Christmas, then only Vikings can say, ‘Thursday.’ ” 

Indeed, intercultural contact always leads to intercultural mixing. Nowadays brides in China often wear two wedding dresses on their big day: a traditional Chinese red dress and a traditional Western white gown.  When a friend from Chengdu married her German husband in Berlin, she turned this trend on its head, wearing a Western designer dress that was red and then a cheongsam that was white.  Borders move and cultures blend constantly throughout history, often blurring the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

For this reason, it is important to remember that absorbing the fashions and customs of another culture is not always offensive.  But it is just as important to remember that it is not always open-minded, either.  After all, colonial history is rife with Westerners who filled their homes with foreign gear and lectured others about the noble savage.  Among the most ardent fans of Tibetan Buddhism, American Indian animism, and Norse mythology were the Nazis.  

We all love to show off what we’ve learned and delving into another culture can be enriching. But minorities tend not to like it when an outsider appoints herself an expert and lectures more than she listens.  Or thinks that listening to minorities is a heroic act, rather than common courtesy.  Visiting another country feels special when we’re the first of our friends and family to go, but there is no guarantee we’ll truly be acquainted with the culture.  Thanks to language barriers and the insular nature of expat bubbles and tourist tracks, it is fairly easy to study or even live in another culture for several years without getting to know a single person from that culture.  (Waiters and receptionists don’t count.)  

Whether venturing to the other side of the world or the other side of the tracks, it is always much easier to buy something, taste something, or get a bit of history from a book than to talk to someone from another culture.  Because books and merchandise can’t talk back.  They won’t call us out if we make false assumptions.  If we do actually strike up a conversation with someone from another ethnic group, whether Liverpudlian or Laotian, the temptation to flaunt the experience like a feat of greatness can be overwhelming. Jarune Uwujaren wrote about this pervasive temptation last month:

I remember that at my sister’s wedding, the groom – who happened to be white – changed midway through the ceremony along with my sister into modern, but fairly traditional, Nigerian clothes.

Even though some family members found it amusing, there was never any undertone of the clothes being treated as a costume or “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a little bit and discard later. He was invited – both as a new family member and a guest – to engage our culture in this way.

If he had been obnoxious about it – treated it as exotic or weird or pretended he now understood what it means to be Nigerian and refused to wear Western clothes ever again – the experience would have been more appropriative.

But instead, he wore them from a place of respect.

Appreciating the beauty in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia.  Enjoying a trip abroad that happened to involve minimal interaction with the locals is perfectly fine.  But drawing attention to oneself for reveling in the mysteriousness of a culture is to revel in its supposed Otherness.  Whenever an entire culture is reduced to its exoticism, it becomes nothing more than an accessory or a toy – not a sign of cultural understanding.  

And while adopting a sacred custom “just because it looks cool” can be inconsiderate, imbuing our reasons for adopting a trinket with too much meaning can also make a native roll their eyes.  It’s one thing to buy a handbag on a trip to Tokyo simply because it’s beautiful.  A Japanese woman is buying it simply because it’s beautiful, after all.  But it’s another thing to flaunt it like a badge of enlightenment. 

The blog Hanzi Smatter documents and explains the snafus and utter nonsense that so often result when Westerners get tattoos of Chinese characters copied off the Internet.  Such incidents demonstrate that vanity is often mistaken for art.  We’re all a little vain, yet the difference between art and vanity is crucial because vanity is an indulgence, not a challenge or an attempt to communicate.  When Dita von Teese donned yellowface for a London performance titled “Opium Den,” fellow burlesque artist Shanghai Pearl wrote:

I am not saying artists should not tackle controversial or challenging subjects. However, if we choose to take on challenging material, we should be prepared to have challenging conversations. I absolutely believe that art will not suffer from sensitivity. Sensitivity should make us work harder, research more, and think more. Art can only benefit from that.

Indeed, nothing suffers from genuine sensitivity.  The lesson from colonialism is not to stop exploring the world and reading about it, but to always bear in mind that there can be no cultural understanding without dialogue.  When deciding whether to adopt a tradition or style from another culture, we should consider what several people from that culture have to say about it.  Because there are no cultures without people.

 

 

Originally posted November 3, 2013

Curiosity Kills the Rat

19 Oct

From the Archives

 

“All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.”

— Michael Franti

Fourteen years ago, I made a trip to Hot Topic—that quintessential 90s chain store for all things goth—in search of some fishnet stockings for a friend.  It was my first visit to the store since I was back in a wheelchair for my third and final limb-lengthening procedure and the narrow aisles prevented me from venturing beyond the entrance.  My first time in a wheelchair, from ages 11 to 12, had been a completely humbling experience as I was forced to see how very inaccessible the world is for the non-ambulatory.  This time around I was battling the hot-cheeked self-consciousness that adolescence attaches to any signs of dependency. 

As I tried to look casual while flipping through black gloves, black stockings, and black dog collars, a guy approached me sporting crimson hair, eyebrow rings, an employee badge and a smile.  “This is store is easily adjustable,” he grinned, and with that he began shoving aside the display cases and clothes racks—which were, like me, on wheels—clearing a path for me right through to the back and taking little notice of the other shoppers, some of  whom took one to the shoulder.  It was one of those crushes that disappear as quickly as they develop but leave a lasting memory: my knight in shining jewelry.

Thanks to experiences like this, I have a special place in my heart for the acceptance of physical differences that can often be found in the subcultures of punks, hippies, and goths.  From the imagining of monsters to the examination of anything taboo, counter-culture is often unfazed by physical qualities that fall outside of mainstream beauty standards.  The first kid in my high school who chose not to stare at the external fixators on my arms but instead held the door for me had green and purple hair.  About a month after my trip to Hot Topic, I showed a death-metal-loving friend my right fixator (shown above) for the first time, with the six titanium pins protruding from open wounds in my thigh.  He grinned, “That is the ultimate piercing, man!”  He hardly could have come up with a more pleasing reaction.  That my wounds were cool instead of “icky” or “pitiful” was a refreshing attitude found almost exclusively outside mainstream culture.  This attitude more readily understands my belief that my scars are merit badges I earned, not deformities to erase. 

However, this tendency toward decency over discomfort is just one side of the alternative coin.  Every subculture has its strengths and its weaknesses, and for all the freaky heroes I’ve encountered, I’ve also met plenty whose celebration of difference devolves into a sick fascination with the grotesque.  “Weird for the sake of weird” is progressive when it asserts that weird is inescapable, that it is in fact as much a part of the natural order as any of our conventions, and when it serves as therapy for the marginalized.  But it is problematic when it involves self-proclaimed artists using others’ reality as their own personal toys.     

In a previous post, I referred to a friend of friend including me in an Internet discussion about limb-lengthening.  His comments were in reaction to a photo of a leg wearing an Ilizarov fixator that had been posted on a Tumblr page focused on the “wonders of the world.”  There are countless sites like it, where photos of conjoined twins, heterochromatic eyes, intersexual bodies, and medical procedures are posted alongside images of animals, vampires, robots, cosplay, self-harm, manga and bad poetry.  I get it.  The world is “crazy” and it’s all art.  But if that’s not a freak show, what is? 

Disabled people are no longer put behind glass or in the circus—at least not in the U.S., Canada or Western Europe—but many people still believe they reserve the right to stare, both in public and on the Internet.  Whether under the guise of promoting diversity or admiring triumph in the face of adversity, they suppress any realization they may have that no one likes being stared atUnless it’s on our terms.  

I see endless art in my medical experiences and it can be so therapeutic.  During my first limb-lengthening procedure I also had braces on my teeth, leading my dad to observe, “She’s now 95% metal.”  Kinda cool.  During my third procedure, I had Botox injected into my hips twice to paralyze my muscles lest they resist the lengthening.  At the time, when I along with most people had no idea what it was, it was described to me as “basically the most deadly poison known to man.”  Whoa, hardcore.  When I happened upon photos of my anterior tibialis tendon graft surgery, I was enthralled: “I’m so red inside!”  And when a fellow patient recently alerted me to the fact that a high-end jeweler designed a bracelet strongly resembling the Ilizarov frame, I laughed my head off.  Almost all of us like looking at our bodies, and perhaps this is especially so for those of us who have had real scares over our health.  It’s a matter of facing our fears and owning it.  But no one likes the idea of others owning it.  This subtle but severe preference, this desire for dignity determines the difference between human rights and property rights. 

Two years ago, NPR featured a piece by Ben Mattlin, who is non-ambulatory and who said he used to be uncomfortable with the idea of Halloween and its objectification of the grotesque.  From my very first costume as a mouse to my most recent stint as the Wicked Witch of the West, my love of Halloween has not so much as once flickered, but his point is worth discussing.  Costume play, Halloween and any celebration of “weird” that is primarily attention-seeking inherently assumes there is a “natural” basis to be disrupted.  (And all too often Halloween devolves into offensive imitations of all sorts of minority identities.) 

I have my own collection of artsy photos stolen off the Internet that I use as screensavers and montages for parties, but they do not include photos of bodies taken outside the context of consensual artistic expression.  Re-appropriating a photo in a medical journal for a site about all things bizarre is protected under freedom of speech, but it can feel like disregard for consent.  And in any case, such xenocentrism will always be just as superficial as the status quo it seeks to disrupt.

When conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel agreed to be interviewed once—and only once—for a documentary about their lives (which I highly recommend), they explained that they don’t mind answering strangers’ questions at all.  (Ben Mattlin has said the same, as do I.)  What they hate more than anything is being photographed or filmed without permission.  While attending a baseball game outside their hometown, a sports film crew quickly directed their attention to the girls.  Even though they were already being filmed by their own documentary team, the stranger camera’s invasive, presumptuous stare ruined the day for them. 

Sensitivity toward others’ experience with medicine and death should never kill the discussion.  These discussions are imperative and art is the most glorious way we relate to one another.  But just as there’s more to good manners than simply saying “Please,” there’s more to genuine learning and artistic expression than poking at anything we can get our hands on.  Nuance, deference and respect are prerequisites for anyone with artistic or scientific integrity not only because they are the building-blocks of common decency, but because history has shown that curiosity will more likely harm the rat than the cat.

 

 

Originally posted May 19, 2012

Who Should Think You’re Beautiful?

11 Oct

Goodnight(Image by Aphrodite used under CC via)

From the Archives

 

Should beauty pageants stay or go?  The New York Times tackled this question during the 87th Miss America Pageant.  Amidst all the discussions about deferential giggles and zombie smiles, I find myself echoing the conventional wisdom that Let’s face it, it’s all about the swimsuit round, and Caitlin Moran’s wisdom that You can call it the ‘swimsuit round’ all you like, but it’s really the bra and panties round.

A decade ago Little People of America entertained the idea of holding an annual beauty pageant, but it was swiftly nixed by the vast majority of members.  The inherent problems were pretty obvious: Isn’t being judged by our looks the biggest problem dwarfs face?  Do we really want to set a standard for dwarf beauty?  And if so, which diagnosis gets to be the standard?  Achondroplasia or SED congenita?  Skeletal dysplasias or growth hormone deficiencies?  Ironically—or perhaps not—there was also a widespread fear that heightism would dominate the judging.

What I find most unsettling about beauty pageants is not the nondescript personality types on display—although I am very concerned about that, too—but the idea that it is perfectly normal and okay to want millions of strangers to love your looks above all else. This idea seeps into every corner of Western culture, not just beauty pageants and women’s magazines. 

If you’ve ever entered “body image” into a search engine, it won’t take you long to come across the phrase You’re beautiful!  It’s everywhere, and it’s usually geared at anyone, particularly anyone female, who believes they fall short of the beauty pageant prototype.  You’re beautiful! is part battle cry, part mantra – a meek attempt to broaden society’s beauty standards and an earnest attempt to bolster individual self-confidence.  Super-imposed over flowers and rain clouds and sunsets and cupped hands, it becomes hard to tell the online empowerment apart from the online valentines. And as much as I admire the intentions behind it, I’m tempted to question it. 

Making peace with our bodies is important.  Diversifying our criteria for human beauty is necessary.  But why should we need to hear that we’re beautiful from someone we don’t know?  Of course we can never hear it enough from friends and lovers.  (I’ve heard it three times in the last 24 hours and I’m not giving it up for anything!)  But basing self-confidence in strangers’ praise upholds the notion that it is bad to be thought of as ugly or plain by people who don’t know anything else about you

We all have our secret fantasies about being gorgeous rock stars and princesses and Olympic heroes with throngs of admirers dying to throw their arms around us.  But, to echo Jane Devin, if most men can go through life with no one but their lovers daring to praise their looks, why do women still demand so much attention? 

This past spring Scientific American revealed that, despite how much our culture suggests that most of us need to hear over and over how attractive we are before we even begin to believe it, the average person overestimates their appearance.  This shouldn’t be too surprising. The world’s largest empire isn’t called “Facebook” for nothing.  And as the Scientific author pointed out, the vast majority of us consider ourselves to be above-average in most respects, which is statistically impossible.  He explains: 

If you think that self-enhancement biases exist in other people and they do not apply to you, you are not alone. Most people state that they are more likely than others to provide accurate self-assessments

Why do we have positively enhanced self-views? The adaptive nature of self-enhancement might be the answer. Conveying the information that one has desirable characteristics is beneficial in a social environment…  Since in self-enhancement people truly believe that they have desirable characteristics, they can promote themselves without having to lie. Self-enhancement also boosts confidence. Researchers have shown that confidence plays a role in determining whom people choose as leaders and romantic partners. Confident people are believed more and their advice is more likely to be followed.

So self-confidence is good and self-doubt is bad, both in love and in life.  And demanding strangers and acquaintances tell us that we’re beautiful is narcissism, not self-confidence.  In the words of Lizzie Velásquez, who was voted Ugliest Girl in the World on YouTube, “I don’t let other people define me.”

This is not to suggest a ban on praising anyone’s looks ever.  I still harbor adolescent crushes on a pantheon of celebrities, from George Harrison to Harriet Beecher Stowe.  But between the beauty pageants and the You’re beautiful! memes, it does seem that most of us still believe that having broad appeal is some sort of an achievement, as opposed to dumb luck.  And that for a woman, it’s an achievement worthy of mention on a résumé. 

In April, President Obama touted newly appointed Kamala Harris as “by far the best-looking attorney general.”  After dealing the president a well-deserved eye-roll, Irin Carmon at Salon suggested that before publicly praising someone’s looks, we should ask ourselves: Is it appropriate to tell this person and/or everyone else that I want to sleep with them?   

It’s an excellent point, though crucial to add that seeing beauty in someone is not always rooted in lust.  Love for friends and family usually renders them absolutely adorable or heroically handsome.  Whenever I overhear someone say, “You’re beautiful!” it will always register as an expression either of desire or affection.  (Neither of which, Mr. President, are ever appropriate in a professional context.)  

Yet plenty of us still envy Kamala Harris a little.  And too many of us seem to think being conventionally attractive is truly important because it corresponds directly to being successful in love.  This is perhaps the most dangerous myth of all. 

If I hear the phrase, “She was out of my league!” one more time, I’m going to swat the sad sack who says it.  My dating history is nothing to brag about, but I can brag—shamelessly—about being a trusted confidante to dozens upon dozens of different people with all sorts of dating histories.  And after a few decades of listening to them spill their hearts out, I’ll let you in on a little secret: When it comes to love and lust, everyone is wracked with self-doubt. 

And I mean everyone.  The athletes, the models, the geeks, the fashionistas, the bookworms, the jet-setters, the intellectuals, the rebels, the leaders, the housewives, the musicians, the Zen Buddhists, the life of the party.  That girl who can’t walk through a club or the office without being propositioned.  That guy known as a heartbreaker because he can bed anyone he wants to and does so.  That stoic who doesn’t seem to care about anything.  That wallflower so set on navel-gazing that she thinks she’s the only one who’s lonely.  Every single one of them has fretted to me at 2 am, sometimes sobbing, sometimes whispering, sometimes hollering, always shaking: “Why doesn’t he/she love me?!” 

This isn’t to say that it all evens out completely and no one handles it better than anyone else.  Outside of abusive relationships, those who obsessively compare dating scorecards and create rules and leagues for turning sex into a competition are invariably the most miserable.  Some people date a lot because they’re popular, others because they have low standards.  Some marry early because they’re easy to know and like, others because they’re terrified of being alone.  Just being able to easily land a date or get laid has never made anyone I know eternally happy.  Narcissism and self-pity come from thinking it can. 

We’d all like to be the fairest of them all, but what we want more than anything is to be devastatingly attractive to whomever it is we’ve fallen in love with.  And because only those who genuinely know us can genuinely love us, any beauty they see in us comprises our style, our charisma, our perfections and imperfections.  It is the driving force behind all the world’s great works of art we wish we were the subject of.  And unlike beauty pageants or Google’s image search, true art is constantly redefining and questioning and promoting beauty all at once.   

I will always tell certain people how gorgeous they are because I can’t help but think that about those I’m awe of.  (And I guarantee that my friends are prettier than yours.)  But for those of you out there who might feel tempted to rebut the compliment with that age-old line, “You’re just saying that because you’re my [friend/partner/family]!” consider that a compliment motivated by true love is hardly a bad thing. 

And that being desired by someone who doesn’t love you at all can get really creepy.  Really fast. 

 

 

Originally posted September 15, 2013

It’s Dwarfism Awareness Month!

4 Oct

(Via)

From the Archives:

 

October is Dwarfism Awareness Month. This means you should be aware of the facts and experiences regarding people with dwarfism for the next 25 days. Then you can stop and go back to life as usual.

We have picked this month because it has Halloween in it. This way we can ensure that no one will offend us through drunkenness or choice of costume. This plan is foolproof.

We realize that October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month, LGBT History Month, and Polish-American Heritage Month. Given that a month can handle only one minority at a time, we urge you to side with us. I myself picked my dwarfism over my Polish heritage and I promise you, the choice was easy. Anyone who chooses otherwise is a self-hating dwarf and the reason why we haven’t had a dwarf president yet.

In order to become Aware Of Dwarfism (A.O.D.), you can read up on it under the FAQ’s, read about some of my dwarfish opinions here or here or here, or consider any one of the following facts:

To begin with, Peter Dinklage is the best dwarf. Everyone agrees on this.

We love being photographed on the street. (Thank god for camera phones!) It is every dwarf’s dream to end up on Tumblr or Instagram someday. Either that or in a Peter Jackson film.

It is true that all dwarfs are magical. But especially homosexuals with achondroplasia. They are dwarf fairies.

We love it when you ask about Lord of the Rings. Please keep asking us about Lord of the Rings. We’re currently in fierce competition with New Zealanders over who gets the most LOTR questions.

Mini-Me is even better. It is the height of originality. We can’t get enough of it.

Please keep telling us that we must be really good at hide-and-seek. We don’t quite believe it yet, so your pointing it out is helpful.

Tossing a dwarf will make you more of a man. This has been scientifically proven by evolutionary biologists.

Adding a dwarf or two to your fantasy/cabaret/oddity story will make you a sophisticated artist. In his little known essay “L’art mystérieux du nain,” Toulouse-Lautrec wrote that World War II would have been prevented had there been more dwarf figures in 1930s song and film. (Terry Gilliam and Amanda Palmer are currently in a bidding war over the rights to the essay.)

In China and Russia and other evil countries, limb-lengthening is a cruel form of torture. In America, limb-lengthening is a miracle.

Liberals say a dwarf who has had limb-lengthening is destroying the dwarf community. Conservatives say a dwarf who has not had limb-lengthening is destroying their own future. Realists point out that dwarfs are destructive by nature.

Indeed, there are three dwarf personality types: belligerent, cute or nefarious. That is all. If you have met a dwarf who is contemplative or sarcastic or boring, that person is a not a dwarf. He is a fraud. I mean frawd.

Garden gnomes are frawds.

Midgets are left-handed dwarfs. Munchkins are elves in disguise. Oompa-Loompas are related to Pygmies, but less racist, so when in doubt, say Oompa-Loompas.

Dwarfs are happy to answer any of your questions about their sex lives. Just remember that if you don’t laugh at some point, we will be offended.

Dwarfs cannot have normal children. Like our great-great-great grandfather Rumplestiltskin, we are always on the lookout for normal children to kidnap. If you see a dwarf with normal children, contact the local authorities immediately.

Remember these facts and you will be officially A.O.D., which means no one has the right to accuse you of being insensitive from here on in. Better yet, you can recite these facts at dinner parties and lecture your friends with your newfound expertise. It is very important to be the expert on a subject at a dinner party. It proves you are a grown-up.

It is also important to spend as much time as possible this month making up height puns. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a challenge as many of the best puns have already been taken: Thinking Big; Don’t Sell Yourself Short; Even Dwarfs Started Off Small; Little People Big World; In Our Hearts We Were Giants. I suggest aiming for slightly more abstract sayings like, “All dwarfs have high voices. Ironic, isn’t it?” But make sure you say “high” emphatically or it will be lost on people. (Oh, and I’ve found that saying, “Achondro -paper or -plastic?” confuses most supermarket cashiers.)

And finally, sometimes it’s spelled “dwarfs” and sometimes it’s spelled “dwarves.” We get to decide. It’s the best part about being a dwarf.

 

 

Originally posted in October 2013

Berlin Fashion Week Features Pieces Made for and Modeled by Dwarfs

1 Oct

Auf Augenhöhe_Copyright Valerie Diedenhofen

(Image © Valerie Diedenhofen used with permission)

 

It’s been a good week in the media for dwarfs. Not only did Peter Dinklage’s Emmy win allow for him to speak out once again against bullying, but Fashion Week just ended in the city I call home and I couldn’t help but squeal a little “OMG!” at seeing history being made.

With her collection “At Eye Level,” Berlin-based designer Sema Gedik presented clothes made for and modeled by Laura Christ, Mick Mehnert, Eva Ehrmann and others with dwarfism. Gedik was inspired to do so after observing the difficulty of finding clothes that fit—not to mention stylish ones—faced by her cousin Funda, who has achondroplasia. That the fashion industry has never seemed interested in offering dwarfs clothing made for their bodies imbued Gedik with “an intense feeling of injustice.” She tells Berlin’s Tageszeitung, “Fashion should not be restricted by social conventions.”

But those restrictions are there, which is why she reports being surprised that she even managed to get the project off the ground and into Fashion Week. Indeed, a feature in The Washington Post earlier this year about the work of American designer Kathy D. Woods did little to help her kickstarter campaign to fund her line of clothes for fellow dwarfs. The campaign ended up falling far short of its goal.

El Mundo has declared Gedik’s debut “a revolution,” but the revolution is arguably the easiest step for any social justice movement. The trick is getting the new ideas to stick. Distributors argue that dwarf clientele wield too little purchase power to be worth investing in due to their small numbers. Gedik rebuffs this claim, pointing out that the number of women with typical catwalk-like measurements also constitutes a minority of consumers.

Ever since New York Fashion Week featured a handful of disabled models, some cultural critics have wondered whether the ulterior motive of the world of haute couture is to exploit those who stand out for shock value. After all, Francis Bacon’s truism that “there is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion” both honors diversity and draws inordinate attention to an individual’s Otherness at the expense of anything else they may offer or need. Which is perhaps why my excitement and pride at Gedik’s breakthrough is tempered by a slightly more cynical It’s about time.

Gedik is adamant that her goal is to finally and fiercely open up the fashion market to dwarf consumers. “This is only the first step,” she insists. But there is a risk that the opening will close as soon as the novelty wears off. The final step in the path to justice will be to see work like Gedik’s so often that all that’s worthy of note is the choice of colors.

 

Auf Augenhöhe_Copyright Nina Hansch

 

 

Content Warnings and Microaggressions

20 Sep

Grunge Warning Sign - Do Not Read This Sign

(Image by Nicolas Raymond used under CC license via)

 

There’s a heated debate going over at The Atlantic over trigger warnings and microaggressions. For those less familiar with online minority rights debates, trigger warnings originated as labels for video or texts depicting graphic violence, often sexual, that could be triggering for survivors of assault suffering from PTSD. They have since evolved into “content warnings,” used to label any video or text containing arguments, comments, humor or images that marginalize minorities. I most recently ran into one preceding a beer ad in which two brewers tried to joke about never wanting to have to do anything so humiliating as dressing in drag in the red-light district in order to earn money.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have argued that content warnings have led to “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a culture of silencing, wherein too many are afraid to initiate dialogue on these issues, lest they offend. They criticize restrictive speech codes and trigger warnings, and suggest universities offer students free training in cognitive behavioral therapy in order to “tone down the perpetual state of outrage that seems to engulf some colleges these days, allowing students’ minds to open more widely to new ideas and new people.”

“Microaggressions” is a term invented in 1970 by Harvard professor Charles M. Pierce to refer to comments or actions that are usually not intended as aggressive or demeaning but nevertheless do contribute to the marginalizing of minorities. Examples would be certain physicians being addressed as “Nurse” at the workplace. Or nurses, secretaries, cashiers, and storage room workers constantly hearing the widespread Western belief that low-skilled jobs deserve a low degree of respect. Or men still being expected to prove their worth through their career and never their emotional fulfillment. Or lesbians being asked if they’ve had “real sex.” Or anyone hearing from magazines, sitcoms or even loved ones that body types like theirs are something to avoid ending up with or hooking up with.

Microaggressions are the essence of insensitivity and they highlight the widespread nature of many prejudices about minorities. I analyze them all the time on this blog, without labeling them as such. Finding blogs that feature them in list-form can be done with little effort.

Citing a sociological study by professors Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, Connor Friedersdorf has argued that calling out microaggressions on social media sites has led to a culture of victimhood, wherein the emotions of the offended always matter more than the perpetrator’s intentions. Victimhood culture is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.”

Cue the overemotion. Simba Runyowa rightly rebuts that many of Friedersdorf’s examples of hypersensitivity are cherrypicked, but then goes on to deny that anyone would ever want to be seen as a victim. (Not only do most petitioning groups—whether the majority or the minority—claim to be the victim of the other side’s moral failings and undeserved power, but it appears he has never tried to explain what it’s like to have a rare condition, only to be interrupted by the insistence, “I think I have that, too!”) On the other side, Haidt, Lukianoff and Friedersdorf have attracted plenty of support from those who are only too happy to believe that college campuses and the blogosphere today are ruled by the PC police, rendering such places far worse than Stalinist Russia.

I rarely issue content warnings on videos or quotations or any examples of bigotry I analyze on this blog. My primary reason is that a majority of the content we consume every day is arguably misogynistic or heteronormative or ableist or racist or classist or lookist. This does not at all mean that we should not address those problems, but demanding “warnings” on whatever has marginalized me leaves me open to criticism for not doing the same for all the other injustices I may not see.  As both a Beatles fan and a social justice blogger, I will always prefer to read or hear a comprehensive critique of John Lennon’s ableism than to see warnings on his biographies.

And I don’t label microaggressions as such because I agree with Friedersdorf that the word seems at odds with its definition. Insensitivity can be very hurtful. It can contribute to feelings of alienation by functioning as a reminder of how millions of people might think of you. But it is not aggressive. Highlighting, questioning and debating ubiquitous prejudices, stereotypes and traditions is crucial to human progress. Mistaking ignorance for hostility, however, is an obstacle to it.

Would it be accurate and productive to post something like this?

Microaggression: Having to hear yet another parent talk about how thrilled they are to have been able to give birth “naturally.”

(Avoiding C-section is never an option for women with achondroplasia like me.)  And would it be accurate and productive to something like post this?

Microaggression: Having to hear yet another childfree blogger brag about how great it is to have the time and energy to do things I’ll never be able to do like hiking or biking, let alone if I have kids.

Would it be more practical to tweet such complaints rather than pen an extensive article about the intricacies of the problem because few have time to read the particulars of considering parenthood with achondroplasia? Would posting them on a site featuring microaggressions serve as a much-needed wake-up call, convincing the perpetrators to see the issue from my perspective, or would it put them on the defensive? Would it spark dialogue or shut it down? Are the comments that marginalize my experience veritably aggressive? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

But whether we think people on either side of the majority vs. minority debates are too sensitive or insensitive, we should be aiming for dialogue over exclamation points.

 

 

We Gotta Watch Our Language When It Comes to End of Life Debates

13 Sep

Jerzy body

(Image by Ekaterina used under CC license via)

 

On Friday the British Parliament resoundingly struck down a bill that would guarantee its citizens the right to physician-assisted death. Yesterday California’s legislature voted to make it the sixth state in the U.S. to legalize it.

Robust, nuanced arguments have been made for and against physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients, and none of these arguments could be successfully summarized within a single article. This is why a conclusive stance on the issue will never appear on this blog. It is nothing but moving to hear the deeply emotional pleas from those in the right-to-die movement who have thought long and hard about the prospect of death, who feel empowered by having some choice when facing down a daunting fate, who don’t want to find out which of their loved ones may turn out to be unskilled at care-giving. And it is equally moving to hear the experiences of those working in hospice and palliative care who face the approach of death every day with the determination to make it as minimally painful and emotionally validating as possible for all involved.

However, despite the emotional validity of both sides, there are tactics the right-to-die movement should avoid if it does not wish to make our culture more ableist than it already is. Openness about end of life decisions can shed light on a subject previously cloistered away, but the more the right-to-die movement celebrates the idea of ending someone’s life before it transforms into a certain condition, the less willing the public may be to engage with and invest in those who live in that condition.

Which is why no one should call physician-assisted death “Death with Dignity,” as lawmakers in Washington, Oregon, and New York have done. The implication that anyone who opts out of assisted death might live an undignified life is reckless and arrogant. A patient declaring the prospect of invasive life-saving interventions “too much” is fair. A writer declaring the quality of life of those who opt for them “pathetic” is ostracizing. It insults not only those enduring late-life debilitation, but the everyday conditions of many, many disabled people of all ages around the world.

Even today, when so many movements push to integrate disabled people into the mainstream, the average person is generally isolated from the reality of severe deformity, high dependence, and chronic pain. This isolation feeds fear and is therein self-perpetuating. As opponents have pointed out, many right-to-die arguments quickly snowball, equating terminal illness with chronic illness and disability, and portraying all three as a fate worse than death. Hence the name of the New York-based disability rights group Not Dead Yet.

Vermont’s recent law, the Patient Choice and Control Act, bears a far less polemic name than the others currently on the books. That’s a start. Experts are divided as to whether the current openness about end of life decisions in the U.S. has led to more terminally ill Americans considering and opting for hospice and palliative care. Regardless, both sides should be encouraging well-informed discussions that honor a patient’s right to voice his beliefs based on personal experience, and a disabled person’s right to not be further marginalized by a culture that has historically feared her existence.

 

*Note: I use “physician-assisted death” and other terms in deference to World Suicide Prevention Day this past Thursday and the media guidelines from the Center for Disease Control, which discourage use of the word “suicide” in headlines to avoid contagion.

 

What Do You Think of When You See the Word “Healthy”?

6 Sep

Look at my face/s(Image by NNelumba used under CC license via)
 

In late 2013, journalist Katie Waldman examined the juicing trend, which was cropping up in the corners of Western society where there is a heavy focus on modern notions of “natural and organic” (think anywhere from Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg to Burlington, Vermont and Berkeley, California) as well as in those where people competitively strive to follow the latest fashions in health and beauty (think the high-earning sectors of London, Manhattan or Los Angeles). Lifestyle writers have declared two years later that juicing has staying power, despite Waldman’s disturbing findings. Along with little to no evidence that cleansing the body with juice can be physically beneficial, she revealed that the language of most detox diets echoes the language used by those struggling with disordered eating – i.e., the idea that most of what the masses eat is on par with poison and you’re a bad person if you don’t purge it. She writes:

After days of googling, I still have no idea WTF a toxin is… Cleansing acolytes use the word toxin loosely, as a metaphor for our lapsed lifestyles…. The problem with this way of thinking is that food and weight are not matters of morality. Thin is not “good,” carbs are not “bad,” and in a world of actual pressing political and social ills, your dinner plate should not be the ground zero of your ethical renewal.

I’m neither a supporter nor an opponent of juicing in particular. Anyone should drink whatever they want to drink. But Waldman made a fantastic point about the way the upper and middle classes in the West so often believe one’s health to be a sign of one’s morality.

This idea is hardly new. The eugenics craze of the 19th and 20th centuries—that culminated with the Nazis exterminating “degenerates”—involved Fitter Families contests held at county fairs wherein judges handed out trophies to those deemed to have the best heritage, skin color, and tooth measurements. Professor Alan Levinovitz argues in Religion Dispatches that these attitudes have survived on into the present, altered only ever so slightly: “The sad thing is, it’s really easy to judge people on the basis of what they look like. We have this problem with race. In the same way, it’s really easy to look at someone who’s obese and say, ‘Oh look at that person, they’re not living as good a life as I am. They’re not as good on the inside because I can tell their outside isn’t good either.’ ”

Do we as a culture believe that being “healthy” is about appearance? Dieting often dictates that it’s about behaviors measurable through appearance. Psychologists agree to the extent that their notions of “healthy” are about behavior, but they also frequently intersect with notions of being “good.” But is being “healthy” about being brave, honest, generous and humble? Physicians would generally argue it’s about staving off death. Right-to-die advocates would argue it’s about quality of life over longevity. Is being healthy a matter of what scientists decide? Ed Cara found earlier this year that weight loss does not lead to happiness. Is happiness a measure of being healthy? Or are you only healthy if you suffer for it? Concepts of “healthy” vary vastly from person to person, and across cultures. Is that healthy?

In The Princess Bride—probably the Internet’s second-most quoted source after Wikipedia—the hero cautions, “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Yet the villain says, “Get some rest. If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.”

Whether you agree with any or none of the above, leave me your thoughts on the meaning of “healthy” either in the comments or via an e-mail to paintingonscars[at]gmail.com

 

 

The Problem of Dwarfs on Reality TV

30 Aug

voyeurism(Image by Natasha Mileshina used under CC license via)

 

The new television schedule has kicked off both in the U.S. and the U.K. with the usual plethora of reality TV shows and the usual high number of shows zeroing in on people living with dwarfism: The Little Couple; Seven Little Johnstons; Our Little Family; Little Women of L.A.; and the grandfather of them all, Little People, Big World. Besides the patronizing titles and taglines, the shows feature factoids about dwarfing conditions and lots of melodrama thrown in with some social critique lite.

Having handed my life story over to a journalist for the umpteenth time this past spring, my husband and I recently discussed how important it is to be able to trust that your storyteller will not exploit you for entertainment value. It takes a perceptive mind and an agile hand to elucidate dwarf-related topics like bio-ethics, self-image, political correctness, beauty standards, harassment, adoption, job discrimination, pain management, and reproductive freedom—all of which could and have filled scholarly journals and books—via mere sound bites. At one point in the conversation my husband paused and said, “Just to make sure we’re on the same page, honey – we’re never appearing on reality TV. Right?”

I laughed and nodded reassuringly.

He was not unwise to worry.

Reality TV offers their subjects fame at the expense of their dignity. Documentaries and news features also carry a risk for this, but one element that distinguishes reality TV from journalism is the rock-solid guarantee of fights, tears, and bad-mouthing. For some participants there may be gratification in the knowledge that millions of viewers are interested in you enough to want to watch how you live every waking minute of your life, but it comes with the unspoken fact that they’re also waiting for you to slip up so that they have a good story to hash out among their friends and in gossip columns.

We are all vulnerable to voyeuristic temptation and the media knows this. It’s why it offers us up-close shots of survivors’ tears as soon as possible, and it’s why we click on them, despite recent and compelling arguments that this is socially irresponsible. The message of reality TV seems to be that no one really ever moves beyond middle school jealousy and superficiality, so we might as well let it all hang out. The better angels of our nature be damned.

Years ago, Cathy Alter mused via a glib article in The Atlantic about her rather bizarre obsession with dwarf reality shows. The greatest revelation came from her therapist, who explained, “I think regular size people feel more secure as people when they can observe midgets… I think that contrast is validating because we tell ourselves that at least there are people who have it worse, because they are small… We need the midgets to feel normal.”

This confirms what I have always suspected and, admittedly, feared. That millions of people are watching under the guise of wanting to understand difference while ultimately enjoying getting to look at lots of juicy pictures of freaks.  This is why these sensationalist shows do so well, while earnest, in-depth documentaries like Little People: The Movie remain out of print. Before the birth of reality TV in the late 90s, dwarfs were most often featured on daytime talkshows, alongside episodes featuring people caught in affairs and people who believed they were the reincarnation of Elvis.

As often the only dwarf in a given person’s circle of acquaintances, I have been told by many how touching they find these shows. How wonderful it is to see that “dwarfs are just like everyone else!” I can accept that there will probably always be a market for shallow entertainment that twists tragedy into soap opera and reduces the complexities of life into easy-to-swallow sentimentality, no matter how far society progresses. Tabloids will continue to exist because millions of people—including kind, intelligent people I know—will continue to buy them. In this regard, the individual shows are not so much problematic as is the fact that they are where TV viewers are most likely to see people with dwarfism.

Actress Hollis Jane, who called out Miley Cyrus last year for exploiting performers with dwarfism as sideshow acts, explained this summer why she turned down a contract to appear on Little Women of L.A.:

Other than Peter Dinklage, Tony Cox (Bad Santa) and Danny Woodburn (who played Mickey Abbott on Seinfeld), it’s nearly impossible to name successful actors and actresses who also happen to be little people. People get upset about the Kardashians representing women in America but for every Kardashian there is a Meryl Streep, a Natalie Portman, or a Zoe Saldana. Little people don’t have that. I have wanted to be an actress since I was in first grade and I played the angel, Gabriel, in a nativity play. I held firm to this dream until sixth grade when a parasitic thought crawled into my head and told me that I would never be an actress because I was a little person. I realized that since there was no one on television who looked like me, it meant that there would never be… When Game of Thrones premiered, my world was rocked. Peter Dinklage was doing the impossible. He was being taken seriously as an actor without exploiting his height for shock value or a joke. The night he won his Emmy, I cried for an hour.

She adds, “I have nothing against the women on these reality shows. There is a part of me that thinks it’s great we have little people on TV in any capacity…but I also think we deserve more than that.”

If the general public truly believed this, if reality TV viewers truly saw their dwarf subjects as their equals rather than curiosities, then we would see a lot more dwarfs as newsreaders and game show hosts, on sitcoms and dramas, in romcoms and thrillers, playing the leads and the heartthrobs and the bella donnas. Perhaps that day will come, but for now few people can name a single dwarf actress and many dwarfs get told that they look like “that guy on the show about the little people.” That’s our reality.

 

 

For Anyone Who Has Ever Been Asked “So What Do You Like to Be Called?”

2 Aug


 

Leaving you this summer day with some astute observations from comedian Hari Kondabolu about the power of social constructs, or rather, our strong attachment to them.

 

 

Happy Birthday, ADA!

26 Jul

 

This week marks the 25-year anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As others have noted, the law was ground-breaking not only because of its international ripple effect, but because it recognized disability not as an issue of health, but of human rights.

Author of the bill, Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr. writes in The Washington Post why this was so necessary:

People with disabilities were routinely denied rights that most members of our society take for granted, including the right to vote (sometimes by state law, other times by inaccessible polling places), to obtain a driver’s license, to enter the courts and to hold public office. Many states had laws prohibiting marriage by, and permitting or requiring involuntary sterilization of, persons with various mental or physical conditions, particularly intellectual disability, mental health conditions and epilepsy. A number of states restricted or denied the right of people with mental disabilities to enter into contracts. Several U.S. cities, including Chicago, Columbus and Omaha, had what became known as “ugly laws” that banned from streets and public places people whose physical condition or appearance rendered them unpleasant for other people to see. These laws were actually enforced as recently as 1974, when a police officer arrested a man for violating Omaha’s ordinance.

In some instances, discrimination threatened the very lives of individuals with disabilities: Lifesaving medical treatments that would routinely have been made available to other patients were denied to patients with disabilities; in 1974, the New York Times cited an estimate that unnecessary deaths of babies with disabilities in the U.S. resulting from withholding of medical treatment numbered in the thousands each year.

Things have improved substantially, which is cause for celebration. But not complacency. Which is why NPR’s article “Why Disability and Poverty Still Go Hand-In-Hand” is well worth your time, as is the above TED Talk by the late, great Stella Young, whose unexpected death last winter was a tremendous loss to the disability rights movement and to anyone who enjoys a good dose of sarcasm with their social critique.

 

 

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