Representations from the Freak Show to the Living Room

Laura Backstrom
Laura Backstrom

Dwarfism and obesity are physical conditions that fall under Erving Goffman’s (1963) category of stigma called abominations of the body. Both conditions are immediately visible and therefore discredited stigmas. However, dwarfism and obesity differ in one key way. Dwarfism is an inborn or ascribed stigma that cannot be changed, whereas obesity is an achieved stigma that is acquired later in life and can potentially be eliminated through weight loss. While bodily stigmas are often associated with presumed character flaws, past research has found that people with achieved stigmas are judged more harshly because they are seen as culpable for their stigma (e.g., Tewksbury and McGaughey, 1997).

Erving Goffman’s work largely focused on interactional responses to stigma. Yet, he noted that nearly all stigmatized groups have organizations that provide social support, promote a certain philosophy on how to live with the condition, and create professionals who espouse this viewpoint. Further, Erving Goffman (1963) explains that stigmatized conditions are not experienced solely through interaction, but meaning can also be produced through cultural representations: “No matter how small or badly off a particular stigmatized category is, the viewpoint of its members is likely to be given the public presentation of some kind. It can thus be said that Americans who are stigmatized tend to live in a literarily-defined world, however uncultured they might be. If they do not read books on the situation of persons like themselves, they at least read magazines and see movies; and where they don’t do these, then they listen to local, vocal associates. An intellectually worked-up version of their point of view is thus available to the most stigmatized person.” (1963:25)

In this article, I build on Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma to argue that groups use public representations as de-stigmatization projects aimed at providing their point of view to a general audience. Broadly available cultural representations, such as those found in reality television series, can reflect and potentially resist the stigma attached to certain groups. Further, I argue that the content and form of these attempts to de-stigmatize are enabled or constrained by the way that the condition has been historically constructed. The nature of the stigma informs previous representations, which leads to whether a stigmatized group adopts a model of acceptance or change. Below, I discuss two responses to the bodily difference that have emerged in modern society, and then I hypothesize the way that obesity and dwarfism fit into these options.

The disability rights movement takes on disability as a civil rights issue rather than a medical problem (Paterson and Hughes, 2000). Similar to the identity politics and social movements that women, African Americans, and sexual minorities took part in during the twentieth-century, the disability rights movement sought to change cultural meanings of collective and personal identity in order to attain greater social equality.

Challenging traditional disability discourses of passivity, incompetence, dependence on charity, and medicalization, the disability rights movement advocated for disability pride, accessibility, and awareness of institutional discrimination and social prejudice (Paterson and Hughes, 2000). Disability rights advocates emphasize the way that disability is created by environmental factors that do not take into account the needs and rights of impaired people. Impairment might be based on the individual difference, but disability is produced socially due to inaccessible structures and stigma. According to the central objectives of the disability rights movement, disabled people should be free from oppression, have full citizenship and social participation, and possess a positive, non-stigmatized identity.

An alternative way that the body is implicated in identity formation is through the adoption of a body project. According to Chris Shilling (2003:4): ‘‘In the affluent West, there is a tendency for the body to be seen as an entity which is in the process of becoming; a project which should be worked at and accomplished as part of an individual’s self-identity.’’1 Body projects are the ongoing processes of people shaping and maintaining their bodies through vigilant effort with the aim of self-expression and construction of self-identity. Individual responsibility for maintaining a healthy body is one focal point of body projects. Increased interest in bodybuilding, plastic surgery, and health consciousness reflect the pressure that individuals feel to be responsible for the function and appearance of their bodies (Chris Shilling, 2003). However, there are limits to one’s control over the body, as evidenced by ageing, mortality, and the difficulty that most dieters face when attempting to lose weight.

In this article, I investigate how public representations vary based on historical legacy and how cultural meanings of stigma affect a group’s adoption of identity movement or body project tenets. By examining cultural representations, I attempt to show that stigma resistance exists in the form of either identity or body projects rooted in broader cultural discourses, meanings, and social movements. Using obesity and dwarfism as case studies of bodily stigma, I ask to what extent these groups adopt a model of bodily acceptance or change. Given that dwarfism is an ascribed stigma, I expect that little people were positioned to adapt to a social model of disability as their public representations evolved from freak show performances to television as an educational platform. By contrast, I expect that obese individuals have not been incorporated into the disability rights model of bodily acceptance. Because obesity is persistently viewed as an achieved stigma and therefore a matter of individual responsibility, transformation through a body project of weight loss may be the predominant narrative in contemporary representations.

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