Tag Archives: Dwarf

“Midget-Wrestling” Events Canceled in the UK

16 Sep

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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In Dwarf News

22 Jul

 

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

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

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

 
 

 

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

Should Jokes About Minorities Be Off Limits?

7 Feb

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

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

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

The audience exploded with laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Who Should Think You’re Beautiful?

11 Oct

Goodnight(Image by Aphrodite used under CC 2.0 via)

From the Archives

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Originally posted September 15, 2013

Berlin Fashion Week Features Pieces Made for and Modeled by Dwarfs

1 Oct

Auf Augenhöhe_Copyright Valerie Diedenhofen

(Image © Valerie Diedenhofen used with permission)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Auf Augenhöhe_Copyright Nina Hansch

 

 

The Problem of Dwarfs on Reality TV

30 Aug

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

 

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

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

I laughed and nodded reassuringly.

He was not unwise to worry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

It’s Probably Every Dwarf’s Dream to Be a Prop for Miley Cyrus

2 Mar

Freaks(Image by Mariana Rojas used under CC license via)

 

Miley Cyrus loves diversity. Just not, you know, discussing diversity and the complex history behind it. Since her performance at the Video Music Awards last September, she has drawn tremendous criticism for her treatment of the black backup dancers in her shows – cartoonishly imitating their dance moves, spanking them, simulating sex with them. Some, including Cyrus, have argued the portrayal is affectionate or even celebratory, while others perceive it as exploitative and reductive. Articles at Vulture and The Guardian likened it to a minstrel show.

Cyrus also uses dwarf dancers in a similar way. One of these dancers, Hollis Jane, has come forward to voice her regret:

Most of the time, getting a job purely because you’re a little person (in my opinion) is not a good thing. It is further fulfilling society’s idea that we are something to laugh at; that our value is simply to shock. We can all agree that right now all Miley Cyrus wants to do is make society’s jaw drop. So what’s more “weird” or “freaky” than having little people parading around in your show?

As someone who is trying to make it as a serious actress in this industry, not just trying to “be famous” or make money, there is nothing more frustrating than this stigma. The longer little people agree to be used as shock value, the longer it is going to take for us to be taken seriously.

I was a bear in Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance and it was my first time doing anything like that…anything where I was being used because of my height, not because of my talent. And I will be the first one to tell you that standing on that stage, in that costume was one of the most degrading things I felt like I could ever do. I realize not everyone shares my opinion and I might just be young and naive, but I feel like the acceptance of this kind of treatment has got to stop.

In an interview on Ronan Farrow Daily this week, Jane admirably pointed out that the problem lies in the broader culture, not just Miley Cyrus’s individual decisions.  Powerful stars, aspiring dwarf actors, the media, and media consumers all bear a responsibility to quell the demand for dwarfs in freak shows.

To which Cyrus said in her W interview with Farrow:

I don’t give a shit. I’m not Disney, where they have, like, an Asian girl, a black girl, and a white girl, to be politically correct, and, like, everyone has bright-colored T-shirts. You know, it’s like, I’m not making any kind of statement. Anyone that hates on you is always below you, because they’re just jealous of what you have.

To which I say, we really don’t need another Amanda Palmer out there, another millionaire whose ego is so very fragile we can’t ever expect her to buck up the courage to engage with people “below” her, or to admit when she’s been wrong. Every entertainer accused of perpetuating stupid stereotypes has the opportunity to prove whether they are a respectable artist or a pathetic narcissist. An artist is trying to communicate something, and therefore cares first and foremost about what they are communicating. A narcissist defaults to seeing themselves as the victim in every conflict.

Hopefully those who love Cyrus’s music don’t love the way she deals with minorities.

 

 

Trying To Understand Mini-Me

2 Feb

170739265KI00117_The_World_(Image by Ricky Brigante used under Creative Commons license via)

 

This month actor Verne Troyer (above) is featured in a National Geographic documentary series, Incredibly Small World, about the experience of living with dwarfism.  (Incredibly creative title, by the way.) Examining everything from the average-sized family of Amish origin he grew up in to his burgeoning career, Troyer hopes to spread awareness about dwarfs.  “Don’t look at us like we’re circus people!” he recently told The Daily Mail. Right on. 

But wait.  If you don’t want the world to see you as a circus freak, what was going on with Mini-Me?

While one of his most recent stints was in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Troyer is by far known best as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films.  According to his profile in The Lives of Dwarfs, he had been in the acting business for years and was grateful to finally land a role in which he portrayed an adult human.  All of his previous work had mirrored Kenny Baker—the actor inside R2D2— moving about in robot, baby, alien, and animal costumes.  But to call Mini-Me “human” is debatable.   

While the Austin Powers plotline claims he is a clone (one-eighth the size) of Dr. Evil and therefore in training to step in for the villain at any time, Mini-Me has little to no agency.  He doesn’t even speak.  Other characters refer to him as “like a dog” or “that Chihuahua thing.”  Slapstick has its rightful place in film, and all the characters in Austin Powers are blunt stereotypes meant to parody the James Bond genre, but it’s hard to watch Mini-Me portrayed pretty much the way dwarfs were handled by the aristocracy in Early Modern Europe – like a pet.  (And when fully-grown adults are handled as nothing but pets, it’s called slavery.) 

Austin Powers could have used Mini-Me to skewer the James Bond character Nick-Nack, but instead it merely perpetuated the gag.  Most minorities can name a famous character/caricature that makes their skin crawl—Tonto, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Danvers—and Mini-Me is certainly up there for the dwarf community.

It makes me uncomfortable, but not enough to keep me from watching the films.  A lot of the scenes are as dull as the back-pages of an eighth grader’s notebook, but the jokes satirizing the Bond films are lovely: 

 

 

And Mini-Me is a funny name.  Just not the third time, or the fourth time, or the fortieth time that any given person with dwarfism hears it hollered at them on the street.

Today Troyer remains friends with Austin Powers creator Mike Meyers.  Cynics might say that networking is networking, and what dwarf actor wouldn’t remain loyal to someone who’d lifted him into the spotlight, no matter how dehumanizing the role?  Beggars can’t be choosers or bite the hand that feeds them. The tradition of the groveling dwarf actor grateful for anything he can get is so pervasive that Peter Dinklage has spoken out about the importance of dwarf actors turning down such roles for the sake of self-respect.  But when I see photos of Troyer schmoozing with Meyers, it reminds me of something other than begging or groveling.

Back when I was in elementary school, one of my classmates liked to lay his elbow on my head because I “made a great armrest.”  He would also regularly ask me, “How’s the weather down there, shorty?” to which my response was always, “Clouds of your bad breath.”  Not exactly Abbott and Costello caliber, but then again, we were eight.  I didn’t mind being the target of his jokes.  I almost liked it.  He wasn’t a close friend who’d helped me through any of my medical ordeals, but we knew each other, he talked to me and not only to laugh at my expense.  For this reason, I took his teasing as openness. 

That year was not an easy one in the schoolyard.  To be ostracized there means that those who don’t know you at all will hurl insults at your minority status from a safe distance, while those who do know you will stay eerily silent on the subject. This is why when someone talks both to you and about your difference, they seem to be demonstrating a delightful lack of fear. 

The millions of people who have giggled at Mini-Me, whether they are his viewers or his creators, aren’t necessarily harboring nasty views of dwarfs.  The difference comes down to who can not only laugh at him but talk to him, and who’s afraid to.

 

 

Is Dwarfism A Disability?

27 Oct

(Image by Ron Riccio used under Creative Commons license via)

 

A more sober ending to Dwarfism Awareness Month

I remember being around 10 years-old when I began taking care to never refer to my dwarfism as an “illness” or a “disease.” An illness is something that tries to destroy you. It demands you go into battle. Even if you end up grateful for its having made you stronger, you’re glad when it’s gone. My dwarfism has always been around and I’ve never tried to conquer it. It’s a condition, a word as neutral as it is fitting. But is it a disability?

Many in the dwarf community insist that it is not. The thinking goes that being extraordinarily short is no more serious than being left-handed. We don’t think of left-handedness as a disability. It’s merely a difference, one of many physical features that can shape someone’s identity, like hazel eyes or an outie belly button. Being left-handed is only an inconvenience insofar as the world is built for those who are right-handed, and populated by some who still cultivate fear and hatred of those who don’t conform to the majority. Needing left-handed scissors and mouse buttons is not really thought to be an issue of disabled access – it’s more akin to needing glasses or extra-moisturizing shampoo. Diversity awareness over the last 50 years has led the vast majority of Westerners to shrug at the idea of left-handedness.

And such a neutral shrug is what dwarf activists seem to be coveting when they insist that dwarfism is not a disability. In the words of Andrew Solomon, “Neutrality, which appears to lie halfway between shame and rejoicing, is in fact the endgame, reached only when activism becomes unnecessary.” But is dwarfism only an inconvenience insofar as the world is built for those who are taller? It’s a compelling thought experiment, but it ignores all the medical complications I’ve had to deal with. And it raises the question: What is dwarfism?

The official definition, which lumps hundreds of skeletal dysplasias and growth hormone deficiencies into one category, is in fact only concerned with height. Little People of America defines a dwarf as anyone who stands fully grown below 4’10” (1.47 m). But height is relative. Women in Indonesia and Guatemala are 4’10” on average, which means that the LPA definition is based on a certain culture, and cultures are always changing as we move through time and around the world. As a pre-teen, I always got a kick out of seeing my towering parents become the minority at LPA meetings, while as an adult, I got a kick out of seeing my German-Swedish partner tower over my parents.

Physically, Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage have no more in common than a black-haired Korean does with a black-haired Irishman. But they share many experiences rooted in society’s reaction to their short stature. They were both cast as dwarfs in the second Chronicles of Narnia film because the fantasy tradition cares first and foremost about looks, making up its convoluted ideas about heritage and separate races as it goes along. Most forms of dwarfism are caused by genetic mutations, but others result from chromosomal abnormalities, malnutrition, or even child abuse. Thus, because it encompasses all sorts of conditions with a tremendous variety of causes and complications, dwarfism is a social construct. Can a social construct be a disability? What is a disability?

This blog recognizes disability as a medical condition that causes you to experience more pain and/or limitations than the average person in your peer group, and therein attracts inordinate attention from society. And the attention has traditionally been negative. Disabled people carry a burden most other minorities do not in that we must argue that our lives and identities are no less valuable than anyone else’s, while at the same time admitting that we will always experience a good deal of pain no matter how accepting or accommodating society is. (Poor people are the only other minority that shares this burden.) This idea of inherent pain is what causes many activists in the autistic community and the transgender community to buck the disabled classification.

But when pain is indisputably inherent to a condition, it is frequently relativized in the hopes that this will reduce ableist attitudes. When I was born, the doctor pointed out to my parents that “everyone has something different about their bodies. One person has bad knees, another has a chronic skin rash. Emily’s difference is just a lot more noticeable than other people’s.” But does this mean that bad knees and skin rashes and seasonal allergies are all disabilities? There’s more to it than that.

If a medical condition is only minimally limiting and can be treated with standard procedures, we don’t really consider it a disability and rightfully so. While there is value in relativizing everyone’s struggles in order to calm our fears of the Other, it carries the risk of our failing to recognize differences that have much to teach us. The regular migraines I inherited from my mother don’t make me disabled. The pain can be intense and it’s infuriatingly inconvenient to feel one coming on at a dinner party while also feeling the hollow echo of an empty pill box in my bag. But the migraines are treatable—and not exorbitantly expensive to treat—and easily understood by others because plenty of people get them. Having to explain to people what my back and joints can and cannot endure is a more complex task.  Alleviating or avoiding the pain is even harder.

I interviewed friends and acquaintances with achondroplasia about the physical difficulties they regularly face. Some described always needing to lie down for at least half an hour whenever they vacuum for 10 minutes or more, and needing to get up earlier than everyone else on weekdays in order to afford themselves more time for walking to work or class. Everyone has trouble finding comfortable shoes that fit—women’s business shoes and sandals pose the biggest challenge—and many need to wear orthotics. Camilla, a college student who has not undergone limb-lengthening, told me:

I definitely believe I feel fatigue more easily than people my age. I went out dancing with friends last night and I had to stop and just stand for a while because my legs were starting to hurt. Also, when I walk places with my average height friends, my joints start to hurt while they feel almost no effects of fatigue at all… I would say that the hardest physical aspect of having dwarfism would not be the height difference but the extreme muscle and joint pain that seems to be more and more easily triggered as I get older.

And by “older” she means approaching her mid-twenties. These physical limitations would sound less surprising coming from senior citizens, which is why, as an advisor explained to me, your eligibility for disability status decreases as you age and aching joints become more common to your peer group.

A friend who had limb-lengthening at the same time I did told me, “I know if I’ve been on my feet all day, my ankles get really stiff and I’m limping around at home at the end of the night… as compared to my friends who work all day and still manage to hit yoga class, the gym, or cycling class afterwards.” Those of us who have undergone limb-lengthening can test whether achondroplasia is a disability because we control for the socially-constructed advantages of height. Yet in my interviews, I noticed that many who have had limb-lengthening are often reticent to talk about their current physical hardships lest someone conclude that all that time spent breaking and healing and growing bones was for naught.

Indeed, pride complicates our perceptions of pain. While hypochondriacs rejoice when they qualify as “disabled,” those who have regularly been reminded by peers and institutions of the supposedly pitiful nature of their condition are often less willing to revel in it. Those who reject the idea of calling dwarfism a disability are often motivated by the desire to de-stigmatize dwarfism. I of course understand this desire, but I don’t see how we can make the argument without stigmatizing disability. And I am suspicious of any mindset that supports a hierarchy by essentially saying, “At least I’m not like them.”

Like people of color, people with dwarfism are united only by society’s reaction to them, not by any medical traits. This is why I do not believe dwarfism itself is a disability. However, most types of dwarfism are. The way in which the physical pain brought on by achondroplasia intersects with social limitations is explained very well by Spoon Theory, an idea invented by Christine Miserandino, who has lupus. It bears repeating that I can only begin to imagine what living with lupus is like.  In the presence of someone needing to vent about the pain, I hope to be as wonderfully deferential as so many non-disabled friends have been to me. But the fact that lupus is an illness while achondroplasia is a not is no reason to ignore the fact that Spoon Theory perfectly illustrates the broader concept of chronic pain and fatigue experienced by people with all kinds of disabilities. Emily Brand described it eloquently in The Guardian last year:

The basic idea is that you have a limited number of spoons available for the day and each action will cost a given number of them – the more demanding the task, the more spoons would be required. The phrase “running low on spoons” can be a useful way of communicating the need for rest to fellow “spoonies” who also use this system and to friends and family who are in the know. Reading up on this is one of the best things anyone could do to help with providing day-to-day support to someone with a chronic health condition, as it’s a powerful analogy that can help people to empathise with how much of an impact even an invisible symptom like chronic pain can make.

I love the idea of “running low on spoons.” I used it just last week in explaining to a friend that I couldn’t peer with her into a store window because my swollen feet were begging me to keep off the cobblestones. But at the risk of sounding, well, confused, I’m not entirely comfortable calling myself a “spoonie” because experiences in college have left me averse to glamorizing conditions with labels that sound like club memberships. And between dwarf and has dwarfism and midget and little person and LP and short-statured and disabled and physically challenged and differently-abled, I’ve got enough labels to sort through.

 

 

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 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.

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Boring of “Life’s Too Short”

21 Mar

 

Today Feministing.com features my review of HBO’s Life’s Too Short, the first sitcom I’ve ever seen starring someone with dwarfism.

 

 

The Make-Believe Dwarfs of My Childhood

3 Mar

lookism

(Image by Paul Bailey used under CC license via)

 

Though it often can be the best way to get a message across, art complicates politics because it mixes matters of taste with matters of justice.  One lends itself to reason, the other doesn’t.  Too often sentimental feelings about a film or song with offensive elements will result in fans denying the offense altogether.  “Little House on the Prairie isn’t racist!  I grew up on it and I turned out fine!”  Maybe you did thanks to your innate curiosity about the experiences of others or inspiring teachers in your life, but you didn’t learn anything valuable about civil rights from that book.  I grew up on Dumbo and I think it is an artistically brilliant film with many good messages, one of which is the problem of lookism.  However, getting a white actor to put on his best black voice to play a character named “Jim Crow” in the heyday of the minstrel shows was a supremely stupid idea.  We shouldn’t deny ourselves our personal tastes, but that shouldn’t preclude calling out the artists’ mistakes.   

Likewise, we shouldn’t cry wolf over artwork that simply doesn’t match our tastes.  I’m one of the few people on earth who doesn’t enjoy The Lord of the Rings—I saw it for the first time in my twenties and fell asleep—but that’s primarily because I get bored by fantasy epics that are predominantly serious.  (I’m not wild about The Chronicles of Narnia either.  If there’s going to be magic, I prefer the tongue-in-cheek tone maintained in the worlds of Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum or the Pirates of the Caribbean.)  It is sometimes difficult to divorce my dislike of the style from my annoyance that the Lord of the Rings definition of a dwarf receives more attention in almost every corner of our culture than the one based on reality.  Google “dwarf” right now in the image search and see how long you have to wait until a real human being is featured.  But neither Peter Jackson nor J. R. R. Tolkien is solely responsible for this; the latter of course drew this definition from the fantasy tradition.  And the use of dwarfs in fantasy is not always problematic. 

Peter Dinklage has demonstrated that dwarfism is no more important than skin color or foot size in Game of Thrones.  And while I couldn’t sit through Lord of the Rings as an adult, I have a special place in my heart for the 1988 film Willow, which was panned by almost every critic I respect.  Perhaps my nostalgia and childhood crush on Warwick Davis blinds me to the film’s artistic faults, but my enjoyment of it was rooted in politics before I even knew the word “politics.”  Because for once a dwarf was the main character.  And he looked like a real dwarf; he wasn’t wearing any pointed ears or goblin nose or orange face-paint.  And I wanted to be Sorsha, the bad-ass warrior princess.  Yes, she’s a damsel in distress during the final battle, but it’s 3′ 6″ Warwick Davis who wins that battle for her, not buff Val Kilmer. 

While I’m uncomfortable with fantasy’s tradition of insisting that dwarfs are a separate race and thus, in many cases, non-human, I loved Willow for giving both the dwarf-sized people and the average-sized people names free of connotation (“nelwyns” and “dakinis”).  They are neutral words that demonstrate one of the advantages of neologisms.  (Though I’ll admit the film’s line “Stupid dakini!” has echoed in my head at various points in my life.)  The film also uses the fictional word “peck” as the thinly veiled equivalent to “midget,” an insult the eponymous character must endure from dakinis throughout the film, adding more gravitas to his saving the day and personal appeal to dwarf viewers like myself.  Too often in fantasy, physical characteristics are indicative of personality traits.  This is an occasionally racist, always lookist device that disenfranchises hideous hags, macho musclemen, dark demons, pretty princesses, and innocent invalids.  Willow offers a welcome respite.  As sappy and as simple as the message is—anyone can be a hero—it bears repeating.

Speaking of lookist, I also adored Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a kid.  I always played Snow White, of course—what child doesn’t imagine themselves as the attention-getting protagonist?—but I was also secretly proud that the first feature-length animated film, one of the most famous of the Grimms’ fairy tales, included dwarfs who weren’t ludicrously unrealistic.  They were kind, they had no mysticism and, as much as I loved her and her poufy dress, they had far more personality than Snow White herself.  For these reasons, I didn’t mind using them as an example when children asked me about my size.  My mother once said, “We’ll write to Disney and tell them most dwarfs aren’t bashful or dopey at all!”  I recall at the time wishing she wouldn’t put a damper on a film I loved so much, but now I am grateful to her for fostering such moral vigilance in me.  

Because once I hit puberty, I instantly saw the problems.  Like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and scores of other films, Snow White asserts that male characters who are disabled or deformed can never hope to get the girl.  Considered innocent, asexual people, they are doomed to the Friend Zone.  And women with disabilities?  There aren’t many fairy tales about them.  The story emphasizes even in Snow White’s name that looks are everything.   

My childhood in combination with my experience with dwarfism endowed me with a nostalgia for stories I nevertheless was forced to analyze critically as I grew up, so I cannot deny either.  Everyone should keep a healthy distance between one’s understanding of the world and fairy tales.  My partner and I used the above image of Snow White on our wedding invitations, although we changed the slogan to “Everyone Is Beautiful”—a lesson I did not learn from Snow White herself, but from learning how my dwarfism conflicted with her.