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It’s Dwarfism Awareness Month!

2 Oct

x-ray of a dwarf(Image by Lefteris used under CC 2.0 via)

It’s October, so you know what that means. Here’s one of the most popular pieces 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

There’s More Than One Way To Make A Nerd

19 Jun

buch-und-baum-copyright-emily-sullivan-sanford

From the Archives

Can we stop using the words “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably? Forgive me if this doesn’t sound like the most pressing social justice issue of our time, but hear me out. I think the distinction is subtle but significant. 

Geeks are a subculture. They like science fiction usually because it’s built around ideas posed by math and the natural sciences, just as literature is built around ideas posed by the humanities. If you don’t have a big appetite for Star Trek, the Hitchhiker’s Guides, or video games, you’re probably not a geek. Just like if you don’t enjoy nature, long hair, or folk rock music, you’re probably not a hippie.

Nerds, in contrast, simply share one trait: wanting to learn almost everything there is to know about a subject at the expense of their cool factor. And it seems to me that there’s a little nerd in all of us. From trivia and statistics to random factoids, a nerd examines a topic down to what Slate calls “the granularity that would glaze the eyes of a normal, well-adjusted human.” Sometimes the eye-rolling this brings on is fueled by inane rules for style that value keeping the lowest common denominator very low. But anyone with social intelligence knows that it’s also unfair to demand everyone share your love for a subject, no matter what it is. 

I try not to look bored when friends expound upon existentialism, or when my dad gets excited about weather statistics, but I can likewise put them to sleep with monologues about typography or Russian grammar. I have a hard time looking thrilled when my husband analyzes the meal he cooked for us in too much detail, or when my uncle gets out his car magazines, but I get the same looks from outsiders whenever I discover a fellow classic rock fanatic. An obsession with trivia—in any area—will forever be the opposite of a social lubricant. Saying, “I’m such a nerd” with a sheepish grin usually means, “I love something to a degree that might ruin the evening if you ask me about it.”

But traditionally, the nerd word is used much more specifically. Nerd hobbies are thought to be geeky. Nerd intelligence almost always means “book smart.” The Urban Dictionary says a nerd is “one whose IQ exceeds his weight.” A gardener and a mechanic can be skilled, but only botanists and engineers can be nerds. Why? 

One summer in my early teens, I was sunbathing at a friend’s house and talking about the new atlas I had bought. “I’m hoping that someday I can identify all the flags of the world,” I smiled, with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm.   

My friend’s mother frowned and asked, “Why?! Just to be better than everyone else?”

She knew how to repair a motorcycle. I knew the names of the world’s nations. Why was my knowledge automatically seen as a pretension? (I was too embarrassed and too young to dare to ask her, but I wish I had.)

A lot of it has to do with social status, however ridiculous that is. We tend to see bookish people as the inventors of ideas and therefore the brains. People working in production and maintenance are the realizers of the ideas and therefore the salt of the earth. Artists are classified depending on which of these two groups they appeal to: Classical composers and jazz musicians make high art for the “elite,” while rappers and country singers make soul for “the people.” (Artists who appeal to both are gods and everyone wants to sleep with them.)    

Self-proclaimed nerds sometimes defend these rigid categories, reassuring themselves that the only reason anyone would malign their expertise is meat-headed jealousy. This is certainly true in many cases. The stereotypical anti-intellectual will lash out when someone’s way of life threatens to highlight his weaknesses. But the stereotypical ivory tower snob will sneer when someone’s way of life threatens to highlight his weaknesses.  Both the belligerent athlete and the arrogant mathlete lack the emotional intelligence to recognize that both trigonometry and football require brains. Both topics can be obsessed over in nauseating detail. But Western society—which places an inordinate emphasis on IQ—has yet to be convinced of this. IQ tests define “intelligence” as strong mathematic and/or verbal skills, and so do most of us when we describe someone as “smart.” This is wildly inaccurate and unhelpful.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences turns 30 this year, but we have yet to adopt the concept into our common parlance. The theory currently identifies seven forms of intelligence:

1) Logical-Mathematical Intelligence – useful to chemists, accountants, physicists  

2) Linguistic Intelligence – useful to writers, speech therapists, managers

3) Kinesthetic Intelligence –  useful to athletes, surgeons, carpenters

4) Visual/Spatial Intelligence – useful to photographers, architects, engineers

5) Musical Intelligence – useful to composers, dancers, poets

6) Interpersonal Intelligence – useful to counselors, salespeople, politicians

7) Intrapersonal/Introspective Intelligence – useful to philosophers, artists, parents

(Some groups have promulgated a theory of Culinary Intelligence, as well as Sexual Intelligence.) 

So there are more than two ways to be “smart.” It seems logical to conclude that people choose their jobs based on combinations of intelligences. A speech therapist needs both linguistic and interpersonal intelligence, whereas a songwriter needs linguistic and musical intelligence. A dancer needs musical and kinesthetic intelligence, while a soldier needs kinesthetic and spatial intelligence. Take that, IQ tests.

But this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Every one of us knows someone who’s read a hundred books but can’t fill out a tax form. Or who can identify every bit of green in your backyard but can’t analyze news stories in a historical context. Or who can counsel people with all sorts of problems but can’t dance for the life of them. Or who can sew the coolest costumes but can’t make strangers feel comfortable. We should all be big enough to take pride in our talents and to be teased for our weaknesses. Especially if we’re going to start fully accepting people with certain disabilities.

The theory of multiple intelligences does not claim that everyone is a genius in their own way. Everyone knows a good guitarist isn’t as smart as a great guitarist. But the theory asserts that a great guitarist is no smarter than a great nurse or a great ballerina or a great chemist. So why then do we call the chemist “smart” and the others “talented”? 

And why isn’t the soccer nut who won’t stop analyzing the semi-final games called a nerd? Why isn’t the housewife who goes on and on about how to master pie crust recipes called a nerd? Maybe it’s because these activities are socially condoned: A guy is expected to love sports and a housewife is expected to love baking. Maybe by choosing less socially accepted hobbies, people of high IQ monopolize the term “smart” as a consolation prize.  Maybe the term “nerd” still carries too much stigma for socialites to desire it. Maybe if we broaden the use of these words, maybe if everyone recognizes their inner nerd, then maybe some social barriers will be knocked down along the way.

I’m not expecting utopian results. We’re all doomed to clash over our passions because no one can be expected to obsess over the intricacies of every subject on earth. Whenever I get together with a friend who works as a computer programmer, it’s a fight over whether we play games that reward strategy (like Monopoly), or games that reward vocabulary (like Scattergories). He’s geekier than I am, but he’s not nerdier. In any case, I always get my way because I’m bossier.

Originally published January 13, 2013

 

 

On Using the “I Have A Friend/Sister/Coworker Who Is A…” Argument

29 May

light parade EXPLORED! (Image by Ashley Norquist used under CC 2.0 via)
 
It was one of those conversations where you bare all because you feel you have nothing to lose. A recent, unexpected statement about my dwarfism voiced to me by someone in a position of power had brought me to tears.  Three decades of being insulted both directly and behind my back by people I know, and indirectly by many of my heroes—from John Lennon to Stephen Colbert—had left me thinking that I had heard it all and was above it all. But this had left me shaken. My friend Dee, who does not have dwarfism, cracked open two beers and examined with me the best way to deal with the insidiousness of certain prejudices.

Those of us with achondroplastic dwarfism are roughly 1 in every 40,000 people, but Dee himself has heard demeaning comments about dwarfs with far greater frequency. When confronting such remarks, he argued:

I wouldn’t use the “I have a friend who is a dwarf” argument. Because it would sound like I only care about the issue because I have a friend who could be hurt by it. It doesn’t convince other people because it doesn’t force them to examine why the idea is cruel. It just makes them think, “Well, I’ll be sure not to say that around him anymore because he’s touchy about it because of his friend…” Instead I play dumb. I keep asking them, “Why? I don’t get what you’re saying.” And they can never explain why.

I had never considered this before. Many people use the “I have a friend who is…” argument in the hopes that this might illustrate to the ignorant that such people are everywhere – that they are our friends and siblings and partners, not just oddities we get to abstractly pick apart in headlines and on TV. Yet that’s not what others hear.

And members of a given group often do not appreciate exaggerated claims of expertise on the issue via association. Madonna and Bill de Blasio, both white parents of non-white people, have been lambasted in the past year for publicly cracking black jokes that fell flat. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates explained it best when she wrote:

Even though you’re dearly loved by and even related to black people, you aren’t black. You are NBA — Negro By Association — and that gives you props for knowing the culture and lots of little intracultural folkways. But it doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail card for using phrases like C.P. Time. Especially in mixed company, in public.

The Kinfolk Kollective has argued that white parents of adopted black children must always be ready and willing to understand a perspective they simply do not have and to stand corrected when necessary. When such a willingness is absent, the issue is not at all about opening minds but the desire for insider expertise.

And “I’ve dated someone who is…” is not a solid argument—neither in defending the minority in question nor one’s own character—because simply having dated someone is no guarantee of true understanding. Not only are exes the last kind of people we tend to regard fairly, but so many people of minority status must face the risk that their date sees them as little more than a fetish – as in “I’ve always wanted to f*** a little person!” 

And yet, in order stop rampant prejudice in its tracks, these issues must be talked about by those who are not experts. Journalists and writers like myself speak on behalf of all sorts of groups without belonging to them. The results are, of course, mixed.  

In the film, Stories We Tell, producer Harry Gulkin argues that the truth about any issue cannot be found by giving equal weight to the perspectives of everyone involved in any way. There are, he argues, three circles of knowledge: The first, innermost circle comprises the people who are the players involved in the issue, the second comprises those who are directly affected by the players and their actions, and the third comprises those who tangentially know about it because they have heard accounts from those in the first or second circle. This theory applies easily to the experience of someone considered Different by their society and the other lives affected by the attention society affords it. Using the example of disability:

First Circle: The person who is disabled

Second Circle: Their parents, siblings, partners, closest friends (who are not disabled)

Third Circle: Relatives, friends, coworkers (who are not disabled)

The people in the Third Circle are most at risk for spreading misinformation, regardless of intention. It is noble, for example, to fight the good fight in the bathroom debate because you know someone trans whom you really like. But it doesn’t mean you won’t misinterpret their thoughts and feelings, or give in to temptation and reduce some of their story to gossip.

The people in the Second Circle, as Madonna proved, are also at risk for such blunders. And too many partners, close friends and immediate family members err by letting their darkest fears and most selfish impulses lead them to say or do something terrible to the person in the First Circle. But on the flipside, much of the best work in minority rights has been produced by partners and parents of frequently marginalized people. And the experiences of the caregiver and their place in society is another kind of knowledge altogether.

Returning to Dee’s approach, the goal should not be about personal relationships and expertise, but about the most effective way to open minds and halt the spread of misinformation. 

Meanwhile, the More-Enlightened-Than-Thou game should be restricted to the smallest of circles. This was perhaps best elucidated to me by my friend Bill. Shortly after having come out, he mused to me, “I’ve decided you’re more open-minded than I am.” 

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you have lots of friends who are gay.  I only have one friend who’s a dwarf.” He took a sip of his Coke and smiled out of the corner of his eye. “And I’m thinking of dropping her.”

 

 

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

No One Should Be Proud to Wave That Flag

21 Jun

222 - Columbia, South Carolina(Image by Eyeliam used under CC license via)

 

Back at the beginning of the millennium, the news was a-twitter with a lukewarm debate about whether or not South Carolina should keep the Confederate flag flying over its capitol building. I was in high school at the time and assigned to argue the issue from the side of the flag-supporters in history class. I read about truck-driving good old boys who emblazoned the stars-and-bars across their bumpers because it’s not about hate, it’s about heritage. It’s about honoring our great-great-grandfathers who were sent off to fight and die in the bloodiest war in American history, they insisted, and most of our ancestors never owned slaves. The epic novel Cold Mountain was topping the bestsellers lists at the time and echoed this sentiment, portraying the war as a senseless tragedy and most Confederate soldiers as confused young boys who merely wanted to fight for local honor.

While these arguments did convince me that many flag-wavers of modern times do not share the racist agenda of others, I argued for the flag in the debate on a technicality. (There wasn’t enough support to remove the flag in the state legislature, and such a move could not bypass the legislature, etc., etc., etc.)

Years later, the issue arose again in a college class, where there was little sympathy for the flag-wavers.

“What about the point that it’s just about honoring the fallen soldiers and Southern heritage?” I asked.

The only black student in the class replied, “I’m from the South and black people are just as much part of Southern heritage as anyone else, and we are not represented by that flag. The Confederacy fought to keep blacks separate from whites and that flag certainly does that.”

Point taken.

Fast-forward a few years later to a birthday bash at my apartment here in Berlin. A friend of a friend is saying goodbye to me and the other hosts, and someone notices a button pinned to the jacket of the date she brought along.

“What’s that?” my friend asks, pointing.

The guy holds up the button and replies nonchalantly, “White power.”

We are all speechless as he turns and leaves.

One friend can’t stop glaring at the spot where the guy used to be. Neo-Nazism has been on the rise where he comes from – that is, the former East Germany – ever since mass unemployment followed the fall of the Wall.  That kid was simply one of many who grew up in shrinking towns with few prospects and who had decided to transform his frustration into racial pride.

What should we have said to him had we not been so paralyzed with shock?

That the button is not okay.

That bronze plaques just a few doors down from my apartment mark where Jewish people were dragged from their homes and shipped off to be murdered in Latvia.

That of course most young swastika-wavers didn’t ever set foot anywhere near a concentration camp.

That to them, in the words of one German friend’s grandmother, the Nazis were about “organizing nice get-togethers for the young people and the local community. Most of them weren’t killers!”

That another friend’s grandfather said, “I never had anything against the Jews. I always said hello to my Jewish neighbors!”

That you don’t have to watch Judgment At Nuremberg to know that the best way to allow genocide and ethnic cleansing and slavery and other human rights atrocities to happen is to encourage everyday people to shrug off arrests and killings as “unfortunate tragedy,” to encourage them to sit comfortably with their prejudices while insisting, “I wouldn’t personally harm anyone,“ and,  “We couldn’t do anything about it if we wanted to!”

Not one of my German friends would ever wear Nazi insignia to honor their country’s history or their grandfathers, many of whom were confused young boys hauled off to the battlefields, convinced they were simply fighting for their nation’s honor.

Those who do wear such paraphernalia are most often found in the modern Nationalist Party of Germany, which today lists “getting over the Holocaust” as one of its main political goals. We’ve apologized enough! they insist. All this complaining about Nazi Germany is overdone! White guilt is the real problem of our times.

Several of these goals are shared by the Council of Conservative Citizens, which years ago presented France’s National Front party with a Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol, which right-wing pundit Ann Coulter argues is “not a racist” organization, which Dylann Storm Roof cites in his manifesto as the first organization he referenced at the beginning of his militancy.

Moments after the kid and his white power button were gone, a German friend finally sighed, “That’s an embarrassment to my generation.”

And Dylann Storm Roof’s agenda is an embarrassment to mine.

I’m not directly responsible for his actions. But I’m an heir to the last Western country to abolish slavery on its soil. And I’m the beneficiary of loads of white privilege in the U.S. and around the world. And I belong to a generation whose ignorance about racism is perhaps the greatest facilitator of it.  As Gene Demby of Codeswitch notes:

Roof will read to many as some sort of fossilized outlier, a remnant of a vanishing tribe…

[But] it turns out that even as this generation is on the whole “cool” with interracial marriage and dating, there’s a lot of daylight between the way white millennials and those of color feel about a bunch of other questions about race… Young white people were nearly twice as likely to say that the government pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups. They were also nearly twice as likely to say that discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities…

In the Oxford journal Public Opinion Quarterly, researcher Vincent Hutching combed through public opinion surveys taken before and after several presidential elections and found that “younger cohorts of whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988.”

And really, why would they be? America’s public schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. Americans continue to live in very different worlds; a 2011 study showed that ethnic identity outranked income as a predictor of where people live…

There’s also good data suggesting that white millennials have a far rosier view on race relations than their contemporaries of color. This too makes sense when you think about the schools, the stark housing segregation, the fact that on average white people have hardly any friends of color, and, perhaps more importantly than we realize, the fact that they just don’t have much experience talking about this stuff. (In fact, it’s safe to assume that Roof has spent far more time discussing race than most people his age.) As Politico’s Sean McElwee put it, the data that’s out there “suggests that millennials aren’t racially tolerant, they’re racially apathetic: They simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it.” …

A big Pew study on multiracial Americans released in June found that most of the country’s multiracial adults are likely to identify with one race — usually a non-white one — often because of their own experiences with race-based discrimination.

Indeed, I grew up frequently believing racism was a thing of the past, unaware that my white privilege was what permitted me to do so. I winced but did not reflect when I heard classmates say, “I don’t get what black people’s problem is. I mean, what more do they want?”

Three weeks ago, North Carolina high school students on a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield took some selfies with the Confederate flag, titled them “South will rise,” and uploaded them to Instagram. After garnering racist remarks (“I just bought my first slave”) and then finally outrage, the poster issued a non-apology:

I’m sorry that my picture offended people and especially since my initial caption (that I changed once I realized people took it seriously), but I’m currently on the Civil War trip learning about the history of our country and this just so happens to be a pretty fucking important part of it. We were reenacting Pickett’s charge in which the South lost 85% of their soldiers. These aren’t the Confederate flags in fact, they’re the North Carolina regimental flags. I’m proud to be a part of my state and I’m sorry my photo was so offensive but I find it appropriate in that I’m honoring heroes that fought to protect their home and families.

We cannot take credit for our ancestors’ achievements if we refuse to learn from their failures.

The plaques near my apartment were hammered into the pavement of our street to say one thing to everyone who passes by: Never again. You don’t have to consider the differences between the Holocaust and the American slave trade to know that both count among the darkest episodes in human history.

You don’t have to consider the difference between casual racist remarks and full-blown hate crimes to know that they enable each other. Roof has proven himself to be a bloodthirsty killer. He is also a high-school dropout craving something to believe in, and ended up drawn to white supremacy. And there are many, many like him throughout the United States, here in Germany, and around the world. If we do not confront the insidious ideas they are willing to kill for, if we do not address the newly uncovered fact that blacks shot by police in the U.S. are more than twice as likely as whites to be unarmed, if we don’t get flag-wavers to listen to those they frighten, then we are doomed to witness this happen again and again.


 

Will We Live To See The End of Dwarfism?

29 Mar

Hands

 

Prologue: My three-month long hiatus from blogging was due to tendon surgery I underwent in January and rare complications that arose from it. I am now gradually returning to work from sick leave and thrilled to be back.

* * *

Medicine has been transforming the fate of human society since the first moment someone bandaged a wound. Bearing this in mind, along with the more recent advances in genetics, I have realized for the past decade or so that there is a future, however near or distant, that promises a world without dwarfism. But what if this world arrives as soon as the next generation?

Pharmaceuticals company BioMarin reported earlier this year the start of clinical trials for a drug called BMN-111. If it ends up doing what it promises, repeated injections could transform the bone and cartilage growth of children born with achondroplasia, essentially curing them of the condition. Could this mean that I might someday belong to the last of the dwarfs?

To be clear, BMN-111 could cure only achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism, not the other 200+ types. (So the attention-grabbing name of this article is a tad misleading.) Dwarfism caused by growth hormone deficiency—which affected circus performer General Tom Thumb and most of the actors playing the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz—has already been cured by hormone injections invented at the end of the last century. But 70% of all dwarfs have achondroplasia. Without us, the small number of people identifiable as dwarfs would become much smaller.

Because I’m a fully grown adult, I can’t ever cure my achondroplasia. But would I have chosen to do so if I could? Were my doctor to offer me a pill that would transform my joints and my muscle tone, allowing me to walk and stand around for longer than an hour without my feet swelling with pain, I would take it in an instant. The same goes for a pill that would endow me with more normal fine motor strength, so that I could open jars and push down sticky buttons and do all those tasks that leave me swearing and/or asking someone else for help. I would gladly have taken a pill that would broaden my Eustachian tubes so that I would stop getting ear infections every year. And I would have embraced any sort of medicine that would have widened my spinal column so that I would never have had to have a laminectomy, and so that I could cook and clean my house without back pain. All of the discomfort and inconvenience I just listed are part and parcel of achondroplasia – parts that limb-lengthening could never alter.  

But when I consider a pill that, in ridding me of all that pain, would also rid me of every physical marker of achondroplasia, I suddenly hesitate. My wrists, my feet, my skull, my face would look significantly different from the one I have. The idea of never having had to learn how best to react to being the most physically remarkable person in school, of never having undergone limb-lengthening, of never having lived in an institution with children with all sorts of serious conditions, of never having had to explain my unique history to others – it makes me have a hard time imagining an Emily Sullivan Sanford that is anything like the one I know today. My dwarfism is only part of who I am, but it has been a significant part of who I am. This is why I understand the Little People of America members who balk at BMN-111, put their fingers in their ears and chant, “Go away, go away, go away!”

We must approach the future rationally because our emotional attachment to life as we know it can lead us to delude ourselves with an unrealistic sense of control. History after all demonstrates that future generations will never know all kinds of things we treasure today. Give or take a few centuries, people in our part of the world will most certainly not face the same illnesses, speak the same language, wear the same clothes, eat the same foods, or observe the same traditions we do. Whether we’re debating the politics of Hawaiian Pidgin or that punk’s not dead, we do not get the final say on what future generations will know and what will be lost to the ages.

Identity is a construct, but a construct that is as powerful as any other. As Andrew Solomon writes, “I don’t wish for anyone in particular to be gay, but the idea of no one’s being gay makes me miss myself already.”

Granted achondroplasia is not merely a difference like a dialect or homosexuality. It is a medical condition that causes very real physical pain and health risks. Like diabetes. I can write with certainty that the vast majority of people with diabetes, while rightfully proud of the obstacles they’ve overcome, would happily rid themselves of the disease. They would celebrate never having to check their blood sugar, inject themselves with insulin, or worry about developing dangerous complications. We can safely make the same assumption for people who have to deal with migraine headaches or deep-vein thrombosis.

But let’s consider a condition that, like achondroplasia, has as many social ramifications as medical ones. I bet most people who wear glasses would gladly take a pill that guaranteed perfect vision. No more headaches, no more pressure sores on the bridge of your nose, no more wondering where you set them down, no more worrying if they break, no more bills! But would they so easily let go of their bespectacled appearance? Although he no longer needs glasses since his laser surgery, comedian Drew Carey wears non-prescription glasses to maintain his look.

I surveyed a handful of friends in Europe and the U.S., and most answered that they would indeed take a pill guaranteed to improve their vision, and also that they would never wear anything but sunglasses again. If this scenario ever becomes reality, the movement of the past 100 years to broaden beauty standards to include the bespectacled will begin to fade. The 20% of my respondents that answered, “I would wear non-prescription glasses because it’s a part of my identity,” will belong to a shrinking minority left to fend for itself. They will likely start counting the minutes until they hear something marginalizing like: “Isn’t it great you won’t have to look like a nerd anymore?”    

Once again, people with achondroplasia must admit that our distinguishing condition involves far more innate physical complications than simply needing glasses or being gay. Activist Harry Wieder bemoaned the reticence among people with dwarfism to even admit that we are disabled, and he was right to be so critical. Downplaying the pain and surgical risks everyone with achondroplasia faces is a matter of denial. But such denial is often rooted in the worry that others will overemphasize our pain, distancing themselves from us in a way all too similar to the fear and pity that fuels ableism. Such distance imposed by other minorities can break solidarity and lead to hierarchical thinking along the lines of, “At least I’m not like that!

Anyone who reacts to the idea of BMN-111 ridding humanity of the achondroplastic appearance with a sigh of relief has a problem. It’s a problem we can never afford to ignore. The lessons of diversity awareness and inclusion are priceless. If dermatologists some day offer a cure for vitiligo, Winnie Harlow’s recent successes in the world of modeling will still have only been a good thing.

My attachment to my starfish hands, my achondroplastic nose, and my scars is not rational. But the human experience is never purely rational. And self-acceptance is an achievement like no other. Almost every person with achondroplasia has a jarring moment when they see themselves in photos or on film and are reminded that their hands are not at all slender, like most of the hands they see in photos or on film. Or that their hips sway when they walk. Or that their skulls are larger. Learning to live with the shock is a difficult but worthwhile experience. When a mother of a girl with achondroplasia wrote to me, asking about her four-year-old daughter’s future, my family awwwwwed at the photos she sent us. “I remember having an adorable little girl with a forehead like that!” my dad grinned.

I was not nearly so moved by the recently published images of celebrities photoshopped to “reimagine them with dwarfism” next to an image of Peter Dinklage photoshopped to “reimagine him without” because only their legs were modified.

The project itself is thought-provoking, but Daniel Radcliffe simply wouldn’t get into the achondroplasia club with those ridiculously long arms. And Peter Dinklage—whom GQ declared a “stud” in its 2011 Men of the Year list—would have a dramatically different forehead, cheekbones, jaw, and nose.

One of the respondents to my survey who said he would keep his glasses explained, “Not really for aesthetic reasons, exactly, though that’s part of it (and it is fun to buy glasses). But because they’re a part of my face! I’ve never considered contacts, either, come to think of it. They serve some other function, beyond utility and style, I guess.”

Similar feelings have been expressed by people who underwent surgery to remove the sixth finger on their right hand for convenience, while opting against the removal of the sixth finger on their left: “Why would I cut it off? It’s a part of me.”

Syndactyly runs in two sides of my family. One relative remarked about her child, “I was so happy when she was born to see she didn’t have those fused toes!”

To which another relative with fused toes later said, “Why? It hurts a bit more when you stub them, but otherwise, what’s the big deal?”

Replace the word “fused toes” with red hair or monolids or pale skin or dark skin or freckles or whatever intrinsic part of you might somewhere be considered unfashionable and you’ll know a little how dwarfs feel about BMN-111. As with limb-lengthening, BMN-111 threatens to out the uglier feelings some people have about our appearance. We must remember that it’s the feelings that are ugly, not the body.    

Talking out my endlessly complex thoughts about a world without dwarfism feels like moving through a labyrinth that is partly my own making. During one such recent talk, a close friend said to me, “If we could look at a version of you that never had achondroplasia, I understand that you would miss yourself and I would miss you, too.  But you would be awesome in a different way that would still be your own way, and it would be without all the pain and complications and danger.”

This is what people with achondroplasia need to hear from those who truly accept them.  

 

 

 

The Best Picture Books for Preventing Prejudice

30 Nov

Book sculpture (Image by Ellen Forsyth used under CC 2.0 via)

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.

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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 fifth 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.

***

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 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.

Barbie vs. Lammily

9 Mar

Lammily is Barbie’s new contender(Image by Day Donaldson used under Creative Commons license via)

 

Barbie turns 55 today and her birthday risks being overshadowed by a rival. Designer Nickolay Lamm has kicked off a very successful crowdsourcing campaign to fund the production of Lammily, a doll whose body is modeled after the mean proportions (taken from the Centers for Disease Control) for an American 19 year-old because, as her slogan goes, “average is beautiful.” The center photo above shows Lammily at her earliest design stage in contrast to Barbie. The left and right photos show her updated, final form.

Despite that her name sounds like the way most toddlers mangle mine, Lammily does seem quite lovely. But mostly because the problems with her competitor are countless. Barbie represents—and was very much intended to represent—an idea born in the middle of the last century that little girls should play not just with baby dolls or girl dolls, but with a woman doll, a post-pubescent beauty they should aspire to. The very first Barbie was inspired by the German Lilli, a character featured in tabloid comics who worked as a secretary by day and an escort by night. While it’s disputed whether or not the Lilli doll was in fact a sex toy, the longer you look at Barbie, the more that explanation makes sense.

Barbie is all fantasy: too thin to menstruate, with breasts so big she’d have to crawl on all fours to get around. (Sporty Lammily could knock her to the floor with a light kick.)  Fantasies about beauty are fine as long as they remain a niche, not a standard. If her fame and influence were not so unparalleled, Barbie wouldn’t be a cause of much trouble. But she is the most famous doll in the world, and while she often changes jobs and outfits to bend to society’s trends, her body type never budges from the sex toy standard.

My mother swore I would never own a Barbie—how could it be healthy for a girl with dwarfism to idolize a lady who’s all legs?—but a neighbor bought me one for Christmas, and within the next 10 years I owned 12: Tropical Barbie, Superstar Barbie, Ice Capades Barbie, Gymnast Barbie, Fun-to-Dress Barbie, Loving You Barbie, Hollywood Hair Barbie, Cool Times Barbie, Dreamtime Barbie, Dream Glow Barbie, Dream Date Barbie, and my mother’s own, dragged-out-of-the-attic Barbie from the 1960s, whose earrings had turned her cheeks green. The funny thing is that every one of these Barbies had a slightly different face and slightly different blond hair with varying lengths and textures. But, just like the Disney Princesses, the bodies were all exactly the same. Barbie’s oh-so-80s Rocker friends Diva (brunette), DeeDee (black), and Dana (possibly Asian?) represented a broader range of hair and skin, but their bodies were all replicas of Barbie’s. This is what makes Lammily so radical.

But I don’t want an answer to Barbie. I want many answers to Barbie. Lammily correctly demonstrates that an average girl in the Western world is not blond. But blondes shouldn’t be any more excluded or celebrated than anyone else. Declaring “average” bodies and physical features a beauty standard continues to marginalize girls who deviate from the average. Another word for average is “normal” and it’s never fun for a young girl to hear that her body is “not normal.” Both Barbie and Disney have dared to dabble in the beauty of different ethnicities, but they haven’t been brave enough to try different body types – short, curvy, bony, disabled, with freckles or scars or glasses or birthmarks in the shape of Mexico.

As Hannah Blanke shows in her stellar piece, “Real Women,” there is no wrong way to have a body. If Mattel can invent over 50 varieties of blond hair for their preeminent princess, surely doll manufacturers can find a way to profit from providing a rainbow of body types. Maybe they will be brave enough by the next time International Women’s Day rolls around. That’s my fantasy, anyway.

 

 

“Fashionista Has Leg Amputated So She Can Wear High Heels”

2 Dec

L0066938 Illustration showing treatment of a clubfoot Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Illustration showing treatment of a clubfoot 1806 Memoria chirurgica sui piedi torti congeniti dei fanciulli, e sulla maniera di correggere questa deformità / Antonio Scarpa Published: 1806. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

(Image from Wellcome Images used & altered under CC)

 

Or so The New York Post would have you think.

21 year-old Mariah Serrano was born with a club foot.  By the time she was a teenager, she faced increasing chronic pain and her doctors strongly advocated amputating and replacing her leg with a prosthetic one. Now an assistant designer for American Rag and author of the blog Confessions of a One-Legged Fashionista, she recently shared her story with the Post:

Serrano struggled to look like the other girls in her high school who often called her “gimpy.”

“I felt silly in pictures, I was the only one in these shitty little ballet flats,” she recalled.

“I had to wear all sorts of braces. It was uncomfortable and frustrating because they weren’t solving the problem and I often felt embarrassed.”

The glamour girl wore patterned knee highs and flashy tights to mask her deformity. She even dyed her hair pink to distract people from staring at her leg. She eventually stopped going to classes and was home-schooled.

“Kids are mean,” she said. “It made things very hard.”

“A lot of times I felt left out because I loved to dance and go out.”

But even more mortifying for the teenage girl, was being forced to wear sneakers to prom.  “I was really devastated in the mall,” she recalled, after shopping for four hours to find a chic shoe.

The article never mentions any medical purpose for the amputation. Serrano is only quoted as hating the limited number of footwear options that had been available to her prior to the operation. The story ran four days ago and was quickly picked up the British tabloids.  And Serrano is not pleased.  She explains on her blog:    

I did not choose to cut my leg off so I can wear high heels, I had my leg amputated because I was very sick and the quality of my health and life were suffering. Doctors do not welcome the idea that you are unhappy with your footwear choices, so you should remove body parts.

This event was a real decision that I took very seriously. It was a decision my family and I made together, so that I would be able to live my dreams, and not mind you, dreams of footwear, but dreams of waking up and going about my life not in chronic pain.

I think it’s safe to say that The New York Post is not a feminist crusader on the issues of body image and beauty standards.  So why then would they decide to warp Serrano’s words to feed the image of the fashionista lifestyle as a vile instigator of self-mutilation?  The story of a young girl simply but bravely electing to trade chronic pain for a prosthesis is severely lacking in vitriol. This means there is no surefire guarantee that it will unleash a deluge of jaw-dropping, eye-rolling, and catty comments from readers about the girl in question.  That guarantee is essential to the business the Post is in.

Serrano is hardly the first individual to be misrepresented by the tabloids.  But who’s keeping the tabloids going by hungering after such headlines?  It’s this hunger that drives journalists across the spectrum to emphasize the most soap opera-like elements of a person’s life story.  I’ve seen the most loving, supportive families with disabled children portrayed as walking tragedies based on a few of their more emotional quotes taken out of context.  This approach knows that readers and viewers will consequently feel sorry for the pathetically confused freaks, and good about themselves.  Not unlike the mean classmates Serrano cites from her high school days.

So if anyone is interested in ending the tabloids’ tradition of tearing people’s personal lives to shreds, we can curb their sales by curbing our desire to use bits of information about people we don’t know as an easy way to prop ourselves up. Of course this is asking a lot, and so, once again, we must decide which is harder – altering the way we think or altering our bodies?

 

 

The Most Racist Place On Earth

26 May

world map 3D(Image used under CC license via)

 

Where in the world are people most likely to say that they would not want “people of another race” as neighbors?  The results, from the Swedish World Values Survey, were published this week in The Washington Post in the form of a map by Max Fisher, who drew some conclusions here.   The Swedish research team, meanwhile, found that racism does not necessarily decrease when economic freedom increases.   (But homophobia does.)     

The results are fascinating, but they should not be seen as inerrant proof of how things stand.  Nor should the map be used as a travel guide.  In the case of Sweden, which has seen on-going riots in the poor suburban neighborhoods of Stockholm all week, qualifying as less racist than other countries hardly proves you are racism-free.  And as Fisher points out, there is no guarantee that the respondents answered honestly. 

When both Americans and Germans hear the word “race,” only the most socially inept among them do not know to respond very, very carefully.  In Germany, even seemingly objective words like “home” and “deport” make most people immediately think of the Holocaust.  But if you said to a white German, “How would you feel about having gypsies live next door?”, or if you said to a WASP American, “How would you feel about having neighbors who are illegal immigrants?”, you might get a more cynical answer.  (I use the offensive terms “illegal immigrants” and “gypsies” for hypothetical purposes.  Readers outside the U.S. and Europe should note that “undocumented immigrants” and “Roma” are more objective, less derogatory terms.)  Almost everyone in the U.S. and Germany knows racism is a bad thing, which is why most racists will not admit to it.  As Desmond Tutu said, five minutes after apartheid ended in South Africa, you couldn’t find anyone who had ever supported apartheid.    

Indeed, while readers in India have been reacting angrily to their nation’s standing in the survey, there is a tremendous risk that people from the countries that appear less racist are, or will become, dangerously complacent about their supposed open-mindedness.  The U.S. and U.K. appear slightly more tolerant than Germany, but a friend from India has openly said she feels much more respected and protected here in Berlin than in New York, where she has been harassed by Homeland Security officials, or in London, where her brother was beaten up for being a “Paki.”  Anecdotal evidence is less empirical than statistical evidence, but statistical evidence is far from infallible. 

Take for example the fact that France ranks as one of the most racist nations in the West.  The strongest evidence to support this finding is probably the popularity of the right-wing, anti-immigration party National Front, which won 17.9% of the vote in the first round of last year’s presidential election.  But racism cannot always be measured so plainly.  In the United States, hate groups are on the rise, but most segregationists and white supremacists vote either Republican or Democrat because they must operate in a two-party system if they want to get anything done.  Many members of Congress have been members of the nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens (also known as the CCC, which sounds a lot like another white supremacist organization), which in 1997 presented the former head of the National Front with a Confederate flag.  The U.S. ranks as more tolerant than France in the survey, yet a great deal of its racism survives covertly.    

And on the flipside, America’s history reveals more overt racism than France’s.  All anti-miscegenation laws were lifted in France 175 years earlier than in the United States.  French literary giant Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was the son of France’s first black general, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was the highest ranking black general in any Western country until Colin Powell rose to the rank in 1989.  Racial segregation laws did not exist in modern France until the Nazi Occupation, which is why many black American celebrities like Josephine Baker expatriated there.  Anecdotal evidence suggests people of sub-Saharan background have been better integrated into French society than people of Arab and/or Muslim background, but this is difficult to examine because, unlike in the United States, it has been illegal in France since 1958 to collect data on race or ethnicity.

Indeed, what do we mean by people of a “different race”?  What do you imagine?  In the United States, we tend to think of ethnicity as something we can’t quite put our finger on, while race is widely thought to be based on indisputable biological facts.  Having pale skin, brownish wavy hair, and no epicanthic fold makes people think of me in the U.S. and Europe as white, affording me all the privileges that implies.  The precise details of my ethnicity and heritage—growing up in a WASP family with ancestors who were English, Irish, German, Polish, Scottish, and also possibly Jewish—are rarely an issue.  Nowadays.  But marriage to my Irish Catholic grandfather in 1943 led my grandmother to be disowned by her own grandmother. 

And today the ethnicity of a white person of Middle Eastern background is a major issue for many right-wing Westerners.  Some will argue that the dark hair and olive skin tone common among Middle Easterners renders them a separate, biologically identifiable race, but then what about Greek or Spanish people?  What about Austrians and Southern Germans?  What about that Harry Potteresque raven-hair/pale skin combination so common in the U.K. and Ireland?  Is this starting to sound silly?  Jokes about redheads suddenly become less innocuous in light of violent gingerism.  For better or for worse, predominantly white societies recognize tremendous physical diversity across Europe, but usually fail to differentiate between Chinese and Japanese, or West Africans and East Africans.  Race is in the eye—or mind—of the beholder.  

Years ago, my German-Swedish boyfriend almost went through the roof when a teenage friend of the family said she felt a bit nervous in Berlin “because of all the immigrants around.”  How could she say such a thing in front of his American girlfriend?! he seethed.  But she didn’t think of me as an “immigrant” because I’m middle class, I have the same hair color and complexion as the majority of German citizens, I celebrate Christmas, and I immigrated to Berlin simply because I loved the city, not out of economic necessity or a fear of persecution at home.  Around the world, some people are intolerant of any race that they perceive as different from their own, while others are intolerant of only certain races.  Which kind of racism is preferable? 

No matter the answer, the existence of the second kind proves that both kinds of racism are unnatural.

 

Who Should Have To Expose Themselves?

5 May

(Via)

 

If you live anywhere in the West, you know this transphobic joke.  Girl and guy go to bed.  Guy wakes up and finds out somehow that his lover was not born a woman.  The moment of realization is sketched out across his face in excruciating slow-motion, and then he runs away in horror/vomits his brains out/gets very, very, very angry.  The message? 

1)      A trans woman isn’t a “real” woman, she’s a freak.

2)      His being attracted to her somehow makes him less of a man.

3)      Most importantly, he’s been duped.

Feeling duped is the bedrock of transphobia.  Those who feel indiscriminately upset at the very idea of transsexual and/or transgender people usually say something along the lines of, “They’re deceiving people!  I’d be pretty pissed if I found out my girlfriend/boyfriend had had a sex change.”  This feeling is usually enshrouded in the myth that transitioning into the opposite sex is done capriciously, just for laughs and the thrill of going undercover.  This mentality never ever acknowledges the fact that many transsexual and transgender people feel as uncomfortable in the body they were born in as cis people would feel in a body they were not born in.  And it fosters the view of cis people as victims of trans villains, ignoring that trans people in the United States have a suicide rate 26 times higher than the nationl average and that worldwide one trans person is murdered every three days.

This all too common belief that trans people are deceptive, and maliciously so, has now reached new heights as two trans men in the U.K. have been charged with and convicted of sexual assault.  Their accusers claimed that the men’s failure to disclose their gender at birth before they slept with them was a form of fraud and thus the consent the women gave to sex was under false pretenses.  I am in no position to make a final judgment about these two specific cases.  Perhaps they involved many other factors revealing coercion and predatory behavior.  I cannot speak for the defendants or the accusers.  But I can and will speak out against the widespread belief that the freaks of the world are obliged to warn everyone they know about their atypical features and histories before they dare try to get close to someone.

My husband thought I must have been in a car accident years ago when we met for the first time at a birthday party.  I was wearing a sleeveless top exposing the lavender scars that traverse my upper arms.  I know I told him soon after, on our first date, about my long medical history, but that was because we were having an intellectual debate about the role of the media and I decided to use my childhood experiences as an example.  I decided to do so because I liked him and trusted him in a very special way.  It was not because I felt that anyone I was interested in romantically “deserved” to know.

What do potential sex partners deserve to know?  Do they deserve to know I had my calf bones removed?  Do they deserve to know I had my tonsils out?  What if I had been born deaf and had a cochlear implant?  What if I used to weigh twice as much, or half as much, as I do now?  What about veterans or cancer patients who have lost body parts normally only seen by sex partners?  Is it fraudulent of a cancer survivor to wear a prosthesis that would suggest she still has both breasts?  

Indeed, the moment I read about the British cases, I was immediately reminded of a poem by Robert Hass about a woman who is abandoned at her doorstep by a young admirer after she tells him she has had a double mastectomy.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t think I could,” he mumbles before he turns his tail and runs.  I do not know what it is like to be a cancer survivor or transsexual, but surely many of us know what it is like to fear being rejected for something we never had much of a choice about.

In reponse to the British accusations of sexual assault, law professor Alex Sharpe has asked, What if a potential sex partner appears white but is in fact of mixed race – is a failure to map out your entire family tree grounds for prosecution?  Of course not.  He points out that individuals are not legally obliged to reveal to sex partners that they are bisexual, married, divorced, have a past criminal record…  The list is endless, and thus he argues: “Given that we all have gender histories but only some of us (transgender people) are required to disclose them, there appears to be a good basis for arguing that a legal requirement to disclose gender history constitutes discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Of course, any counselor or psychologist will tell you that trust, openness, and honesty are necessary for a healthy relationship and true intimacy, but the right to privacy and personal dignity are also necessary for any community founded on justice.  And there can be no genuine trust when certain people reveal personal information only because society’s hang-ups about gender, sexuality, or atypical bodies demand they do. 

Everyone is entitled to their sexuality.  No one should ever be pressured into a heterosexual, homosexual or pansexual relationship.  Open and honest dialogue about this is essential.  But the more we blame minorities for upsetting our delusions of normalcy just by being who they are, the more we tell jokes implying that any normal person would be disgusted by their physiology, the more we insist that their identities are a perversion of ours, the more difficult we make it for them to be open and honest with us.

 

 

Who You Telling To Wear Makeup?

28 Apr

fashion show(Image by Alex Craig used under CC license via)

 

While chatting with colleagues over coffee this week, I ended up “outing” myself as a dwarf who’s had limb-lengthening.  (Experience has taught me some people notice right away when they meet me that something is up, while others go a long time without the slightest idea, especially in the wintertime when my scars are hidden under sleeves and pants.)  We arrived at this topic by discussing fashion—and the recent scandal in Sweden that’s left me almost speechless—and then beauty and self-confidence.  Several of my colleagues pointed out that every person they know who’s undergone cosmetic surgery never struck them as unattractive before the fact.  Only an idiot would think that there’s only one kind of beautiful nose or mouth or whathaveyou.  And only a jerk would tell someone to have cosmetic surgery.

As you may have guessed, I agreed wholeheartedly.  But what about telling someone to wear makeup?

This week, a man writing to Slate’s Dear Prudence advice column confessed he feels simultaneously guilty and helpless about the fact that some of his female friends are unlucky in love because “their looks are probably the only thing holding them back.”  Prudence tends give good, progressive advice, but this time, instead of telling him the ladies should move in less superficial circles, she suggested he pair them up with some similarly “average-looking” male buddies.  She then added, “If the problem with your female friends is not their intrinsic looks but the fact that they dress like schlubs or never wear makeup, then a guy’s perspective that they aren’t doing everything with what they’ve got could spur them into action.”

Ugh.  Say what you want about clothes, but the makeup debate is as messy and gunky as makeup itself, which is why I’ve avoided it up until now.  But am I the only one who thinks telling someone to start using makeup is entirely different from giving them your opinion about the way they dress?

Everyone, from my partner to my grandmother, rolls their eyes at certain fashion choices and, as I’ve said before, anyone who denies they ever do it is lying.  It betrays a pathetic insecurity to trash others’ dress for the sake of your own self-aggrandizement—e.g. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!”—but it is fair to say what just isn’t your cup of tea.  We can snark a little about someone’s clothes, hairstyles, accessories, headgear or makeup style (if they have one) without too much malice because someone is probably snarking about ours.  No one on earth dresses in a way that is universally attractive because there is no such thing as a universal beauty standard.  And as the saying goes, there is no arguing taste.  Someone thinks this is kick-ass, and someone else thinks it’s sloppy:

Captain Jack Sparrow

Someone thinks this is dreamy and someone else thinks it’s one big yawn:

Jason Straatmann Actor Japan Suit Tie Cufflinks Model

Someone thinks this is sexy and someone else thinks it’s garish: 

Untitled

People find beauty in this:

Traditional Korean dance

Or this:

Ethiopia, Mursi woman

Or this:

Bollenhut-Gutach

Or this:

4601942293_27f40e0122_o

Or this:

Namibië, oktober 2008

Or this:

 
And that’s just a tiny sample from around the world. There is even more variation across time because, as Oscar Wilde said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”  I think some of my friends, like some of the subjects above, have a great sense of style, while others do not.  They in turn probably think the same about me.  But if any of them thought I should wear makeup more often than I do—which is almost never—and told me so, they wouldn’t be my friends.  But what if they’re my supervisors?      

In January, a study featured in The New York Times revealed that (American) women who wear makeup are considered more competent and more likable in the workplace.  A panel of stylists and professors made various points about this that basically all boiled down to, “It’s a choice.  If it makes women feel more confident, they should go for it.”  But if the study indicates that their confidence would result from garnering more positive attention for their looks, then their lack of confidence without makeup would result from a fear of not getting attention for their looks. 

Many modern women, especially lipstick feminists, repeat, “Empowerment is all about being free to choose!”  There is truth in this.  I know guys who were bullied in school for wearing concealer or plucking their eyebrows.  Women meanwhile are often forced into a nearly impossible balancing act wherein no makeup = plain Jane, but too much = slut, and kudos to anyone who refuses to play that game.  Good girl culture, as well as the results from the study, assert that “less makeup is more – you should look like you’re not wearing any.”  This rule seems potentially problematic to me because it is insidious.  If someone gets used to just slightly “improving” their face every day, it is more likely they’ll feel insecure without these improvements.  I occasionally enjoy wearing heavy makeup bordering on the outrageous (like glitter), but it feels like a mask and everyone knows it’s a mask.  When it’s so obviously part of a costume, there’s not much danger that I’ll start considering it an inalienable component of myself.  But the subtle makeup seems to be a lot harder for people to let go of.  I know women who refuse to be photographed without their makeup on—and you probably do, too—and if that doesn’t sound like an unhealthy insecurity, I don’t know what does.

In any case, it doesn’t sound like they are “free to choose,” as lipstick feminists advocate.  As I’ve written before in explaining my choice to have my limbs lengthened, we should be free to make complex decisions about our bodies without others making snap judgments about our motivations.  Anyone who does is a coward.  But it is also cowardly of us to voice hatred for our natural faces and simultaneously deny that this has any impact on others.  In the words of philosopher Arthur W. Frank, “When we make a choice, we confront others with that choice.”  The freedom to choose diminishes when a strong majority bends in one direction, because majorities create social pressure.  In a society that literally rewards women who wear makeup—i.e., with higher salaries—it is undeniable that many do so in order to win these rewards, ultimately playing by the rules under the guise of empowerment.  The cosmetics industry, like any industry, always aims to make their customers feel that they cannot live without their product and so they too have embraced the slogan of “Empowerment!”  Leading The Onion to smirk, “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does!” 

It would be obnoxious of me to assume that every woman with a compact in her purse does it to acquiesce.  I know and admire selfconfident women who love putting on bright red lipstick and self-confident men who wish they could, too, without being gawked at.  Primping can be fun.  Painting your skin certain colors can make you feel fine and refreshed, like slipping into a brand-new top or getting a new haircut.  Or brushing your teeth after a hangover. 

But it’s not quite the same thing, is it?  Once again, it’s a mask.  A friend of mine who loves dressing up but hates wearing makeup recently said, “I guess, ultimately, it’s weird looking in the mirror and seeing something that doesn’t look like me.  I don’t really like makeup on other people either though, so perhaps it’s a general class of trying to hide oneself that bugs me.”   

Indeed, that is one of my many reasons for rarely ever using cosmetics, why I graciously declined friends’ offers to do me up on my wedding day, why I cringe at the idea of anyone pressuring women into it.  I also like being able to rub my face without having to worry about smudging.  I’d rather spend the money on a million other things.  My partner hates the taste of cream, gloss or powder—“Kissing someone wearing foundation is like kissing a sandbox!”—and I must say I don’t blame him.  Most importantly perhaps, I don’t understand why our culture believes that women’s faces require some paint in order to be attractive but men’s faces don’t.  If I can’t compensate for the plainness of my natural face with my charisma, then no one should be able to.

Of course, almost all of us conform to our culture’s beauty standards to some degree.  I’ve worn concealer for blemishes and plucked my eyebrows to make them even, but I feel a strong attachment to my scars and so I’ve kept them.  I don’t always like my face—don’t we all have those days when we look in the mirror and just feel yucky and dissatisfied?—but even if I thought putting on some modern Western style of makeup would make me look “better,” it wouldn’t look like me.  Experience has also taught me that a dissatisfaction with one’s looks is almost always rooted in something more substantial: feeling not very fit, feeling overtired and stressed, feeling lazy because there’s been too much or too little to do.  And even if it’s not, I often feel very satisfied with my face, so on a bad day why not simply walk away from the mirror, focus on something a little more profound than my appearance, and have confidence that the feeling of self-satisfaction will return?

As psychologist Nancy Etcoff wrote in The Times:

Women who feel that makeup use is obligatory but unwanted, that it requires a forced confrontation with the mirror when they’d rather put their attention elsewhere, do not feel more confident after using it.  Research suggests that women can feel objectified by makeup, and for such women, any potential advantage may be offset by the emotional labor of wearing it.

And, in an excellent article on weddings, Ariel Meadow Stallings of Offbeatbride.com writes:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pursuit of authenticity versus the pursuit of attention.  The first feels very internal, like you really have to look with-in yourself with a lot of introspection and thought to determine what’s important … while the other feels very external, like you’re hunting for other people’s eyeballs.  And why does one seem like so much fun, while the other seems like so much work? …

I guess it comes down to this: Attention gives you the cheap high of other people’s energy focused at you … but authenticity gives you that deep, long-lasting satisfaction of knowing that you’re on the right path and you’re doing the right thing.  While the quick high is more fun in the short run, the deep satisfaction is ultimately more filling.

This is why it is fine to wear makeup but wrong to tell someone else to.  Not only is it a ludicrously presumptuous, boundary-crossing thing to say—like telling someone to switch careers or leave their spouse—but it’s vacuous because it has nothing to do with matters of justice or morality.  It is sheerly a matter of beauty standards.  The worst thing about beauty standards is that they create peer pressure based merely on taste.  The best thing about them is that, as seen above, there are millions of them, and they are constantly changing.  If humans are capable of thinking the lip-plate is attractive, then surely we are capable of thinking a woman without makeup is attractive. 

Women and men should feel free to smear their faces with whatever they wish or go without, to pluck their eyebrows or leave them be, to shave any body part or refrain.  (Bearing in mind doctors have recently explained the cringeworthy risks of shaving certain parts.)  But the moment they say that someone should do the same in order to feel better or lure lovers or advance their career, we have a problem.  And it’s not physical.

 

 

The People You Meet When You Talk About Human Suffering

17 Feb

 plastic crowd

(Image by Boinink used under CC license via)

 

Not all disabled people are innocents.  I would hope this comes as no surprise.  But in the wake of Oscar Pistorius’s alleged murder of his girlfriend, some are going to the other extreme.  In a bizarre article titled “The Disability Pedestal,” Slate writer William Saletan lists various disabled people who have allegedly committed similarly heinous crimes.  He cites anger over their disability as a frequent motive.  Which evokes the stereotype of the evil freak who kills in order to compensate.  That stereotype is at least as old as wicked witches, and as modern as the albino villain of The DaVinci Code.  Do we really need to feed it? 

And if there is truth to the commonly held belief that disability renders people more likely to lash out at others, then shouldn’t we be investing in a solution?  Saletan doesn’t offer any statistics on how many disabled people commit crimes out of self-pity, but if it’s really so endemic, then we should do something about it.

But I don’t think that’s what he meant.  While never going so far as to declare disabled killers a social problem, Saletan does argue that some see their disability as “just another card they can play,” and that both they and we need to realize that it all comes down to individual responsibility:

Equality isn’t about being special.  It’s about being ordinary.  People with disabilities aren’t above sin or crime.  They’re just like the rest of us…  You run your own race.  You make your own decisions.  Most people with prosthetic legs don’t shoot their lovers.  Most guys who survive testicular cancer don’t run doping rings in the Tour de France.  Something about beating cancer or overcoming a birth defect tugs at our hearts. It paralyzes our judgment.  We don’t want to believe that people who have accomplished such things can do evil.  Most don’t.  But some do.

I know plenty of disabled people who are jerks and nothing about the Pistorius case compels me to think of him as anything but one.  The stereotype of the poor, innocent, helpless, asexual, naïve invalid needs to go.  Yet I’m not comfortable with Saletan’s rather Ayn Randian assertion that compassion impairs judgment.  What impairs judgment is an inability to see someone as more than just a disability.  We should all be smart enough, deep enough, big enough to be humbled by the extraordinary difficulties someone has endured and to simultaneously call out their faults—or crimes—for what they are. 

Having a disability does not automatically make you a brave person or a good person or someone who deserves to be liked.  But disabilities almost invariably cause pain, and equality should not aim to rid us of our impulses toward compassion.  Was my judgment “paralyzed” when I met a girl in the hospital whose body was hot-pink with third-degree burns and immediately thought, “Man, I shouldn’t whine so much”?  Lots of my fellow patients at the hospital turned out to be the sort of people I couldn’t stand.  But almost every one of them had had experiences I could only try to imagine.  Refusing to excuse a disabled person should not preclude trying to understand the privileges we enjoy that they do not.    

To be fair to Saletan, I must admit it’s strange to find myself arguing this way because I am often fed up with discussions of disability and psychiatric disorders that devolve into self-pity and melodrama.  (See Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook… )  But firing off judgment can lead to snap judgments, and focusing our political energy on ranting about the whiners can lead to a cynical, soulless view of humanity.    

It just goes to show that we still have a hard time as a society figuring out what exactly to do with human suffering.  In my experience, four personality types exacerbate this problem.  (I’ve assigned gender randomly):

Mr. Comfort Zone – “I’ve Suffered, But You Don’t See Me Complaining!”  That guy who only sees society through his own lens.  He refuses to recognize any privileges he may enjoy, insists that everything balances out in the end and/or that the system is really rigged against people like him thanks to our oppressive PC culture.  He has a point that self-pity is counterproductive, but his refusal to acknowledge that anyone could have it harder than he does is the epitome of selfishness.  His refusal to explore the possibility of institutionalized chauvinism is intellectually lazy.  And his campaign for self-reliance loses all credibility the moment he blames minorities for his hardships. 

Ms. No Time For It – “It’s Sad Others Suffer, But I Don’t Like to Think About It…”  That lady who avoids political or social issues like the plague.  She wants to “stay positive” and “talk about cheerful things,” like the weather and her favorite TV shows and recent purchases.  She has a point that complaining too much about the world’s problems can wear you down, but she often contradicts this by complaining about mundane problems, like those trashy people who live around the corner and that snobby celebrity who had affairs with three different men, all of them friends of her husband, can you imagine how nasty you’d have to be in order to do such a thing?  In refusing to discuss politics, she ignores how much of her world view is determined by politics; i.e., what is considered “beautiful,” what it is considered “normal,” what is “controversial.”  She doesn’t realize that her ability to avoid certain “political” issues is a privilege

Mr. Oppression Olympics – “My People Have Suffered the Most!”  The activist who thinks the only rights worth fighting for are his own.  He may have a point about the unique nature of the discrimination he’s faced, but he ludicrously believes the more you’ve suffered, the more justice you deserve.  He secretly harbors prejudices about other minorities and this might be revealed when he thinks one of them might be taking time, funding, or attention away from “his” group.  He also refuses to acknowledge any privileges he may have.

Ms. Cry Wolf – “Can I Get Attention for My Suffering?”  The whimpering waif who takes the phrase “Talk about your feelings” to the extreme, turning almost every political discussion into a personal therapy session.  She secretly, or perhaps subconsciously, thinks belonging to a minority is enviable because it grants you sympathy and excuses for why you can’t do something.  She has a point that repression can be dangerous, but she goes overboard by crying, “OPPRESSION!” at any call for modesty or good manners.  She lists her problems in order to attain solace and praise, rather than revelation. 

We’re all prone to feel like these people in certain situations.  As a teen, I often slipped into Ms. Cry Wolf around boys I liked, hoping my saying, “I’m having such a hard day I could just cry!” would get them to be exactly as kind to me as I desired.  During my limb-lengthening procedures, when girlfriends would moan about not being thin enough while I was struggling against my painkillers to keep food down, I felt like Mr. Comfort Zone, wanting to tell them to shut up and be grateful.  In college, I felt like Mr. Oppression Olympics when students would raise their fists for feminism and LGBT rights but squirm and change the subject if I brought up disability rights.  And when it comes to certain matters of injustice—like what’s been going on in the Congo for the past five, ten, fifteen years?—I continue to be Ms. No Time For It, clicking past the headlines to the latest news about Stephen Fry or Jack White. 

Most people I know have had these feelings at certain points.  But we should be wary of acting on any of them, especially in the political sphere, because they’re all counter-productive.  There’s no progress in self-pity.  There’s no progress without empathy.  As I blog about disability and disenfranchisement, I agree with Saletan that I should never, ever be comfortable with the idea of myself as a victim.  But I also never want to be so hardened that I can’t be moved by human suffering.  Because that’s not really the point of trying to get along with the rest of the world, is it?

 

 

Note: This post was inspired by Crommunist’s The People You Meet When You Write About Race

 

What’s Privilege?

7 Oct

(Via)

 

This week I led a workshop about teaching pre-school children about diversity.  I started by asking the teachers what privilege is, and I got the same answer a family member had given just days before: “Privilege is what people who are really lucky have.  Like being born into a rich family, going to nice schools, or even just being exceptionally good-looking and therefore having an easier time of it.”

It is interesting that so many seem to be under the impression that privilege and luck are what extremely well-off people have.  Privilege does belong to anyone whose place in society is considered “better than normal,” but also to anyone whose place is considered simply “normal.”  As said before, privilege is granted by society to certain people based on things we had absolutely nothing to do with: our gender identity, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our physical traits, our mental capabilities, our class background.  That is why any privilege—like any form of disenfranchisement—is unjust.     

In the workshop, I read off the following list of statements that illustrate privilege to the participants who were lined up in a row.  (It’s a hodge-podge of original statements and ones taken from privilege activities created by Peggy McIntosh, Earlham College, and the Head Start Program.)  Anyone for whom the statement was true could step forward.  Anyone else had to stay behind.  All of us in the group stepped forward at least half the time.  You can see for yourself where you would have ended up: 

 1)      I always felt safe in my neighborhood as a child.

2)      If I wish to, I can be with people of my race/ethnicity most of the time.

3)      I never have to plan how to reveal my sexual orientation or gender identity to friends, family, or colleagues.  It’s assumed.

4)      I can go out in public without being stared at.

5)      I participated in extracurricular activities as a child (swimming, football, ballet, piano, yoga, painting, etc.).

6)      I can easily buy posters, picture books, dolls, toys and greeting cards featuring people of my race.

7)      I can wear a skirt, a dress, jeans, or pants, without anyone staring or asking me to explain my choice.

8)      In school, I could always take part in whatever activity or games the class was assigned.

9)      None of my close friends or family has ever been arrested.

10)  Rarely have I been asked to explain why my body looks the way it does or why I move or speak the way I do.

11)  I have never worried that I might not be able to afford food.

12)  When I learned about “civilization” in school, I was shown that people with my skin color made it what it is.

13)  I have never heard of someone who looks like me being given up for adoption or aborted because of it.

14)  Who I am attracted to is not considered a political issue.

15)  I attended a private school.

16)  I am never asked to speak for everyone in my ethnic group.

17)  I can find colleges that have many people from my class background as students.

18)  I can criticize our government without being seen as an outsider.

19)  My family never had to move for financial reasons.

20)  If I am assertive, it is never assumed that it comes from my need to “compensate” or struggle with my identity.

21)  When I was a child, I never had to help my parents at their workplace regularly.

22)  When I talk about my sexuality (such as joking or talking about relationships), I will not be accused of “pushing” my sexuality on others.

23)  If I make a mistake or get into trouble, I am usually judged as an individual, not as an example of people who look like me.

24)  I can go for months without being called straight, heterosexual, or cis.

25)  I can use public facilities (store shelves, desks, cars, buses, restrooms, and train or plane seats) or standard materials (books, scissors, computers, televisions) without needing help or adaptations.

26)  When I dress for a formal event, I don’t worry about being accused of looking too dolled up or not pretty enough.

27)  As a child, I never had to help care for a family member.

28)  When I watch family advertisements for food, medicine, clothing, games and toys, the families on TV usually look like mine.

29)  I grew up feeling I could be whoever or whatever I wanted.

30)  I have never been asked, “What do [people like] you like to be called?”

 

 

Playing Disabled

30 Sep

Miracle Worker

(Image by cchauvet used under CC license via)

 

Snow White and the Huntsman is out on DVD in Europe tomorrow. Unlike in most other Snow White films, the seven dwarfs are portrayed by average-sized actors, their bodies altered by digital manipulation. No one in the dwarf community is pleased about this.  Little People of America issued a statement criticizing the filmmakers’ failure to give priority to performers with dwarfism, while Warwick Davis argued, “It is not acceptable to ‘black up’ as a white actor, so why should it be acceptable to ‘shrink’ an actor to play a dwarf?” 

I don’t believe digitally generated dwarfism is on par with blackface and all that evokes, but it’s not too far off because there is a long tradition in cinema and theater of socially privileged actors portraying socially marginalized characters. And never the other way around. Blackface is a particularly hideous blemish on the history of entertainment because it was almost always used for mockery. Yellowface has a similarly horrid history: Until 1948, anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. banned actors of different ethnicities from kissing onscreen, so whenever a white actor portrayed an Asian leading man, Anna May Wong knew the role of the heroine was off limits to her, despite her being the most successful Chinese-American actress of the era. Meanwhile, as noted before, the circus freak show tradition that caricatures people with disabilities is still going strong today. 

To be fair, Snow White and the Huntsman does not create the illusion of dwarfism in order to mock it. This is why, to me, the blackface comparison seems overblown.  (A more apt analogy to blackface would be an actor inhaling helium to play a dwarf, as David Hyde Pierce did for laughs on an episode of Frasier years ago.) When a character matter-of-factly has a disability and the performer simulates their body type with artifice, is this not comparable to any sort of makeup or costumes? Danny Woodburn (whom you might know from Seinfeld) discussed it in an excellent interview on The Patt Morrison Show in June:

Directors, producers have every right to cast who they want to cast.  I just think this is something that merits discussion when the disability community—not just the little people community but the disability community—is so underrepresented in the film and television industry…

Others without disability portraying people with disability.  When producers, directors don’t actively seek performers with disability—[and they’d have to] because a lot of those performers don’t have equal access to casting, don’t have equal access to representation—when they don’t actively seek out those performers, then there’s a real slight against our society, I believe…

This is about making a stand so that there’s at least some due diligence… When you have a community of disabled that is about twenty percent of the population and less than one percent of disabled actors appear on TV. And some of the disabled characters, many of them are not portrayed by disabled actors.

Woodburn and Little People of America raised this issue ten years ago when Peter Jackson announced that he would cast only average-sized actors in The Lord of the Rings. As noted before, part of me was glad to see those magical creatures distanced from real-life people with skeletal dysplasias, but if Jackson had chosen to use dwarf performers to portray the Hobbits or the Dwarves, might someone like Woodburn be as famous as Elijah Wood is today? It’s hard to say. Famous actors create box office draw. Almost no famous actors are disabled and almost no disabled actors are famous. And that’s the problem.

If digital manipulation and theater makeup are someday used to expand roles to minority performers, allowing actors of any body type or ability to play the Huntsman or Prince Charming, it will then lose its exclusionary feel. I adored Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs growing up and, even though I was the only kid with dwarfism, I always portrayed the princess in the living room productions put on for my parents and their friends. But cinema has almost never swung that way. There is no history of ethnic minorities portraying famous white characters or disabled performers portraying physiotypical heroes and heroines. Plenty of ambulatory men have sat in wheelchairs to portray FDR, but no disabled man has been cast as JFK. And that stings a bit.

And what stings even more is the way in which privileged actors so often earn automatic praise for portraying minority characters in epic films, as if all minorities are opaque, mystical people only geniuses could begin to understand. John Malkovich as a mentally disabled man in Of Men and Men, Colin Firth as stammering King George VI, and Patty Duke, Melissa Gilbert and more recently Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller have all been lauded for their performances. They are all fine actors who have proven a wide range of talent, and the stories they tell are truly moving. But the public’s nearly kneejerk assumption that a minority role is a feat of greatness for a privileged actor can feel very condescending. 

In the very bizarre, direct-to-DVD film Tiptoes, Gary Oldman was digitally manipulated to take the role of the leading man with dwarfism. Peter Dinklage, who played the comedic supporting role (and, in my opinion, the only good moments in the film), said: “There was some flak. ‘Why would you put Gary Oldman on his knees? That’s almost like blackface.’ And I have my own opinions about political correctness, but I was just like, ‘It’s Gary Oldman. He can do whatever he wants.’ ” 

Fair enough, but when he was sappily introduced in the trailer as playing “the role of a lifetime,” I almost lost my lunch.


 

Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes”

16 Sep

 

This week the British newspaper The Telegraph asks:

Ever wondered why men can’t seem to tastefully decorate a house?  Or have a tendency for dressing in clothes that clash?  And why, for that matter, can’t women seem to hack it at computer games?  Now scientists claim to have discovered the reason: the sexes see differently.  Women are better able to tell fine differences between colors, but men are better at keeping an eye on rapidly moving objects, they say.

Professor Israel Abramov and colleagues at the City University of New York reached their conclusions after testing the sight of students and staff, all over 16, at two colleges…

The authors wrote: “Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue.”  So, a man would perceive a turquoise vase, for instance, as being a little more blue than a woman who was looking at it too.

Abramov, professor of cognition, admitted they currently had “no idea” about how sex influenced color perception.  However, writing in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, he said it seemed “reasonable to postulate” that differences in testosterone levels were responsible…

Men can’t perceive colors as deftly as women can.  That’s why all the great Western painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne and Leonardo and Picasso and Renoir and Monet and Munch and Vermeer and Kandinsky and Matisse are female.  And all the major fashion designers of the last century like Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were women.  Oh, wait. 

Maybe the study meant to say testosterone only triggers color ineptitude when male ears register the words “home decorating.”  Or that male color perception improves when money is involved. 

Or maybe The Telegraph author was exaggerating just a bit.  Tacking jazzy headlines onto reports of scientific studies are all the rage these days, no matter how much they distort the findings.  In June, Medical Daily ran an article under the title, “Racism Is Innate.”  Innate means, according to my biologist father, “present at birth,” so this seemed like a call to toss all those No child is born a racist buttons onto the trash heap.  Except that anyone who bothered to read the article would discover that the study simply concluded that brain scans of adults show simultaneous activity in the centers that process fear and emotion and those that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces.  The idea that fear of the Other can be neurologically mapped lends itself to a great deal of speculation and debate, but nowhere did the study claim that racism is present at birth. 

Such truth-stretching borders on mendacity, yet it pervades the science sections of so many newspapers.  Scientific studies are supposed to be free of bias, but the news media is severely biased toward publishing whatever will grab readers’ attention.  As several researchers have pointed out, differences between the sexes are currently considered a much more interesting discovery than no difference, so publishers often remain silent on an issue until they find a study that provides the juicier headline, no matter how numerous the contradicting studies are.  When the market is left to decide, it chooses salability over comprehensiveness.

Such an irresponsible approach to science results in a gravely misinformed public.  I can’t tell you how many people have repeated the claim that our modern Western female beauty standards are “natural” because a round waist resembles pregnancy and triggers the male fear of cuckoldry.  No one seems to remember that several crosscultural studies discredited this idea years ago.  But how can anyone be expected to remember something the media chose not to promote in the first place? 

And forget about waiting until the study is corroborated.  In 2007, The Times ran a headline claiming that women are naturally drawn to the color pink because of our savannah foremothers’ need to gather berries while the men hunted.  The Times published the study without consulting any historians, who eventually pointed out that pink was considered a manly color as recently as 1918 until fashion trends changed.  Oops.

This doesn’t mean that we should, as Mitt Romney has demanded, “keep science out of politics.”  Science is impartiality and corroboration and the best method we have for sorting facts from wishful thinking—for preventing our emotional, egotistical needs from weakening our objectivity.  To me, science is the most humbling force in the universe because it demands we always admit what we do not know.  It prevents hasty conclusions based on flimsy evidence, gut feelings, and political agendas.  It questions crude stereotypes and discovers more complex structures. 

But according to pop science reporters and the researchers they choose to spotlight, nearly every single modern joke about the differences between men and women stems from millennia-old evolutionary adaptations.  (Indeed, the Telegraph article claims that the female proclivity for detecting color helped our foremothers with gathering berries.  Always with the damn berries… )  As stated in the graphic below, such reports all too often suggest that prehistoric society on the African savannah looked just like something Don Draper or Phyllis Schlafly would have designed:

Men hunt, women nest, and every macho social pattern we see today has been passed down to us from our prehistoric ancestors.  Even though historians find that these patterns, like our racial categories, are barely more than two centuries old, if that.  And that the gender binary is far from universal.  Misinterpreting scientific findings is just as dire as ignoring them. 

When it comes to what women and men can and can’t do, neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes, “Expectations are crucial.”  When boys and young men grow up in a culture that mocks their supposed incompetence in all things domestic (“Guys don’t do that!”), it comes as no surprise that only the most self-confident will pursue any interest they have.  Meanwhile, studies show girls perform as well as boys do in math and science until they reach puberty.  Maybe the onset of menstruation paralyzes our visual-spatial intelligence because we’ve got to get picking those berries, or maybe girls pick up on the not-so-subtle message that guys think coquettish beauty is more important than nerdy brains in the dating game.  (For more details on the sexism faced by aspiring female scientists, see Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender.)  In her research, Dr. Eliot finds only two indisputable neurological differences between males and females:

1) Male brains are 8% to 11% larger than females’.

2) Female brains reach maturation earlier than male brains. 

All other neurological studies that find major differences between the sexes are studies of adults: i.e., the people most shaped by their culture and society.  Only cross-cultural studies of adults can isolate nurture from nature.  In any case, Eliot is a proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the pathways and synapses of the brain change depending upon its environment and the neural processes and behaviors it engages in.  In other words, painting or gaming from an early age or frequently throughout your life will condition your brain to do these tasks and related ones well.  It explains why the gender roles of a given time and place are so powerfulwhy mastering unfamiliar tasks is an uphill climb for men and women but also why countries committed to equality have the narrowest gender gaps. 

“Plasticity is the basis for all learning and the best hope for recovery after injury,” Eliot writes.  “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”  For more, see her brilliant parenting book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It.   

But I’ll never believe that a neuroscientist has all the answers.  I live in a country that showed the world the dangers of hastily trying to trace all social patterns back to biology.  As a result, the media here in Germany is usually much more reticent to casually toss around arguments like those in The Telegraph or The Times or Medical Daily.  Natural scientists have made discoveries like neuroplasticity and limb-lengthening that are crucial to progress, but social scientists have discovered that equality and empathy are crucial to any society that values peace and respect over power and greed. 

Or, in other words.

 

 

Wear Whatever You Want – We Can Handle It!

2 Sep

(Via)

 

This family portrait of a father and son in a small town—deep in the province and deeply religious—in Southern Germany has been traveling around the world.  When his five year-old boy expressed a love for dresses but found himself alone on the playground, Nils Pickert writes in Emma magazine that the only way to make sure his son knew that he supported him 100% was to be a role model of self-confidence and don a skirt himself.

“Yeah, I’m one of those fathers who believes in liberation when it comes to parenting,” he writes.  “I am not one of those academic dads who ruminates and lectures about equality between the sexes, and then, the moment a child arrives, slips back into the old comfortable gender roles: He does his own thing by having a career, she takes care of the rest.”

When he switched to a new kindergarten, the teasing got to be too much and the author’s son stopped wearing dresses to pre-school.  But he turned to his father and asked, wide-eyed, “Papa, when are you going to wear a skirt again?”  So Dad made sure to keep wearing his skirt out in public.  He writes, “I’m very grateful to the woman who stared at us on the street until she walked into a lamppost.  My son roared with laughter.  And the next day, he fished a dress out of his closet again.”

I don’t have much to add to this story besides the smile it brought to my face.  And a hope that someday these two will be models for a poster that will take its place in history alongside Rosie the Riveter.

 

 

 

Interpreting History Part I: Count Me Out

29 Jul

alter ego(Image by Bob May used under CC license via)

 

Anytime my partner and I don’t know what to do or say, one of us asks, “What’s in the news?” and we dive into a political discussion.  So it’s no surprise that we’ve become somewhat embarrassingly addicted to Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  The news media has been (unsurprisingly) critical of a show founded on the idea of chastising the news media.  Feminists have been (sometimes rightly) critical of its portrayal of women.  The show has almost countless strengths and weaknesses, but I find myself still obsessing over the brilliant, captivating opening scene that kicked off the series.  If you can’t this clip, it basically boils down to a flustered news anchor named Will McAvoy overcome with disgust at the state of the nation and nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s: “America’s not the greatest country in the world anymore,” he sighs.  “We sure used to be.”

We stood up for what was right.  We fought for moral reasons.  We passed laws, we struck down laws for moral reasons.  We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.  We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors.  We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chests…  We cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.  We reached for the stars, acted like men.  We aspired to intelligence.  We didn’t belittle it.  It didn’t make us feel inferior…  We didn’t scare so easy.     

“Nostalgia” literally means “aching to come home.”  It’s the temporal form of homesickness, time rather than place being the source of pain.  We all do it.  It can be oddly soothing at times to be in awe of another era, especially the one you were born in.  But Will McAvoy should watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for proof that nostalgia is an ultimately futile pastime that every sad sack of every era has hopelessly indulged in.  (If “things were better back in the day,” then how come every generation says this?)  But since McAvoy’s nostalgia is an earnest, political battle cry, heaping laurels on the good old 1950s and 60s when the leaders of the day did their job right, I’m more inclined to have him watch Mad Men.  Or just open up the 1960 children’s illustrated encyclopedia I found at my great aunt’s house, which states, among other things: “The Australian aborigine is similar to the American negro in strength, but less intelligent.”  Didn’t scare so easy, indeed.     

The problem with nostalgia is that it is far more emotional than intellectual and thereby lends itself to inaccuracy all too easily.  America was indeed doing great things sixty years ago.  And reprehensible things.  We hid our disabled and gay citizens away in institutions, asylums and prisons.  We enforced the compulsory sterilization of mentally disabled and Native American women.  We took decades to slowly repeal segregationist laws that the Nazis had used as models.  We maintained laws that looked the other way when husbands and boyfriends abused their partners or children.  In short, we handed out privilege based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental capabilities with far greater frequency and openness than we do today.  Perhaps we were the “greatest country in the world” compared to the others.  (Europe and East Asia were trying to recover from the devastation of World War II, after all, while other nations were trying to recover from the devastation of colonialism.)  But McAvoy’s wistful monologue is much more a comparison of America Then with America Now.  And that is hard to swallow when considering that a reversion to that society would require so many of us to give up the rights we’ve been given since then.   

Am I “another whiny, self-interested feminist” out to bludgeon the straight, cis, WASPy male heroes of history?  Am I “just looking to be offended”?  No, I’m struggling.  Next to literature and foreign languages, history has always been my favorite subject.  And pop history always touches upon this question:

“If you could go back to any period in history, which would it be?” 

From an architectural point of view?  Any time before the 1930s.  From an environmental point of view?  North America before European contact.  From a male fashion point of view?  Any period that flaunted fedoras or capes.  From a realistic point of view?  No other time but the present.  Because if I am to be at all intellectually honest in my answer, there has never been a safer time for me to be myself. 

Last year, I read The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity To Social Liberation by Betty Adelson.  Despite my love of history, I hated almost every minute of it.  Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen had helped me understand how so many black American students feel uninspired by U.S. history and the figures we hold up as heroes because so many of those men would have kept them in shackles.  But it wasn’t until I read The Lives of Dwarfs that I understood how nasty it feels on a gut-level to face the fact that most of history’s greatest figures would more likely than not consider you sub-human. 

With the exception of Ancient Egypt, my own lifetime has been the only period wherein someone with dwarfism could have a fair chance of being raised by their family and encouraged to pursue an education and the career of their choice, as I was.  At any other point in Western history, it would have been more probable that I would have been stuck in an institution, an asylum or the circus (the Modern Era before the 1970s), enslaved by the aristocracy (Rome, Middle Ages, Renaissance) or left for dead (Ancient Greece).  Of course inspiring cases like Billy Barty show that a few courageous/decent parents bucked the trends and proved to be the exception to the rule, but that’s what they were.  Exceptions. 

I am fortunate to have been born when I was and for that reason, nostalgia for any other period in time can never be an intellectually honest exercise for someone like me.  The moment someone says, “Yeah, well, let’s not dwell on odd cases like that.  I’m talking about the average person,” they’re essentially saying, “Your experience is less important than mine.”

Everyone is entitled to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the era in which they grew up.  If any period can put a lump in my throat, it’s the 1970s.  The Sesame Street era.  The boisterous, primary-colored festival flooded with Williams Doll, Jesse’s Dream Skirt, inner city pride à la Ezra Jack Keats, and androgynous big hair all set to funky music can evoke an almost embarrassing sigh from me.  Donning jeans and calling everyone by their first name, that generation seemed set on celebrating diversity and tearing down hierarchies because, as the saying goes, Hitler had finally given xenophobia a bad name.  Could there be a more inspiring zeitgeist than “You and me are free to be to you and me”? 

 

But I’m being selective with my facts for the sake of my feelings. 

Sesame Street and their ilk were indeed a groundbreaking force, but it was hardly the consensus.  Segregation lingered in so many regions, as did those insidious forced sterilization laws.  LGBT children were far more likely to be disowned back then than today—Free To Be You And Me had nothing to say about that—and gay adults could be arrested in 26 states.  The leading feminist of the time was completely screwing up when it came to trans rights.  Although more and more doctors were advocating empowerment for dwarf babies like me, adult dwarfs faced an 85% unemployment rate with the Americans with Disabilities Act still decades away.  And Sesame Street was actually banned in Mississippi on segregationist grounds.  When the ban was lifted, its supporters of course remained in the woodwork.  We have made so much progress since then.  It would be disingenuous for me to ignore that simply for the sake of nostalgia. 

To be fair to Sorkin, it’s a hard habit to kick.  We have always glorified the past to inspire us, no matter how inaccurate.  Much of American patriotism prides itself on our being the world’s oldest democracy, but we were not remotely a democracy until 1920.  Before then, like any other nation that held free elections, we were officially an androcracy, and of course we didn’t guarantee universal suffrage until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  That my spellcheck doesn’t even recognize the word “androcracy” signifies how little attention we afford our history of inequality.  But we have to if accuracy is going to have anything to do with history.  A brash statement like “We sure used to be [the greatest country in the world],” as a battle cry for self-improvement is asking to be called out on the inanity of this claim. 

Everyone is entitled to appreciate certain facets or moments in history, just as everyone is entitled to look back fondly upon their childhood.  Veracity falters, however, with the claim that not just certain facets but society as a whole was all-around “better.”  This is never true, unless you’re comparing a time of war to the peacetime preceding it (1920s Europe vs. 1940s Europe, Tito’s Yugoslavia vs. the Balkans in the 1990s), and even then the argument is sticky (Iraq during the insurgency vs. Iraq under Saddam Hussein).  In the words of Jessica Robyn Cadwallader, concealing the crimes of the past risks their reiteration.  Whenever we claim that something was socially better at a certain point in history, we must admit that something was also worse.  It always was. 

But such a sober look at the past need not be depressing.  It reminds me how very grateful I am to be alive today.  My nephews are growing up in a society that is more accepting than almost any other that has preceded it.  That is one of helluva battle cry.  Because what could possibly be more inspiring than history’s proof that whatever our missteps, things have slowly, slowly gotten so much better?