Odd Bodkins

“It’s not polite to stare.” Most children are told this by their parents the first time they’re caught gawking at a person who looks different from the other people the child has seen. If they’re a different race (in a homogeneous neighborhood), wear clothing typical of a different ethnic group (lederhosen are so last year), are excessively fat or thin, or are amputees, or deviate from the norm in any visible and unusual way, children want to give them a good study with their eyes. Adults do too, for that matter, but we tend to be better about this sort of rudeness. Usually.

Standards of beauty are different all over the world, and there’s something ineffable in what each of us finds attractive, but generalizing very broadly, we all find health and symmetry beautiful. If a person is missing a limb or an eye, or has a scar or blemish, most will find that person less attractive than their identical twin who is whole and unmarked. Obviously one’s mileage may vary, but I don’t think it’s’ controversial to assert that this is generally the case. This is what we call “conventionally attractive.”

Woe betide anyone whose looks depart from that convention by more than a couple of standard deviations. Historically, such people have been hidden away or put on display. Of course I don’t mean people who were simply ugly; I mean the bearded ladies and wolf boys and living skeletons and such. They were fascinating to see, but also horrifying. The circus sideshows were often the only available employment for such people; they were labeled “freaks” and people paid money to come gawk at them. Many “circus freaks” even became wealthy off this occupation. Chang and Eng, the famous “Siamese Twins,” (who, it must be admitted, were at least symmetrical) made enough off their circus career to buy the plantation to which they retired (and became slave owners, incidentally).

Those individuals who were unwilling to trade on their looks in this manner felt obliged to wear masks or otherwise hide their differentness, like “Elephant Man” John Merrick. Or through the use of natural-looking but less useful prosthetics, like artificial legs. Double amputee athlete Aimee Mullins has artificial legs that are flesh-toned and molded to resemble biological legs, but she can’t run in them nearly as fast as she can in her metal spring-shaped “cheetah legs,” which don’t look remotely organic. It’s presumed that people who look too different from the rest of us will take steps to minimize or conceal their differentness.

I wonder if this presumption might be going away with the rise of pluralism in Western society. I’m prompted to muse about this by the late film critic Roger Ebert. I remember being really shocked and unsettled when I first saw this photo of him in an Esquire magazine profile. He lost his mandible to cancer, and efforts to rebuild it with bone grafts had failed. This was, consequently, what he looked like (maybe he died only months too soon for the invention that could have changed that). He could no longer talk or eat, but he didn’t let this stop him. He still attended film festivals and screenings and made other public appearances; if his appearance shocked people, he didn’t seem bothered by it.

Michael J. Fox, retired from acting when diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which causes him to twitch and jerk uncontrollably. He returned to television this fall in a regular sitcom. He had already done many guest roles in which his symptoms are not minimized, and his character also has Parkinson’s.

J. R. Martinez, an Iraq War veteran with a badly-scarred face, has become a successful actor and has performed on Dancing With The Stars.

I’m just thinking out loud here (and yet, for some reason, I’m putting my half-ass thoughts in a blog post for everyone to see), but I see many implications of a society where extraordinarily divergent looks are more mainstream, all of them good. Transpeople have some skin in this game; many of us have gender-nonconforming looks that often draw second glances and often, unwanted attention or abuse. If everybody’s more used to seeing people who don’t look like Joe Average or Jane Lunchpail, it’s to everyone’s benefit. Right?