Archive | Most Read RSS feed for this section

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.

 

 

Advertisements

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?

 

 

When You Gonna Start Makin’ Babies?

22 Jul

Gotcha by Clint McMahon(Image by Clint McMahon used under CC license via)

 

A while back, tucked inside one of my longer posts was a link to a conversation Rosie O’Donnell had in February with comedienne Chelsea Handler on her show in which she discussed her phobia of dwarfs.  Driven by Handler’s insistence that sex with a dwarf would be “child abuse,” the conversation devolved into musing about how dwarf women give birth:

O’Donnell: When a little person has a normal-sized person, I don’t understand how that happens.

Handler: That I don’t understand!

O’Donnell: I don’t get it.  How come the little person isn’t dead when the normal-sized baby comes out?

Handler: Sometimes two smalls make a tall.

O’Donnell: But how does it come out?

Handler: I don’t know.  I think anything can come out of that.

For your information, Chelsea, when it comes to achondroplasia—the most common type of dwarfism—“two smalls” have the exact same chance of having a “tall” (25%) as they do of having a child with two achondroplastic, homozygous genes, which is always fatal.  (The baby is usually stillborn or dies within the first few weeks after birth.)

O’Donnell has since apologized for talking about her phobia of dwarfs, though Little People of America have rightly said she missed the point.  Many have said that as an openly gay woman, she should know better when discussing prejudice, but I was more surprised by her callousness in light of her being an adoptive parent.  And I notice my (hyper-)sensitivity to that issue seems to grow every time I encounter it.

And of course I seem to be encountering it everywhere nowadays.  “When ya gonna start makin’ babies?”  Almost all of us in our late twenties and thirties are used to being asked this regularly.  I’ve been told I should take it as a compliment, since it’s rarely asked of couples who would make terrible parents.  Yet I’ve been amazed at how intrusive the questions and comments can be, how often something as personal as parenthood is treated like small talk.  It’s understandable as more of my peers become parents; the prospect of making humans is daunting and people need to vent about it.  Those who don’t want children while living in a baby-obsessed world feel the need to vent back.  All this venting results both in community-building and in tactless comments that knock those outside of the community. 

One of my friends who miscarried was told by a stranger, “Well, it wasn’t a real baby.”  A friend who adopted a girl from South Korea was told by a fellow church member, “Her eyes aren’t that bad.”  A friend who had a C-section was told she must not feel as close to her child as women who give birth “naturally.”  Childfree friends have been told that their lives will be never be “complete” until they’ve had children.  A biology professor who had two foster daughters was asked if he was worried they would inherit their imprisoned father’s criminal tendencies because “that stuff’s in the genes, y’know.”  I’ve been told it’s selfish to want a child with achondroplasia, it’s selfish to want a child without achondroplasia, it’s selfish to allow my child to inherit my achondroplasia, it’s selfish to play God with genetics, it’s selfish to want to biologically reproduce what with the world population exploding, and it’s selfish to worry about any of this because it’s not like I’m infertile.  All of these comments were well-intentioned. 

Usually people are simply thinking out loud when they say such things.  It is important to remember that no one can be expected to know exactly what to say in unusual circumstances, lest I end up lecturing as if I’ve never inadvertently offended anyone.  Almost all of us have good intentions, but many are unaware of how quickly we redirect conversations back to our own experiences, how easily we forget to prioritize listening over interrogating, empathy over curiosity, respect over Thank-God-that’s-not-me! complacency.   

Hereditary conditions, finances, disabilities, infertility, relationships and emotions ensure that having children is not a universal experience.  There is no right way for everyone and any opinion that can in any way be construed as a judgment can cut someone deep because babies and bodies are entangled in supremely visceral feelings.  It’s no coincidence that Roe v. Wade was argued based on the right to privacy: Something as sensitive, as complicated and as profoundly emotional as your reproductive choices should be volunteered at your discretion. 

That said, parenthood is all about making decisions that will inexorably affect someone else’s life, not just your own, and this is why it is such a hot-button issue.  Our reproductive decisions, more than any other decisions, are the intersection of personal freedoms and social responsibility.  As the daughter of a social worker who worked for Child Protective Services, I have firm beliefs about right and wrong when it comes to parenting.  As someone whose genes make the prospect of parenthood unusually complicated, I’ve begun to see how judgmental those beliefs can come off when the presentation is sloppy. 

As an avid reader of Offbeat Families, I know that sharing knowledge and experiences can help others in so many ways.  But as someone who feels very ambivalent about offering up my not-yet-existent children’s potential situation as conversation fodder, I’ve become less trustful of many of my most well-meaning friends and family members.  Questions about my situation so quickly transform into lectures about their situation.  (I’ve also noticed that the more nervous someone is, the more they lecture.)  Besides making me more guarded about my personal experience, it has also taught me to stop myself from making snap judgments about others’ reproductive choices.  When dealing with anyone else’s family planning, I have been humbly learning to: 

 1)      Fight the urge and try not to ask others about their reproductive choices, especially in the context of small talk.  Let them volunteer it.  Go ahead and volunteer your own stories, but don’t press the other person if they do not respond in kind.  We can never assume what’s lurking under there. 

 2)      Beware of talking about the decisions you made in a way that inadvertently hurts those who must make different decisions.  This is also very tricky, but if you are convinced water birth is the only way you can imagine doing it or you are proudly childfree or you know exactly how to make sure it’s a girl, be aware that people in different financial or medical situations may not have these options at all.    

 3)      When someone does want to share something you have little experience with (e.g. adoption, stillbirth, staying childfree, etc.), prioritize listening and learning over immediately finding something to compare it to.  Relativizing struggles can be helpful and I’ve gotten some great feedback from friends, but my guard goes up when someone without achondroplasia tells me right away they know what I should do because they know someone whose baby has diabetes, they took a college class on bio-ethics, or they heard something like it on the news.

4)      Only offer your ethical opinion if the person makes it perfectly clear they want to hear it.  Every society bears the responsibility of taking a legal stance on complex reproductive issues: prenatal testing, genetic counseling, birth control, abortion, sterilization, drug testing, assisted reproductive technology, the life of the mother vs. the life of the fetus, custody, adoption, foster care, etc.  We are all compelled as citizens to be aware of the laws concerning these issues.  And we all have our own opinions about them.  But anyone directly affected by them is likely to have heard it before and to have been thinking about it longer than we have.  I’ve been thinking about the effects my dwarfism may have on my kids since I was fourteen.

5)      Don’t gossip about others’ decisions behind their backs.  It makes your listeners aware how they will be talked about when it’s their turn to decide about having children.  There is a fine but crucial line between trying to understand situations that are new to you and using someone’s situation to tell an interesting story.

6)      Do try to actively listen when invited to, saying truly supportive things, as one or two particularly fantastic friends of mine have, such as: “I can only begin to imagine what I’d do in that situation.”  “Let me know if you don’t want to answer this question…”  “On a much smaller level, it sounds a tiny bit like what I felt when…”   “No matter what you decide, I know you’ll be great at it because…”  “I’m always here to listen if you ever need to spill, as long as it helps.”

Of course, in listing here what I have learned not to do, I can only hope that my own past SNAFUs have been minimal.  Insensitivity, by definition, is the disconnect between intention and effect.  Embarrassed apologies to anyone whose toes I stepped on while stomping through my own bigfooted opinions.

 

 

Cross-posted on August 27, 2012 at Offbeatfamilies.com

Body Image Part IV: My Choice and Your Choice Entwined

24 Jun

Copyright Folke Lehr(Image ©Folke Lehr)

 

I began The Body Image Series with this question: If we were fully convinced that no one else cared one bit what we looked like, how much would we care?  Would we have any reason to envy conventionally attractive people?  Would weight loss have anything to do with waist size?  Would limb-lengthening still touch on the idea of “blending in”?

 ***

Ten years ago, I attended the premiere of HBO’s Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale along with the other subjects of the documentary.  Upon seeing me, one of the men with achondroplasia asked his friend, “What’s she doing here?  She’s not a dwarf.”

“She had limb-lengthening surgeries to make her taller,” his friend murmured.

 “What?!” he exclaimed. “She cheated!”

I felt myself blush before I could think of what to say.

Immediately, a woman with diastrophic dwarfism, the shortest of all of us, turned to me and said, “I’m on your side, Honey.  No way did you cheat.”

Part of me finds it hard not to laugh when others dismiss limb-lengthening on dwarfs as a “quick fix.”  Breaking bones, stretching them over a three-to-five-month period and then waiting for them to heal for another ten months is not exactly comparable to a boob-job done over the weekend.  Then again, you’d better have a damn good reason to be willing to go through something so intensive and risky.  So, did I do it to function better or, as a former president of Little People of America insisted, to “blend in”? 

I did it to access public facilities—desks, shelves, cars, bikes, kitchen counters, cash registers, ATMs, exercise equipment—without any modifications.  I did it to use public seats—classroom chairs, restaurant chairs, theater seats, train seats, plane seats, toilets, friends’ furniture—without needing foot stools to keep my legs from dangling and falling asleep.  I did it to correct some of my lordosis, so that I wouldn’t need to carry backrests with me to every desk chair I sat in.  I did it to have the extra leverage enabling me to lug more around: bigger suitcases, bigger shopping bags, bigger backpacks, bigger children.  I did it to take bigger steps when walking, so I could cover more ground before I got tired.  I did it so that my weight would be slightly more evenly distributed, making spinal compression less of a danger.  I did it to stop straining to reach the back of my head when brushing my hair.  I did it because the patients I met who had done it were just as happy as those who had not.  Looking back on it all, this was definitely reason enough for me, regardless of whether or not it is for others.  But I can’t just leave it at that.

In my last post, I argued why there is no right way to hate your body.  In my experience, you can take dramatic measures to alter your body without hating it.  Indeed, the work you put into it can and should be an act of love, not desperation.  The night before my first limb-lengthening surgery, I kissed my old legs goodbye.  I was willing to let them go, but I kissed them all the same.  Yet many if not most outsiders assume that dwarfism is a visible difference the patient must want to erase.  After all, trying to argue that you don’t want to blend in, even though you will blend in, sounds like you’re trying to circle a square. 

So why not just say that limb-lengthening was my personal choice and my choice doesn’t affect anyone else?  But it does.  By blending in, I automatically relieve myself of a good deal of prejudice, of stares, of awkward reactions.  I have fewer questions to answer from people on the street and fewer chances to educate them.  By blending in, I’m breaking ranks with the dwarf community to some degree.  That’s nothing to sneeze at when considering that before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, dwarfs had an unemployment rate of 85% in the U.S. all because of lookism.  By blending in, I am contributing to the trend that may make limb-lengthening a fashion for people with dwarfism.  Both politics and beauty standards measure strength in numbers. 

In the late 90s, my first femur surgery was filmed for a feature about limb-lengthening on the American news show 20/20.  The interviewer asked a 12 year-old patient with dwarfism, “Did you do it to look normal or to function better?”

Without missing a beat, the boy answered, “So that I could function better.  I don’t care how I look.  I just want to do what everyone else can.” 

Sitting at home watching, I raised my fist in solidarity and whispered, “Right on, kid.”

In the follow-up commentary, Connie Chung reported, “He has since finished the procedure to combat his dwarfism.”

I shot up in my seat in disbelief: “COMBAT?!” Was that the automatic assumption?  I wasn’t in a battle against my dwarfism, and obviously neither was this patient.  I was working with my body, not against it!  I realized then that it was important that others knew this if they were going to know that I chose limb-lengthening.

We may someday live in a world in which every candidate for limb-lengthening makes the same decision I did and in doing so, makes the world a less physically diverse place.  I will accept such a world, since my own efforts to function better have helped contribute to it.  But I won’t make any arguments advocating such homogeneity.  If my dwarfism and limb-lengthening have taught me anything, it is that it’s far more important for me to argue that beauty is about so much more than blending in. 

Deep down inside, every one of us wants to be conventionally attractive to some degree, because life seems easier that way.  We love the idea of throngs of people admiring us, envying us, falling hard for us at first sight.  It makes us feel fantastic on a visceral, heart-thumping level to be praised for our looks.  But if everyone agrees that there’s more to love and romance than conventionally good looks, what is the point of having broad appeal?  During the years when my curly hair reached my backside, I enjoyed the compliments but they were always the same, regardless of whether they came from friends or strangers.  My short, round achondroplastic hands, meanwhile, have garnered a lot more attention to detail.  My dad always called them “starfish hands.”  A guy in college examined them and disagreed: “They’re Maggie Simpson hands.”  Another amended it with a giddy squeal, “They’re finger-painting hands!”  When I began my final limb-lengthening procedure, a guyfriend in high school nicknamed me “Legs” because I had the most expensive pair around.  Who needs broad appeal when you have genuine affection?  What better proof is there of such affection, of people’s capacity to look beyond convention than their fearlessly falling in love with features they’ve never seen before?

If I deeply regretted having dwarfism, then limb-lengthening would indeed be an extreme measure taken to offset severe personal insecurity, and that would be a major cause for concern. Hating my looks so profoundly would impact other dwarfs’ perception of their own looks.  This is why I blog.  I don’t want to live in a world where anyone is pressured to change their body just to be accepted, and I don’t want my story to be misused to contribute to the forces pushing the world in that direction.

This is not to say every person who is born on the margins should turn their life into a 24-hour political cause.  Trans individuals should never have to answer invasive questions about their bodies any more frequently than cis individuals should.  LGBT people should never be pressured to come out.  Black Americans shouldn’t have to put up with strangers and acquaintances trying to touch their hair all the time.  The right to privacy is a human right. Your sex life, your income, your medical records, and your body are all matters you shouldn’t ever have to submit to anyone’s microscope if you don’t wish to.  But if we do open our mouths, we have to take responsibility for the consequences.   

When I choose to talk about my body and my choices, it feels to me like I’m talking only about myself.  But others are listening for how it all affects them.  If they don’t care about me personally, it’s their only reason for paying attention.  It’s the only reason we read novels and newspaper articles and blogs about strangers’ lives.  We’re searching for something we can relate to, and if we can’t relate, we at least want to know how other people’s choices are shaping the world we live in.  Opinions such as “I was so gross when I weighed x pounds,” or “I can’t wait to get rid of these hideous scars” both reflect and influence the society comprising us all.  We love taking credit for our words when others agree or are inspired by them.  But if someone raises the possibility of our statements having a negative impact on others, the temptation to shirk all responsibility for others is strong.  But we can’t ever shirk it.  That’s cowardly.

This doesn’t mean we must accept others offhandedly judging our most complex decisions.  Unfortunately, no matter what we say or how carefully we try to shape the argument, there will always be those out there who judge before hearing the end of the sentence.  Putting more energy into brandishing our opinions than admitting what we don’t know is also cowardly. 

A friend I met in the hospital was ten years-old and in the midst of limb-lengthening when a woman with dwarfism approached him at a train station and told his mother, “You are RUINING your child’s life!  How could you do this to him?!” 

When the conversation was over, my friend’s mom asked him, “So what did you think of that?”

He replied, “I think you shouldn’t talk to strangers.” 

We are talking to strangers when we publicly discuss our personal decisions, and the Internet is blurring the lines between public and private discussions faster than ever.  As decision-makers, we cannot discuss our choices and our views free from any responsibility for the effect they will have on others.  As observers, we cannot accurately judge others’ decisions at face-value, free from the burdens of learning. 

During the seminars I taught about dwarfism and limb-lengthening to classes of middle school and high school students, I would write the following quotation on the chalkboard, paraphrased from a French magazine article in which I was featured as a child: 

Society does not physical accept differences easily.  Without a doubt, that is society’s fault.  But who should change?  Society or the dwarf?  For the dwarf to change, she must undergo years of painful surgeries and intensive physical therapy, risking many complications.  For society to change, it must alter its way of thinking.  Who suffers more in the change?  Which change is harder to achieve?

Every single one of the fifteen-odd classes I taught gave the same answer.  To the first question: The dwarf suffers more.  To the second question: Society is harder to change.

But my experiences with dwarfism and limb-lengthening have inspired me to try to change both.  As best as a bossy girl from Long Island can.

 

 

Body Image Part III: Mirror Etiquette

17 Jun

mirror(Image by Trixi Skywalker used under CC 2.0 via)

 

After picking apart the unhelpful things we often say about others, I now move on in the third installment in the Body Image Series to the unhelpful ways in which we talk about ourselves…

 ***

Two moments in the Wonderful World of Body Image:

ONE: A woman sitting in the waiting room at my surgeon’s office reveals a leg perfectly tanned, as well as dotted and streaked with fresh scars from an Ilizarov fixator.  Our surgeon walks by on his way to radiology and flashes her a grin: “Lookin’ great there with that fixator finally off!”  She calls after him without a hint of joking in her voice, “Yeah, but God!  What am I supposed to do with these hideous scars?!”  She has about a quarter as many scars as I do.

TWO: One of my mom’s oldest friends flips through a photo album with me from back when she and Mom were my age.  Every other photo of herself elicits a moan:  “God, look how fat I was!  Omigod, look at that tummy.  Ick, what a fatso!”  In every photo, she was thinner than I’ve ever been, save for my limb-lengthening years spent on heavy painkillers.

Trashing one’s own body in front of others is so commonplace in Western female culture, I’ve yet to meet a single woman who hasn’t done it at least a dozen times since puberty, if not yesterday.  But it should come as no surprise that whenever you talk about something as self-centered as your body image, your listeners instantaneously have a self-centered reaction, wondering how they fare in your line of judgment.  If you hate it on yourself, why would you think it looks good on others?  (Indeed, there are scores of studies showing that mothers who vocally criticize their own bodies have daughters with unhealthy body image.)  This is why trashing your own body is perhaps the most impolite, if not irresponsible, of all our social customs.

Eating disorder survivor Chloe Angyal has given us the revolutionary battle cry: “There is no right way to hate your body.”  This has to be true if we believe that everyone is beautiful in their own way­.  If we can’t swallow it, it means we can’t let go of competing with others.

In 2002, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon declined the invitation to be photographed for People magazine’s List of 50 Most Beautiful People, arguing that fitting the magazine’s criteria for the list shouldn’t in any way be considered an achievement: 

I don’t give a shit [about it] … I only take pride in things I’ve actually done myself. To be praised for something like that is just weird.  It just felt like somebody calling and saying, “We want to put you in a magazine because the weather’s so nice where you live.” 

I know only a few women who would pass up the opportunity to be rewarded for their looks as he did. 

Women usually trash their bodies in front other women not out of malice but because we are culturally conditioned to build close friendships by sharing our most personal feelings.  The (liberal) mantra, “Don’t bottle it up inside!” is a constant hammer to the floodgates.  And so we hear: “I can’t be seen without my makeup!”  “Why can’t my gray hair grow in evenly?”  “I’m so fa-a-a-at!”  Yet with all this sharing of body-oriented self-hatred, no one manages to make each other feel better. 

If I say, “God, I talk loud on the phone,” or “Yuck, you can tell I had no time to brush my hair!” anyone who disagrees with the complaint can say so, and anyone who agrees can tease: “Eh, we’ve gotten used it.”  If, deep down inside, my self-deprecation was a circuitous check to see if I really am that bad, I can consider if the teasing is a reason to try to change my habits.  Life is, after all, about learning how to be both a happier and a more tolerable human being. 

But bodies are different.  Any choices we have about changing them are limited, and they are entangled in visceral feelings about our attractiveness.  If I say, “Ugh, my dwarf cheekbones are so low!” or “My nose is so ugly!” no one should agree with me out loud.  Even if silently they do.  (I didn’t notice how low they were, but now that you point it out…)  The only acceptable confirmation of these statements must come in the form of protesting praise: e.g. “I love your nose, it reminds me of [insert name of famous and attractive person here].”  Otherwise, etiquette demands protesting the statement altogether: “No!  Your cheekbones aren’t low at all!”  This may or may not be a lie, but in any case, it supports the idea that low cheekbones are something to lament.  Anyone who wouldn’t think the cheekbones in question are low because theirs are lower suddenly feels paranoid, if not miserable.  So all this body trashing is an obstacle to honest sharing, rather than a path to it.    

And to complicate matters more, some share their deepest body image issues with each other and then use them against each other when feeling competitive.  (“I can’t believe he went for that fat/bony slob!”)  Anyone who obsesses about her body secretly knows how harshly she herself judges the bodies of others in moments of weakness (“At least I don’t look like that!”) and fears that others judge her the same way.  This is, of course, a chicken and egg scenario: maybe the self-hatred comes from judging others or maybe the judging others comes from self-hatred, but in any case, the only end to the cycle is to stop trashing bodies, both others’ and our own.

During my limb-lengthening procedures, my friends at the hospital would commiserate about all the things our bodies were going through.  (“Are your legs getting hairy, too?  The doctor says it’s because of the increased blood-flow caused by the healing.”  “Can you see inside your leg when they remove a pin?”  “Would you have your torso lengthened if you could?  I wonder how that would work…”)  But our complaints never touched on our looks.  Even in therapy group, all our venting was about pain, nausea, restrictions on movement, living away from home, dependency on others, or the procedure taking longer than it was supposed to.  All our jealousy was directed at those who had less pain or a quicker recovery.  Perhaps it was because we had enough to worry about trying to reach our physical therapy goals, keeping infections at bay, forcing ourselves to eat, and constantly trying to get comfortable.  Or perhaps it was because so many of us were pre-pubescent kids not yet initiated into the adult world of body competition.  Or perhaps beauty standards are automatically less restrictive for groups with true body diversity.  In any case, the woman in my surgeon’s office—who looked to be anywhere between 30 and 45—was the first patient I heard complain about what the procedure did to her looks.

We all want to be attractive, but the only way to avoid insulting others is to expunge everything that makes beauty a competition.  The editors at Offbeat Bride ban all discussions about weight loss or body insecurity on the forum, and I don’t think anyone has suffered as a result.  Celebrating more progressive, inclusive and creative beauty standards can be helpful—more on that next week—but minimizing the attention and importance we afford our lookist insecurities should be a goal, if anything because all this self-scrutiny is fantastically vain.  As Peggy Orenstein has said, mainstream girlie-girl culture too often mistakes self-absorption for self-confidence.  The most self-confident women I know obsess over their bodies at about the same low frequency self-confident men do.  And like the men, they don’t bristle or burst into tears at any form of affectionate teasing.

A healthy ego owns its fears instead of demanding others allay them.  Pointing out our own supposed imperfections can be constructive as long as it’s intended to elicit nothing but giggles, with no hint of fishing for compliments, of shaky self-esteem, or of competition.  In our high school yearbook, a friend listed under his Wishes For The Future, “Smaller ears, bigger teeth.”  And so I threw “Tiny Teeth!” back at him whenever he would shake his head at me and sigh, “Once again, you smile and your eyes get all thin and pointy!”  The harder I laughed at him, the pointier they got.      

As said before, when we tell our loved ones how beautiful they are, it’s a testament to the sum of their parts, to the combination of their perfections and imperfections.  When we’re mad about someone—not just attracted to them, but truly mad about them—their beauty makes them entrancingly divine and their flaws make them adorably human.  Perfect lips enveloping crooked teeth create the tension and contrast that makes the human body a work of art. 

Two moments in the Wonderful World of Healthy Relationships:

ONE: A friend is leading a seminar about American immigration and heritage.  “People from Scandinavia tend to be blond-haired and light-skinned, but they tan.  People from the British Isles are so pale, they look like they just crawled out from under a rock.”  She smiles at me.  “You’re British, aren’t you?”  My laughter is drowned out by my classmates’.

TWO: A friend was told by her fiancé: “You have such huge eyes and a round face.  It’s like Thomas the Tank Engine.”  She prints out a photo of the train and mails it to him while he’s away on a business trip, so that he won’t forget her.

 

 

Body Image Part II: The Rules for Snark

10 Jun

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Last week I went after talking about others’ bodies for the sake of analyzing what you can’t be attracted to.  Today I’m going after talking about others’ bodies for the sake of musing, or amusement…

Anyone who insists they never make fun of others behind their back is lying.  We all do it, and to the extent that snark is now rivaling porn as the Internet’s raison d’être.  Every bit of our outward appearance—our fashion choices, our speaking styles, our assertiveness or timidity—it’s all out there for others’ scrutiny and all of us pick targets when we’re in the mood, sometimes at random, sometimes with a purpose.  Just take the example of weddings.  I bet there’s at least one wedding you’ve seen that looked ridiculous to you.  Alternative brides think, Wear an expensive dress if that’s what you’ve always wanted, but it’s still vulgar materialism.  And the mainstream brides think, Dont wear a white dress if you don’t want it, but you just want attention for being anti-everything.  While others simply think, Purple.  Yuck.  Or something to that effect. 

In wedding planning as in our everyday fashion, what we choose is a comment on what we don’t.  No one’s choice is in isolation of everyone else’s.  To dress like a punk or to dress like a cowboy, to speak a local dialect or to speak like a newsreader, to try to fit in or to try to stand out are all decisions we make that usually reflect both our tastes and our beliefs.  We give others’ decisions either the thumbs up or thumbs down accordingly.  As I’ve said before, it’s fair game when beliefs are targeted, because we should all take responsibility for our beliefs.  But too many of us make no distinction between the elements of someone’s appearance that reflect their beliefs, and the elements that reflect their biology.  

Many of my friends and family, along with most commenters on TV or online, see little difference between making assumptions about others’ clothes and making assumptions about the bodies they cover.  Just as they’ll assume the slick suit must belong to a businessman and the lady in shorts and sneakers is American, they’ll assume the particularly skinny woman must be anorexic, that the man whose hands shake must be an alcoholic, that the young woman who collapsed must be either diabetic or pregnant, that the large child over there getting his breast milk is obviously too old for that, that chubby guy over there is certainly overweight and should lose a few pounds, that the poor kid with acne isn’t using the right medicine.  Sometimes these flimsy diagnoses are voiced as expressions of sympathy or intellectual exercises à la Sherlock Holmes, sometimes they are dripping with self-aggrandizing pity or snarky complacency.  They are always unjust because, unlike quips about clothes or tattoos or cell phone ringtones, comments about another’s body have little to do with choices anyone has made. 

As someone who’s undergone limb-lengthening, I can of course attest that there are a few choices we make about our appearance.  But while I chose to try to add as many inches as possible to my height, I didn’t have much of a choice about how many inches I could go for.  (I gave all I could in physical therapy, but in the end, my ticked-off muscles stiffened and decided the limit for me.)  Nor did I have much of a choice about my anterior tibialis tendons severing on both legs, which now makes me stumble on average every few weeks and makes dismounting from a bicycle dangerous.  (After two surgeries to repair the tendons and three years of physical therapy, they remain weak.)  Nor have I ever had any choice about my hips swaying when I walk because the ball-and-socket hip joint in achondroplastic people is shaped like an egg-and-socket.  Skinny friends with hypoglycemia, heavy friends with slow metabolism, and friends with diastrophic dwarfism—whose growth plates do not respond to limb-lengthening—can also attest that any choices we make about our bodies are always limited.  Discussing these choices is important, but strangers assumptions about them are usually way, way off.

It is because I know so many kind, loving people who analyze strangers bodies that I wasn’t at all surprised by the nasty ruminations over her “puffy” appearance that Ashley Judd so awesomely bucked in Newsweek earlier this year.  And I’m only half-surprised by the website Too Big For Stroller, where people post street photos of children who appear to have outgrown the transport and smirk about what idiotic parents they must have.  In his essay, “Broken Phantoms,” Robert Rummel-Hudson writes beautifully, harrowingly about the unfair judgment strangers often heap on individuals with rare disabilities whose symptoms are less visible.  He went after the Too Big For Stroller crowd and summarized their defense arguments thusly: 

However many kids with invisible disabilities might be made fun of or hurt by that site, they are acceptable collateral damage, because some of them are probably lazy kids with weak parents, and they must be judged.

“Acceptable collateral damage” is the word I’ve been searching for my whole life.  It’s how Jason Webley downplayed the rights of “the few conjoined twins in the world” in light of his Evelyn Evelyn project.  It’s how so many minorities are dismissed as annoyances in our majority-rules society by the vacuous, relativist claim, “Everyone’s going to be offended by something.”  Which is another way of saying, “We can’t consider everyone’s rights.” 

All of us make automatic, silent assumptions about others’ bodies, often trying to figure out how we ourselves measure up, because we are all insecure about our bodies to some degree.  But the ubiquity of these thought patterns and the rate at which they are voiced is the problem, not the excuse.  There’s probably a list of catty things I’ve said the length of a toilet roll, but I try to stop myself from diagnosing strangers’ bodies, if anything out of awareness of my own vulnerability to inaccurate assumptions.  A few years spent in and out of hospitals also taught me what the hell do I know about where they’re coming from, and we all think enough unproductive thoughts about others’ physical appearance as it is.  In an essay about me and my scars, Arthur W. Frank writes that when we see someone who looks either unattractive or pitiful to us, our first thought is, “I’m glad that’s not me.”  And our second thought is, “But if it were me, I’d get that fixed.”

This is, of course, more than anything ahope.  We hope we would be different in the same situation.  But we’re afraid we may not be, and this fear causes us to quickly deflect the problem onto someone else.  Why not the person who just upset our delusions of normalcy?  So we and our supposedly meritocratic society nurture this idea—“I wouldn’t be like that”—as a justification for being judgmental.  Whether or not we voice these assumptions is indeed a choice we make, and whether or not we add any hint of judgment is yet another.   Whether or not this is fair is often debated on a case-by-case basis, but anytime anyone insults someone else’s body, it is a demonstration of their own insecurities.  Period.   

We’re all constantly judging one another and judging ourselves in comparison to one another.  This can be fair game when we stick to focusing on the mundane decisions we all make.  There is a world of a difference between quipping about fashion choices with head-shaking amusement—Sorry, Eddie Izzard, but sometimes you do not know how to put on makeup—and allowing our personal insecurities to fuel pity or disdain for others’ apparent physical imperfections.  There is no fair way to trash someone else’s body because, for the most part, your own biology is neither your fault nor your achievement.

 

 

Body Image Part I: The Ick Factor of Certain Bodies

2 Jun

Contemporary pair(Image by Luca Rossato used under CC via)

 

“Did you do it to function better or to look normal?” 

This is Number One question about limb-lengthening for people with dwarfism, and it opens the Pandora’s box of Body Image, a topic that, no matter who you are, lends itself to resolution no more easily than does Religion.  But as I begin a series on the depths of our own feelings about our bodies, I want to first tackle the biggest influence of our self-worth: i.e., others’ opinion.  After all, if we were fully convinced that no one else cared one bit what we looked like, how much would we care?

The answer to that may not be easy, but the Number One reason why any of us care what others think about our looks certainly is.  It’s all about Dating.  Getting laid.  Finding a mate.  Every parent of a child with dwarfism is warned at Little People of America meetings that whatever ostracizing goes on in elementary school will be outdone by the perils of puberty.  The mainstream often dismisses this as an unfortunately natural stage of development, but people designated as minorities by the mainstream know that it is merely an introduction to what lies beyond adolescence.  Too often the adult world dodges any responsibility it bears for the lookism young people embrace. 

Whether following conventional or unconventional beauty standards, adults obsess over unattractiveness.  We are simply less blunt than teenagers, but therein all the more insidious, disguising our trashing of others as the (pseudo-)philosophy of having a “type”:  

I just need a really well-built man.  I can’t get into skinny guys.” 

I mean, I don’t want to be taller than my man.  No one does.” 

I’d honestly be grossed out if I found out my date was transsexual.

I do not like hairy bodies.” 

Whatever.  We all do it, but we do it way too much.  Most of us can see patterns to our attractions, but the more we talk about it, the more we cultivate it in our minds, convincing ourselves that it’s what we need in order to be turned on.  Which at best really does nothing—does it really help to weed out people in a crowd based on their bodies before we even talk to them?  is there some efficiency to dating that you get points for?—and at worse, limits our experiences and nurtures the dangerous misconception that beauty standards are immovable objects. 

A coworker of mine once claimed, “I’m not racist, but I’m just not attracted to black girls.”  Dude.  Forgetting for a moment that starting any sentence with “I’m not a racist, but—” is possibly one of the least convincing ways to exonerate yourself, are you sure of this because you’ve never been attracted to black girls before?  By that logic, I’m just not attracted to Slovakian guys.  Or Sri Lankan guys.  Or Cornish guys.  Or Oklahoman guys.  Or… wait a minute, this could go on for a while.  Even if you are set in your ways and for some reason believe this helps you, what good does it do to voice it? 

Granted faces and bodies evoke visceral feelings that transcend reason.  Attraction itself is never a choice.  But history has proven that disgust at the idea of interracial or international relationships is the result of social conditioning, and likewise homophobia, transphobia, lookism and ableism thrive thanks to the open support they are given in the media and in everyday conversation.

The battle against lookism is too often dismissed as hopeless by the simplified assertion that “people like to look at pretty people, end of story.”  Yes, we do.  But the definition of “pretty” is too often assumed to be universal, somehow rooted in our biological urge to choose a mate whose genes are resilient.  Studies of history and across cultures prove the definition is socially constructed.  Pale has been considered at times beautiful and at other times sickly.  Tan has been sometimes seen as gorgeous and other times derided on racist grounds.  Round and curvy is sometimes good and sometimes bad.  Skinny is sometimes good and sometimes bad.  Our supposedly “natural” repulsion at signs of unhealthiness is as random as fashion itself, often disenfranchising disabled individuals while simultaneously promoting faces injected with poison, lungs too constricted to breathe properly, bodies too lacking in fat to menstruate, not to mention blue and green eyelids.  Mentioning our repulsion at others’ natural physical features can be so unproductive, so paranoia-inducing, so ultimately responsible for others’ self-hatred.  This why I admire anyone who fights whatever temptation they have to describe what they dislike by instead describing what they love. 

When we tell our loved ones what exquisite hair or adorable hands or gorgeous eyes they have, it’s more a display of affection than a statement of what we require to be intrigued.  When we tell someone, “You are so beautiful,” it’s a testament to the sum of their parts, the combination of their perfections and imperfections.  And there’s nothing wrong with discussing styles or personas one finds attractive.  Gentle voices, deep voices, explosive laughter, sly eyes, short hair, long hair, a graceful step, a firm step, an assertive look, a cool stance; understanding why any of this draws one in leads to more awareness of one’s own character.  It also sparks dialogue that challenges the bland beauty standards of the day. 

But someone’s physical traits alone are superficial—not to mention transient—and placing any real value on them is shallow.  We all have our shallow sides, but we should be embarrassed to advertise them too openly, the way sitcom directors should be embarrassed to have the audience squeal when two characters kiss.

 

 

Welcome to Painting On Scars

4 Feb

 

So you’ve heard that “Kids can be so cruel”?  What a cop-out.  Adults are cruel.  Kids are constantly blunt and sometimes mean-spirited, but they have the chance to grow up.  Turning 30 this year, I realize that I’ve encountered more ableism over the past 10 years than any other time in my life – online, at dinner parties, and during my four years as an undergrad at Bard College when it was consistently rated in one of the Top Ten Most Liberal Schools by The Princeton Review.  If I ever have children biologically, they will each have a 50% chance of inheriting achondroplasia from me.  Whether or not they have achondroplasia, I’m much more concerned about the adults they will encounter in their lives than the kids.

Today ableism – a.k.a. disability discrimination – ranges from the yuk-yuk objectification of freaks, to the sick fascination with medical realities, to personal phobias of looking weak or unattractive, to well-intentioned charity that is truly patronizing That this so often comes from those whose own experiences of marginalization would logically render them better candidates for empathy has inspired me to start this blog. 

There also aren’t enough blogs about dwarfism.  There are hardly any blogs about dwarfism beyond childhood.  The community of dwarfs who have undergone limb-lengthening is non-existent, as if we want to pretend we were never dwarfs in the first place.  And feminist blogs for and about dwarfs who have undergone limb-lengthening continue to elude my Google efforts.

While my own experience invariably influences my perspective, I refuse to argue only about issues directly related to dwarfism and limb-lengthening.  Without knowing the word for it, I was raised to believe that if you’re going to support the rights of one minority, you’ve got to support them all.  In the end, they’re all related.

So consider this blog a continued reflection on the issues I addressed in this book.  Or The Most Inclusive, Progressive Forum Ever!  Or just another reminder that whether you’re discussing a sex issue or scar tissue, the personal is inescapably the political.