Because We Gotta Keep Telling the True Stories in Dwarf History

1 Sep

Anthonis_van_Dyck_013(1)

(Public Domain Image used via)

 

Leaving you this week with a must-read feature in the New Zealand Herald: “The Civil War Solider with Dwarfism Who Was Gifted to the Queen.” Following the extraordinary life of British man Jeffrey Hudson, the article quotes historian Dr. John Woolf who points out that Hudson’s being handed over to Charles I’s wife as a present was not unusual at the time:

Dwarfs were around in the courts of Ancient Egypt, China and West Africa. Alexander the Great (356BC-323BC) gathered a whole retinue of dwarfs. The Romans collected dwarfs as pets, placing some in gladiatorial rings to fight with Amazons, and tossing others across the amphitheater for entertainment. By the Middle Ages, dwarfs were kept side-by-side with monkeys, sometimes traveling between royal households in birdcages.

I never learned that in school.

Through resources provided by Little People of America, I became aware around the age 12 of the circus freak tradition in the 20th century to which so many dwarfs were left to turn. This made me increasingly suspicious as a teenager when watching period films and documentaries romanticizing the days of beautiful people darting between horse-drawn carriages and candlelight that none of what I saw would have been imaginable* back then for someone who looked like me. My own research later confirmed those suspicions. It’s time the rest of the world start to talk about it.

 

*Aside: As noted before on the blog, period films rarely depict what life truly would have been like for any of us. Invariably Victorian women are portrayed wearing makeup while too many pre-Victorian kings are portrayed without. Not to mention a third of us would have been more likely to die in childhood than survive long enough to make it into the history books alongside Charles I. During his reign, you were most likely to die of small pox. Play this game to find out what long-forgotten diseases would have killed you in other time periods in the West.

 

 

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Can A Princess Ever Set Us Free?

18 Aug

Crown (Image by Andriy Baranskyy under CC 2.0 via)

 

Human rights activist and fashion critic Sinéad Burke is on the cover of Vogue for its September issue, along with 14 other women picked by tongue-twister of the moment, the Duchess of Sussex (aka Meghan Markle). Burke has achondroplasia, like I do, and has become the first woman with dwarfism to bring the issue of fashion for all to the highest levels: from the Met Gala earlier this year to the Council of State in her home country of Ireland. 

Many in the dwarf community are excited about the Vogue cover, reporting that such representation is doing wonders for their and their children’s self-esteem. As with all firsts, I am curious as to how much staying power it will ultimately have. The fashion industry is notorious for embracing differences as novelties. And as Helen Lewis writes in The Atlantic, we should be very careful about reading too much into what a fashion magazine edited by the wife of a prince can do:

There are sharp limits on the activism of royals… one of their major causes is mental health, where they stay safely away from making policy demands. Prince Harry has bravely spoken about undergoing counseling to deal with the death of his mother, but the charity he and his brother support, Heads Together, focuses on “changing the conversation” and “reducing the stigma.” It cannot, say, criticize the lack of government funding for mental-health services…

All of this adds up to a form of activism in which there are problems, but no villains. Markle can talk about marginalized women who struggle to find clothes for job interviews—and the charity SmartWorks, which she supports—but she cannot address the causes of poverty… 

As a royal, Markle is particularly constrained in what she can say. Other activists make the same bargain of defanging their criticisms to avoid causing upset for less compelling reasons. Identifying general problems—old-fashioned consciousness-raising—is worthwhile and helpful. 

But it isn’t the same as solving them. That requires politics, which is messy and divisive.

Too often, feminism—even when not championed by a beautiful, wealthy aristocrat—gets stuck in this toothless, villain-free zone. It is easy to champion diversity and urge girls to aim higher, but awkward to bring up the lack of state investment in child care and, well, the small matter of the class system.

While I loved princesses a child, I’ve been trying to figure out if the real-world ones have any reason to exist in a democracy. (I’ve only ever lived in countries that made no bones about kicking theirs out long ago.) With more documentaries and period films about the Windsors under my belt than I care to count, it seems to me that we in the modern world have three options: a) Barely notice them, b) Admire them in a way no one who has done so little deserves, c) Gossip about them in a way no one who never asked for the spotlight deserves. The first option seems the least unreasonable.

But the desire to twirl about in a ball gown (or any of the clothes featured in Vogue) has never been about reason.

Yes, Sinéad Burke made it to the cover of Vogue at the invitation of a duchess, who made it to the palace at the invitation of her then-boyfriend, who lives there only because he was born into a family that, until very recently, was for Whites Only and is still off-limits to Catholics. But Burke has certainly done the work to deserve her place on the page. May it have lasting effects on the world – lasting even longer than, dare I say, the monarchy.

 

 

Will Banning Scars on Bad Guys Bring Out the Scars on Princesses?

11 Aug

 

Of all the recent reviews of The Lion King, old and new, film critic Doug Walker’s sums it up best: “I blame bad parenting for [Scar killing his brother the king]. Because when you name one kid ‘Mufasa’meaning ‘king’and you name the other kid ‘Scar’meaning ‘scar’aren’t you just begging for something like this to happen?”

It’s been nine months since the British Film Institute made a pledge regarding films like The Lion King: No more funding for films featuring villains with facial deformities. Ben Roberts, the BFI’s deputy CEO, told The Telegraph, “Film is a catalyst for change and that is why we are committing to not having negative representations depicted through scars or facial difference in the films we fund.” The decision was in support of the #IAmNotYourVillain campaign by the British advocacy group Changing Faces, which is “for everyone with a scar, mark or condition on their face or body that makes them look different.”

Filmmakers and artists could argue that banning any portrayal (no matter how stereotypical) constitutes censorship. Which is why a more productiveand, arguably, radicalmove was the BFI’s simultaneous pledge to promote stories that portray disfigured heroes and heroines. This included funding for this summer’s critically acclaimed Dirty God (see above), about a woman facing prejudice both public and private after an acid attack. Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the film is the main character’s portrayal by newcomer Vicky Knight, who has had burn marks on a third of her body since she was 8-years-old. This is an utterly extraordinary break in the long, long history of conventionally attractive, non-disabled actors slapping on makeup and prosthesis to portray deformed and disabled characters. And win awards for it.

And can I just SQUEE! for a moment over the fact that the Dirty God is also brave enough to make viewers watch and learn to empathize with a disfigured woman? Stories about learning to find true beauty within have existed before. But rarely has this been applied to a non-disfigured man meeting a disfigured woman. To quote a spot-on meme of Beauty and the Beast: “Appearances don’t matter. What counts is what’s in your heart. Unless you’re the girl.” As I’ve written before, tremendous progress will have been made when we as filmgoers can name numerous scenes wherein a heroine unveils a severe facial deformity and her strapping lover says, “I think it’s intriguing. And I wanna knock boots with you. So. Bad.” 

Is that too much to ask of the industry? The public? To quote Wonder, the best American film about a facial deformity of the past several years: “He can’t change how he looks, so we have to change how we see.”

 

 

Summer Body Challenge

4 Aug

embedded  bodies(Image by Camil Tulcan used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Yes, I know summer is halfway over. No need to tell me.

And it’s been seven years since I hailed eating-disorder survivor Chloe Angyal’s truism that there is no right way to hate your body. And in those seven years, I have come to see more and more what a pillar of everyday conversation body-bashing is, particularly in social circles dominated by women. Someone complains about their weight-gain since pregnancy. Another bemoans the physical signs of aging. Another comments on how fattening someone’s lunchtime meal is, which is why they opted against it. Another talks about some new product they love intended to combat certain bodily features. Another knocks a body part on someone they dated/are dating/want to date. Like insecurity, it’s everywhere.

I’m not going to pretend that kicking this habit is a quick fix. It’s far from easy to accept your every single physical feature despite how unfashionable the society you live in currently considers it. But if many of us enjoy challenging ourselves with strict diets and exercise regimens, why not challenge ourselves to stay off the body-bashing? At least until September 21st?  Until then, only positive or matter-of-fact observances about your physical features. And those that don’t belong to you. Discussing pain, illness, or disability is fine, but that should never link to comments on physical appearance. Discussing fashion preferences is fine, as long as they never link to comments about whose body can “pull it off”. Do you think you can join me in this? If not, why not?

Additional Rules for the Super-Disciplined Who Want to Push Themselves Even Further:

  • Food is to be enjoyed, not criticized. Don’t voice why you don’t like something or how it doesn’t fit into your diet, unless you have a dangerous allergy and traces of a given food could send you to the emergency room. If you don’t like something, quietly leave it to the side or request it be left off your plate. In turn, when you’re the cook, never comment on how much or little a guest ate.
  • Exercise, on the contrary, is to be complained about. Why do so many of us rave about how good we feel after an exercise session, but not, say, a hot bath? Is it possibly to garner attention and praise for having spent time on something so boring and uncomfortable? When I exercise, I groan and swear a good deal of the way through and I glare at any instructor who’s too perky. I’ve found that reiterating this afterwards it makes people laugh – as opposed to bragging about my achievement, which might inspire one or two people to follow my routine, but will certainly make some of my listeners feel worse and/or resent me. Some form of exercise is generally good for most of us on earth. But, like doing the laundry or taxes, we don’t have to pretend to like it. Those who sincerely do like exercising are blessed and therefore have all the more reason to be happy without needing external validation. They can curl up with their self-satisfaction and write about in their journals. The ones not posted online.
  • Do you have any suggestions to up the challenge? Tell me in the comments.

What’s the reward for those who meet this challenge? That’s for the winners to find out.

 

 

In School I Learned the Story of Emmett Till, But Never the Story of How Many Still Try to Destroy Him

28 Jul

Emmett Till(Image by Trending Topics 2019 used under CC 2.0 via)

 

This week the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered a photo of three fraternity brothers posing with guns next to bullet holes in a sign commemorating the spot on the Tallahatchie River where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955 after he was tortured and murdered. One of the fraternity brothers posted the photo on his Instagram account, where it garnered hundreds of likes before it was drawn into the national spotlight. The fraternity has since expelled the men in the image.

Like many Americans my age, I first learned about Emmett Till in school when I was 15-years-old as part of a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month. I remember the eruption of “WHOA!” among my classmates when we first saw the image of Till’s battered face in the documentary Eyes on the Prize. We learned that Till’s mother insisted on an open casket to show the public what the murderers had done to her son for whistling at a white woman. We learned that this moment helped launch the Civil Rights Movement onto the national scene. And then we went about our day. As with most history lessons, we filed the tragedy as “in the past” and all but said, “Isn’t it good that  this doesn’t happen anymore?”

The memorial sign to Emmett Till would not be erected for another 10 years. I hope students today learn in their Civil Rights lessons that it has been repeatedly riddled with bullet holes ever since. My classmates and I didn’t learn in school where the opponents of the Civil Rights Movement ended up – not only the politicians and the Klansmen, but the white students in the South and the North who threatened their first black classmates. We watched the film version of To Kill A Mocking Bird with its fictional schoolgirl protagonist shaming a lynch mob into backing down simply by showing up at the last minute with her innocent face. We did not learn about the very real photographs of families smiling with their children next to lynched corpses that were turned into postcards and distributed as souvenirs at the time. When it came to such horrors, we learned that there were Bad Guys but there was the silent assumption that they all died off or had a change of heart because it was In the Past.

And it all had nothing to do with America’s Glorious Past. The way we learned it, the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements both cropped up randomly for some reason in the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries. We didn’t learn that the Supreme Court slowly began overturning racist laws at the same time that more and more atrocities of the Holocaust were coming to light, making overt racism less and less widely accepted. We didn’t learn that slavery was such a contentious issue among our Founding Fathers that it had to be jettisoned to the state-level lest it break up the United States before they could even form a country.

Since the very beginning of the United States, talking about racism has remained a quick and easy way to divide our citizenry. Our only hope of solving this gargantuan problem is not to merely condemn and expel individuals, but to fully admit and understand the scope – how far back it goes and how widespread it still is. That’s how you start to solve any serious problem really.

 

 

“Somebody Was Doing the Lion King Thing…”

2 Jun

 

Leaving you this week with the above BBC video of Things Not to Say to People with Dwarfism. With candid personal stories ranging from awkward jokes to physical abuse and assault, discretion is advised. This is not your typical the-only-disability-is-a-bad-attitude public service announcement. Kudos to all involved for the honesty. And to the rest of us, what are we still doing that allows these incidents to continue and pervade?

 

 

For A United Europe

26 May

Europe(Image by Niccoló Carranti, used under CC 2.0 via)

 

It’s Election Day in the European Union and I haven’t I witnessed so much pro-EU spirit here in Berlin since fireworks were going off to welcome 10 new countries into the Union 15 years ago. Today blue star-spangled flags are hanging from balconies. The E.U. anthem blasted down my street from speakers strapped to bicycles. My social media feed is flooded with European friends urging each other to get out and vote. A good number of these friends are reminding anyone who will listen that they were born in countries under the rule of dictatorships. Democracy can never be taken for granted.

Brexit has scared many into realizing that the E.U. may very well be fighting for its life. Conversely, the disastrous Brexit negotiations have also scared many anti-E.U. parties into changing their tune. No longer are the Sweden Democrats, the Alternative für Deutschland or the Front National pledging to end their countries’ membership in the E.U. but instead calling for reform. The reform they advocate of course is fiercely nationalistic, threatening open borders and the rights and freedoms of minorities. As I wrote three years ago when the vote for Brexit first set shock waves across the continent, nationalism is at best an illusion.

At the March for a United Europe last weekend, the atmosphere among the 25,000 who showed up was as celebratory as it was serious. Omas Gegen Rechts (“Grandmothers Against the Right”) smiled amidst bubbles and balloons, telling reporters about having been called lousy Nazis as children whenever they traveled through Europe. (If you ever want to hear older people worrying out loud that kids these days just aren’t anti-war enough, just head to an E.U. demonstration.) Of all the signs I saw that day, my favorite read: Migration is the mother of humanity beside a historical map.

This afternoon I’m accompanying my extended Berlin family to the polls. Of the four adults and four children among us, only one of us does not owe their existence here in Berlin (or on earth) to immigration. Mother of humanity indeed.

 

 

Mother’s Day & All It Touches

12 May

Mother and Son(Image by Andy415 used under CC 2.0 via)

From the Archives, updated

A very happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mothers I have had the pleasure of knowing, not least of all my own.

And to those of you who have lost your mothers,

And to those of you who have lost a child,

And to those of you who had to take care of your mothers (and yourselves) much earlier than the rest of us had to,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what neighbors (or politicians) may have said,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what nature ultimately decided,

And to those of you who bravely chose to have someone else become a mother in your stead,

And to those of you who are not mothers but have raised a child as well as any mother could,

In gratitude and with the deepest respect.

 

 

Six Months After Becoming the First Country to Ban Street Harassment, France’s Minister of Equality Declares the Law A Success

5 May

 

In August of last year, France became the first nation on earth to ban street harassment – that is, “sexist and sexual violence.” While the #MeToo movement can certainly be credited with getting the law passed, many have pointed to a single video that helped in the final push (see above). In the video, a man punches a woman in the face after she swears at him in retaliation for having cat-called her. Since August, France’s police have issued just under 450 fines for street harassment. Marlène Schiappa, the Minister of Equality, says this proves both the success and the necessity of the law. As the law came into effect, she declared: “We want to preserve seduction, chivalry, and ‘l’amour à la française’ by saying what is key is consent. Between consenting adults everything is allowed; we can seduce, talk, but if someone says ‘No,’ it’s ‘No,’ and it’s final.”

I have written before about street harassment, particularly in the context of disability. Some of my first experiences with it as an adult were in France when I landed there as an 18-year-old community service volunteer, away from home for the first time. After learning the hard way that my American proclivity for smiling at strangers was almost always taken as an open invitation for aggressive men on the prowl, I asked a French woman a decade older than I was how she dealt with unwanted attention and pushy propositions. “Well, I have a fake wedding ring I often wear,” was not the solution I had been looking for.

The problem is larger than a single law can solve, but I applaud this step forward. As so many women have said before, the reason most women do not want to be approached  by strangers with any hint of aggression is their well-founded fear that the perpetrator will not take no for an answer, as in the video. And to those who worry that this prevents straight men from being real men and that seeking clear consent kills the romance, I issue more crowd-sourced wisdom from the better angels of the Internet: Straight men understand consent when they go to a gay bar. Though I might add “suddenly” to that statement, when discussing the sort of men who defend street harassment.

 

Aaaaand We’re Back: “I’m Disabled, But I’m Not…”

28 Apr

 

Ending the blog’s six-month hiatus with Part 2 of Germany’s Deutschland3000 program on disability featuring yours truly. Like, share, spread the word. (Once again, English subtitles are available with Auto-Translate via the tools icon.)

I look forward to providing you with more content about differences, delusions of normalcy, and what we mean when we say democracy each week again from now on. And I thank you all sincerely for reading Painting On Scars these seven years now.

 

 

 

Enough with the Myths about Disability

27 Oct

 

Here I am discussing some of the most common misconceptions about people with disabilities on Germany’s Deutschland3000 program. Like, share, spread the word. (English subtitles available with Auto-Translate via the tools icon.)

 

 

Banned Books Week Should Fight Censorship & Simplistic Thinking

23 Sep

 

Today the American Library Association kicks of its annual Banned Books Week to spread awareness of the dangers of censorship. Each year the ALA releases a list of the top ten books that were most often requested to be removed from U.S. libraries—usually school libraries—by parents and political activists alike. In 2017, the majority of the most challenged books were stories about LGBT acceptance. However, as with nearly every year, a few titles on the list were targeted for use of racial slurs.

I love Banned Books Week if anything because discussing these issues is crucial. I do believe every public library should be free to contain every book humanity has ever brought forth. But, as examined before, those opposed to censorship should not assume the solutions are simple like censors do.

When it comes to kids, you’d have to look hard to find someone who believes that no one should ever take a child’s age and developmental level into account when selecting stories for them. I save many of my favorite books for the children in my life until they are old enough to appreciate them fully because infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers can get scared or—more likely—bored if they can’t follow along. Most children in primary school do not understand sarcasm, which is why Stephen Colbert did not let his kids watch The Colbert Report.

Children are a diverse group, so of course many kids will be ready earlier than others to handle mature topics. But just as I believe it takes a mature mind to understand the  BDSM portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, I believe there is a world of a difference between an older child who is ready to learn about the nuances of racism and a young child who will likely repeat the N-word without giving it much thought, and think it’s funny if it elicits shocked expressions among grown-ups.

With all this in mind, Banned Books Week should be about debate, endless and free.

 

 

“Midget-Wrestling” Events Canceled in the UK

16 Sep

Learn respect (Image by Duncan C used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Thanks to an online public outcry organized by members and supporters of the Restricted Growth Association, a handful of “midget wrestling” events have been canceled in the United Kingdom. The objectification of people with dwarfism in freak shows spans from the Early Modern Era’s court jesters well into the present day at dwarf-tossing events, “mini” cover bands, dwarf theme parks, and on reality TV shows. This is the first time in recent memory a certain freak show has not simply been condemned by human rights activists but in fact terminated. 

As Erin Pritchard writes in The Independent: “We do not put people who use wheelchairs, people who are deaf or blind, or people with learning difficulties on a stage and laugh at them.”

Then again, let’s not give the reality TV producers any ideas.

 

 

#MeToo Has to Support Men, Too

26 Aug

 

 

What a month. Asia Argento, one of the first women to speak out against Harvey Weinstein and lead the #MeToo movement last year, was accused this week by a younger man who claims she coerced him into sex when he was underage. Argento denies the charges.

Early last week, Professor Avital Ronell, who is lesbian, was found guilty by New York University of sexually assaulting one of her students, who is a gay man. Throughout the university’s investigation, many feminist academics–including superstar Judith Butler–defended Ronell and slandered her accuser in ways reminiscent of how so many women of the #MeToo movement have been.

The next day, a grand jury investigation into six Pennsylvania dioceses was released, which is the largest study by a government agency of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to date. The investigation found abuse of over 1,000 children by 300 priests over the course of seven decades. Most of the victims were boys.

In a rant that now appears astoundingly prescient, Samantha Bee kicked off the month of August by pointing to a fact that is as harrowing as it is simple: we are really bad at talking about men as victims of sexual abuse. Even if you don’t like her humor, her argument is rock-solid.

Studies range widely in the estimate of how many men and boys are raped or sexually assaulted. The CDC says 1 in 71 men in the U.S. have been raped; the National Crime Victimization Survey found in 2013 that 38% of victims of sexual violence in the U.S. were male. As with all cases of sexual assault, statistics are muddied by the vast problem of under-reporting and by variations in definition. In many jurisdictions around the world, it’s not considered rape if your partner did it, and it’s not rape if you begged your partner to stop after sex began, and it’s not rape if you’re not a virgin, or anything less than a flawless human being, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Even the more liberal estimates confirm the already widely held belief that more victims of assault and rape are women and girls rather than men and boys. But that doesn’t mean we should only afford male victims a cursory mention. Human rights means justice for everyone, no matter how rare their experience, and if you believe in equality for minorities, then you know fighting for their rights demands particular rigor because minorities are so easily shoved to the margins.

For almost a year now, the #MeToo movement has shed much-needed light on the horrors wrought up on straight, white, cis, non-disabled women. But its failure to communicate the horrors wrought upon victims of other demographics with the same frequency has been disturbingly persistent. And it’s not just because straight, white, cis, non-disabled women are the most common victims. They’re not. As shown earlier this year, disabled women are far likelier to be victims of sexual assault than the general population.

Before anti-feminists joyously insist that this just proves women’s rights activists are a bunch of dumb hypocrites, it’s important to realize that almost no one has done a very good job of talking about rape victims who are men. It’s traditional gender roles that say that guys can’t be raped by women because we should assume guys are constantly horny and would never turn down a chance for sex. It’s traditional gender roles that, at worst, find it funny when a man is raped by a man because it means he’s either weak or gay or both. It’s traditional gender roles that, at best, recoil in horror at the idea of a boy or man being forced but ultimately have no idea what to say about such a thing.

Two years ago, Raymond M. Douglas published a book, On Being Raped, about his experience and the failure of modern society to equip boys and men with the appropriate language to talk about it. Mainstream feminism has failed to tackle this problem. Now’s the time if ever.

As #MeToo founder Tarana Burke wrote on Twitter last Tuesday:

I’ve said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward. It will continue to be jarring when we hear the names of some of our faves connected to sexual violence unless we shift from talking about individuals… and begin to talk about power. Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender.

And as Douglas told NPR in his advice to other victims, “The most important thing: You’re not alone. There are so many more of us out here than you think. Don’t give up.”

 

*I use the term “victim” in deference to Douglas, who says, “One of the reasons that a lot of people are a little squishy about the word ʻsurvivor,’ is that it seems to imply that once you’ve attained that status, it’s all done and dusted, it’s all safely in the past. And for a huge number of people, it isn’t and it won’t be, it won’t ever be.” It is imperative to note, however, that many other people prefer the term survivor.

Dwarfs in Art & Shakespeare

19 Aug

 

Leaving you this weekend with a tip to watch Dwarfs in Art: A New Perspective, which airs tomorrow night on BBC 4. I’ve long documented portrayals of dwarfs throughout history on the blog and this documentary promises to go into greater detail. Several of the portrayals of dwarfism are well-known enough to have become stereotypes dwarfs must combat with regularity – which is quite absurd when you consider how rare the condition is.

Featured in the documentary is academic Tom Shakespeare, who regularly writes about disability and bio-ethics, and has achondroplasia like I do. He is a professor at the University of East Anglia and a frequent contributor on the BBC with thought-provoking arguments on issues ranging from physician-assisted death to religion vs. spirituality to bucket lists. I’ve featured an interview with him from his project Disability and Sexuality (see above) because he deserves recognition far beyond the British Isles.

 

I Still Don’t Believe in Leagues

12 Aug

matrioschka (Image by Maria Zaikina used under CC 2.0 via)

 

One of the most harmful and ubiquitous of all impulses is the desire to have someone to look down upon in order to feel better about ourselves. When we are worried that we’re not winning at life—at work, at love, at health & fitness—we too often look for those we think could be ranked below us and use the idea At least I’m not like that! as a salve. Occasionally indulging in such thinking privately in our weaker moments is human, but to assert it out loud or act on it is to descend into the cowardice of a high school mean girl. It’s both socially poisonous and wholly ironic that the fear of not ranking high in a given hierarchy too often inspires us to buy more and more into the idea of the hierarchy, instead of inspiring us to question it.

Firm belief in hierarchies is the fastest path to hate and the fact that it feeds on human insecurity is reason enough to question it, as I recently did at a dinner party, attacking the idea of natural hierarchies of beauty: “Attractiveness is always a matter of personal taste. There are no universal rules. I for one don’t find Dwayne Johnson or Tom Cruise or Jon Hamm attractive at all, despite what any magazine editor says. Johnny Depp, now he was once cute—”

“No, he wasn’t!” rebutted a friend.

“See? Attractiveness is always a matter of personal taste. There’s no such thing as being universally attractive.”

I’ve encountered lots of arguments to the contrary, but little evidence, which is why I looked upon the recent Atlantic article about “dating out of your league” with narrowed eyes. Upon closer reading, I realized the study it featured wasn’t really saying anything new. The phrase “out of my/his/her league” is generally used to mean people can be objectively divided into ascending ranks of beauty or sexiness and that only people in the higher ranks have a chance at those in the higher ranks. It’s one of pop culture’s biggest myths. That certain people attract more people than others in a certain social setting, however, is a fact that can be corroborated by evidence. And that’s what The Atlantic was talking about, noting: “dating ‘leagues’ are not different tiers of hotness, but a single ascending hierarchy of desirability… [and] people do not seem to be universally locked into them…”  

If you follow this blog, you know I frequently use the term “conventionally attractive” instead of “beautiful” or “hot” because there is no objective measure of anyone’s looks around the world and throughout history. The phrase “conventionally attractive” means your looks and/or style are considered attractive by the current mainstream fashion of your culture. It does not mean that you will be desired everywhere by everyone, which is why people disagree over Johnny Depp and are often bewildered by the fashions of their ancestors/teenage children.

In a world that’s produced the corset, foot-binding, neck rings, teeth-blackening, and the bagel head, it’s clear any body type or feature can be striking, intriguing, wonderful. And any body type or feature can become suddenly hideous when ruined by a sickening personality. When Polish-Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki mocked an African-American competitor’s body, I agreed with those commenters who noted that pink Northern European skin can be pretty, but it can also make you look like a pig.

Pop culture asserts that the inordinate attention conventionally attractive people receive is always positive, leading too many of us to think that being conventionally attractive corresponds directly to being successful in love. Doesn’t a throng of smitten people lined up outside your door mean that you can have your pick?

Yet if we listen to conventionally attractive people—instead of just look at them—the contemplative among them often explain how upsetting it is to have to face lots and lots of personalities they have pretty much nothing in common with but who are passionately convinced they do. As one conventionally attractive friend put it, “I am sick of casual dating.” Another spent years wondering if he had deep personality flaws since so many of his dates seemed to only want one thing. As said before, being desired by someone who doesn’t love you at all can get really creepy. Really fast.

When we first fall for someone, we pretty much always let the thrill of romance project great expectations onto the object of our affections. But lasting partnerships are not built on the intoxicating joy of first attraction alone. Psychologists are divided as to how long the limerence phase of a relationship lasts—some say between 6 to 18 months, some say up to 3 years—but they all agree that it does end at some point. Celebrity divorce rates alone indicate we all need something more than our partner’s face, body, and charisma to keep us interested. Broadening our concepts of beauty can only help us with that.

The primary reason I don’t believe in leagues is because I know too many conventionally attractive people who have fallen hard for those who are anything but. Mainstream fashion ignores all that to our detriment. The study in The Atlantic of online dating sites in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Seattle found white people, black men, Asian women, educated men, and very young women are considered far more conventionally attractive than black women, Asian men, women with higher education, and women over 18. Other studies have added to the list of types mainstream fashion seems to be too narrow-minded to handle like shorter men, people with disabilities, and women of color with skin tones considered “dark.” There is no good reason to let such disparities continue.

A friend recently asked me, “What if you’re just not into blondes?”

It’s fine to occasionally note your tendencies and tastes. The weakness lies in believing they are immovable or should be turned into rules. If you’re just not into blondes and date accordingly, you are simply more likely to lose at the game of love if there are one or more blondes out there who share your values, sense of humor, and idea of fun. And because values, sense of humor and hobbies do not correlate to physical features, it is statistically likely that there are such people out there in the very bodies you’ve vowed to avoid. When you decide you can’t possibly open your mind to love in a wide array of bodily forms, you miss out.

 

 

The Meaning of Louise Brown’s Birthday

29 Jul

happy birthday
(Image by Nerissa’s Ring used under CC 2.0 via)

Forty years ago this week, Louise Brown was born in Oldham, England, the first human ever conceived by invitro fertilization. Since her birth, over 8 million people have been born thanks to invitro fertilization or other assisted reproductive technology. I can attest that if you have recently become a parent after a long journey trying to become one, it is particularly hard not to get choked up at hearing the recording of “Happy Birthday” sung to Baby Louise by her family and friends back in 1978.

And yet. Brown’s parents and the doctors who helped them become parents got hate mail and death threats. The hospital received a bomb scare. Brown’s father had to arrive under police protection. To this day Brown reports she is trolled online.

Advances in reproductive technology since Brown’s birth have helped create families for people facing infertility and deadly heritable diseases, single women, and same-sex couples. All such people are targeted regularly by various political groups—some vicious, some peaceful—who deem them “unnatural.” Yet no one on earth could tell the difference between a person who was conceived via IVF and a person who was conceived via sexual intercourse by meeting them.

As examined previously on the blog, adoptive families also have a long history of facing down those with horrific ideas about nature involving the importance of bloodlines and, as one commenter to The Atlantic put it, “inferior genetic stock.” Social and medical interventions in making families are indeed complex and merit nuanced discussions. But the vitriol involved in such discussions just goes to show that there are too many out there who can’t handle the idea of families unlike their own.

In Dwarf News

22 Jul

 

John Oliver kicked off the month with an excellent report about the complexities of gene editing. (See above.) Unlike most reporters of these issues, he manages in few words to explain precisely why ridding the world of genetic mutations like deafness and dwarfism should not be the solution to the problem of society’s hang-ups about bodily differences.

Meanwhile, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which I have referred to as The Best Book of the 21st Century, has been adapted into a documentary out this week in the U.S.

In less wonderful news, a Silicon Valley paper has uncovered an Amazon proposal for a newly patented robot that throws warehouse products into bins. The hypothetical item referred to 17 times in the illustrations that the robot could throw is a dwarf. Little People of America is not amused. Kudos to reporter Ethan Baron for shedding light on an issue few would more than laugh at.

 
 

 

What’s the Difference Between Immigrants & Expats?

3 Jun

immigrant(Image by Charles LeBlanc used under CC 2.0 via)

 

The past month has seen some deeply depressing images of what cruelty humans are capable of when they fear large numbers of people from across the border. From the now scandalous policy of a “hostile environment” for suspected undocumented immigrants in the U.K. to the separation of children from their parents at the U.S. borders to the report that only 10 percent of Hungarians feel “totally comfortable” being friends with an immigrant, xenophobia has a lot to celebrate.

“I don’t mean you.” It’s a phrase I often hear when I point out my status to someone going on about foreigners here in Germany. In one of the most painful exchanges I’ve ever sat through, a man specifically told me Germany should be doing more to allow nice, hard-working, honest people like me into the country instead of opening the door to “all those dirt people.”  

I wish I had asked him what exactly separates me from them. Even though I could likely guess the answer, it’s an important question to ask. Did he see me as nice and honest because he’d met me twice before, unlike those constituting the faceless mobs? Or by nice and honest did he mean expat instead of immigrant? What’s the difference? Legally none. Both groups have to get their visas from the same immigration office.   

Expats are generally less feared than immigrants and I postulate the biggest reason is because expat is implicitly understood to mean more likely to be in the middle- to upper income brackets and have a college education. Expats are generally defined as foreigners brought to their new home not just in search of employment but by their employer, who is almost always a multinational company, a university, an embassy, or an international research organization. Their employer is likely to ensure that their stay is temporary, so expats usually replace each other, rather than accumulating.

There is of course another type of expat that is slightly more likely to permanently immigrate. Western countries have long produced wandering artists, scholars, and backpackers who seek inspiration and happiness far from home. Technically they are in search of work when they land in their new country, just like immigrants. But they are viewed as expats and not immigrants if their economic background ensures that they will be able to maintain a middle class (or upper class) level of financial security no matter what happens. If things go really bad, Mom or Dad or someone else back home will ensure that they never risk tumbling into true poverty.

I came to Berlin 13 years ago this month fresh out of college and looking for work just as many of my classmates were doing in cities across the United States. I chose Berlin not because it offered great opportunities—it rather infamously did not—but because I had fallen in love with the city while studying here. I had made friends—all fellow students—and they and their families welcomed me warmly. Obtaining my work visa was in no way easy, but it was far easier than the ordeal faced by the people from Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America who sat next to me in the waiting room at the immigration office.

When there was a long delay in the application process, family and friends loaned me the money to cover my rent. When I was told I needed more offers of employment than I had presented, a professor I knew from a past translation project offered me a position as one of his research assistants. Another got me in touch with her colleague who was looking for a nanny. All these connections had been made during my college years and they helped keep me legally safe and financially secure as I struggled for the right to stay in Germany. It would be dishonest to pretend I did it all myself and that diligence and determination are all anyone really needs. Nothing shapes your life experience quite like the social network you belong to and the average income of that network. A black friend whose family is middle class and immigrated from The Gambia told me he hears “I don’t mean you” from xenophobic voters fairly often, too.

Class differences create hierarchies of immigrants that promulgate dangerous myths about superior and inferior cultures. Immigrants to the United States from China and India, for example, are stereotyped as “the model minority” because they are two of the few ethnic groups to earn more on average than white Americans. Pundits of all political stripes have insisted that the stereotype of hard-working, high-earning Chinese and Indian immigrants versus uneducated, low-wage Latin American and Caribbean immigrants can be simplified down to a matter of having the right values. This ignores the realities of the visa system, outlined best by Prof. Janelle S. Wong at NBC.com. She points out that in the U.S. , 50% of all immigrants from China and 70% of all immigrants from India have a bachelor’s degree, while only 5% of the people living in China and 15% of the people living in India do.

This is due to changes in immigration laws that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. Prior to that, most Chinese immigrants such as those that built the U.S. railroad did not have college degrees and were stereotyped in the harshest possible ways, which culminated in The Chinese Exclusion Act. The parallels to U.S. policy proposals aimed at Mexican immigrants today are emphasized in a new PBS documentary named for the act. Sometimes stealthily, sometimes brazenly, societies treat those with a higher education very differently than those without.

But the advantages I have here in Germany over other immigrants are not only economic or education-based. Once I was harassed on the street for speaking English with my partner because “this is Germany and we speak German here! You’re hurting my ears!” But I’ve never had the police stop me on the street and demand to see my German residency permit, unlike a friend from Jamaica. When I plan a vacation, I’m free to move around Europe and most of the world without a travel visa, unlike friends from China and Côté d’Ivoire. I’ve stood near skinheads here in Berlin and been horrified, but I’ve never once felt threatened. That’s what being simultaneously white and Western gets you. No matter how much money you have in the bank or where you went to school.

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin argued years ago in The Guardian that the only difference between expats and immigrants is racist thinking and it has to go. As we have seen, she is right that the distinction can be profoundly offensive. In these xenophobic times, solidarity among foreigners (and humans) of all sorts is crucial. But any expat who claims to face the same probability of persecution as an immigrant is also problematic, ignorant of the very real and systemic privileges bestowed upon some but not others. Naming the different realities faced by the different people lining up at the immigration office is important because if you name it, you can talk about it.

And we absolutely must talk about it because too many nationalist voters across the Western world don’t want to. They don’t like to talk about the ramifications of class background or the power of racism. They don’t like to talk about why they fear foreign poor people more than local poor people, and they don’t like to talk about local poor people either. They like to talk about cultural differences being insurmountable, about having good values and bad values, good people and bad people. And that’s where the problem starts.

 

 

Fabricators Like Rachel Dolezal Need Help, But Not Public Sympathy

20 May

 

Self-determination is key to identity. There is no hierarchy of oppressions. What can be socially constructed can be socially changed. We must be the change we want to see. These are all pillars of social justice I’ve quoted on this blog and they are all true. But then came Rachel Dolezal. And she proves these truisms require a blaring asterisk that screams There’s also more to it than that!

The much-debated documentary The Rachel Divide was released last month on Netflix and reveals that Dolezal’s is a complex story. Most know her as a white woman born in rural Montana who began self-identifying (or masquerading) as African-American as an adult and was suddenly forced to resign as president of the Spokane NAACP in 2015 when her parents exposed her origins to the press. Her ex-colleagues are right in saying, “Who’s affected by this? All the people that the NAACP had been advocating for… She destroyed something that now we have to rebuild if we can.” Her teenage son is right in saying, “She did not choose her words carefully. And it affected me. It affected my brother. The more I talk to people about it, the more it drains me.” And Dolezal is right that there are reasons she tried to escape her past.

Her parents are white religious fundamentalists who raised her and her older brother Joshua along with four black children they adopted. Two of those children, Izaiah and Esther, currently corroborate Dolezal’s claims that their parents were abusive and that the older brother Joshua molested the girls in the family. Many, including the legal system, have cast doubt on these claims in light of her deceit about her race. Others, including some of her critics, believe this part of the story to be true. Either way, when Dolezal and her two siblings fled their family, this was the beginning of her journey toward tanning her skin, donning wigs and fully identifying as a black woman. Izaiah and Esther don’t seem to see much problem in any of that. But the rest of Black America certainly does.

And they have good reason to. Coping with abuse comes in many forms. The public is in no position to decide what sort of professional help would be appropriate for Dolezal to recover from her traumatic childhood, but you don’t have to be a therapist to know that honesty is mandatory for healing. Dolezal’s past decision to lie and current decision to demand that she maintain a life built on that lie is helpful to absolutely no one.

All of her steps forward take her back to her very public role as a black activist. She is now desperate for work but only applies to teaching positions in Africana studies. She obviously loves her children, but repeatedly drags them into the lion’s den of social media, bragging about their black identities and receiving hate mail in return. She cannot retreat into obscurity because her name is known across the nation, so she changes it to something Nigerian. In interviews, she says her only option other than continuing the ruse is to go back to being the abused daughter of religious fundamentalists in Montana. No right-minded person would wish any survivor to return to an abusive home, but Black America isn’t asking her to. They are simply asking her to tell the whole truth.

Some have expressed bewilderment at the degree of outrage Dolezal has faced for simply being who she feels she is. After all, Dolezal argues that she can be black because race is a social construct. Indeed it is. But so is money, as Ijeou Olou said in her interview with Dolezal last year. And having money and not having money create vastly different life experiences.

Yet that too is an idea many people fail to grasp. You don’t have to look hard to find those whose exaggerations expand into fictions about having grown up poor. Plenty delude themselves that not being able to afford everything they want as soon as they want it is just as hard as living below the poverty line. Like Dolezal, they infuriate those who have truly have known what the privileged pretend to. Because it’s dishonest, misleading and, perhaps above all, tone-deaf.

I do not know what it’s like to have grown up poor and to listen to trust fund kids claim they did, too. Nor do I know what it’s like to be black and to watch Rachel Dolezal take up so much of the discussion on race relations. But I do know what it’s like to be disabled and read about those who fake (or wildly overstate) debilitation and illness. If no one faked illness, we wouldn’t need doctor’s notes to go on sick leave. I wouldn’t have to carefully figure out the best way to explain that I sometimes need assistance and I sometimes want to just brave it when discussing my disabled status with my employers and the bureaucrats of social services. While most truth-stretchers merely exaggerate minor symptoms, some go to extremes, faking cancer or other life-threatening diseases to garner sympathy. Anyone who believes illness is enviable to the point of plagiarizing it does not understand the inescapable pain inherent in it. Such plagiarism often triggers a backlash fueled in part by a desire to make them understand exactly how painful it can be. That desire is not noble, but it should not be surprising.

Nor should it be surprising that those who have falsely claimed to be Holocaust survivors have faced similar vitriol.

As The Rachel Divide shows, Rachel Dolezal’s deception did hurt the civil rights movement, but she shouldn’t be granted enough power to inflict lasting harm because there are ultimately very, very few out there like her. You can talk to thousands of black women in America and you are very unlikely to come across one who was born white. The majority of hate crimes reported this year have been verified by the Southern Poverty Law center. And most people who say they have cancer really do.

Fabricators must face the consequences of their actions. They deserve to be reprimanded for exploiting people and the institutions who are there to help. They deserve to be made to understand how terrible it feels to be lied to. And, even if their lies were born in desperate circumstances, they do not deserve any sympathy from those who have been true victims of oppression. Some may be able to approach Dolezal more neutrally than others, but black Americans should never be expected to. Perhaps if Rachel Dolezal ever manages to comprehend that, she will begin to comprehend what she did.