Table of Content
What is Dwarfism?
Dwarfism in history
Dwarfism in today’s society
Dwarfism in modern media
Even in our presumably modern world and enlightened time it seams odd for ‘tall’ humans to confront not a child, but a small-sized contemporary. The terms “midget” or seemingly more polite paraphrase “dwarf” come fast to mind and the tip of the tongue. Shall one genuflect or “talk down” to the interlocutor? Might the person be mentally challenged, too? And not long ago it was even general belief that the “small people” form their own race. However, dwarfism is solely a genetic condition resulting in short stature, which appears in approximately 200 forms and as such the symptoms and characteristics of individual people with dwarfism vary greatly.
The fascination of bodies which do not comply with the norm seems prevalent across cultures. People with dwarfism manage their lives just as successful as ‘tall’ people; however, dwarfism is often stigmatized as an illness and is seen as pitiable. Also, people with dwarfism are often facing unfavourable treatment based on their height in a variety of areas, politics, business, dating, sports and media. This form of discrimination is called heightism.
The following essay aims at introducing dwarfism as a medical condition, discussing the perception of dwarfism in society and history and critically analysing the (re)presentation of people with dwarfism in different types of media.
What isz Dwarfism?
Dwarfism is a genetic condition resulting in short stature. By most definitions that is an adult height of less than 140 cm (55.1 in; 4’6 ft) in women and 150 cm (59.1 in; 4’9 ft) in men. The medical condition can be either inherited or caused after birth, e.g. by malnutrition, lack of Vitamin B or anaemia. Additional causes could be radical treatment in childhood age with radioactive irradiation or cortisone. Once a person’s skeleton is fully developed the stature is not treatable anymore.
There are an estimated 200 types of Dwarfism, which fall under two main categories: Researchers speak of ‘Proportionate dwarfism’ when the individual’s body parts are proportionate, but just shorter than those of average people and of ‘Disproportionate dwarfism’ when one has a typical-sized torso with shorter extremities. In proportionate dwarfism, height is significantly below average. Often sexual development is delayed or impaired into adulthood. Unlike in disproportionate dwarfism, stunted growth can lead to impaired intelligence and mental capacity may be reduced in some cases. However, unless the brain is directly affected by the underlying disorder, there is little to no chance of mental impairment that can be attributed to dwarfism.
The psychosocial disadvantages may be more distressing than the physical symptoms, especially in childhood and adolescence, due to prejudices, teasing and everyday life objects and buildings designed only for ‘normal’ sized people.
(BIH, 2010; Focus Online, 2008; NGC, 2010; Schmidt, 2005; The Hormone Foundation, 2010)
The appropriate term for describing a person of particularly short stature has historically been ambiguous, and has developed euphemistically over the past few centuries. "Midget," whose etymology indicates a "small sandfly," came into prominence in the mid-1800s after Harriet Beecher Stowe used it in her novels Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands and Old Town Folks where she described children and an extremely short man, respectively. Later most people of short stature considered the word to be offensive because it was the descriptive term applied to P. T. Barnum's dwarfs used for public amusement during the freak show era. It is also not considered accurate as it is not a medical term or diagnosis, though it is sometimes used as a slang term to describe those who are particularly short, whether or not they have dwarfism. The first notable use of the term "dwarf" was by the Brothers Grimm in their fairy tale Snow White; Jonathan Swift also used it in Gulliver's Travels to describe a giant who was only 20 ft tall compared to his 40 ft peers. Swift also introduces the term Lilliputian - Gulliver travels to Lilliput, the land of dwarf-like Lilliputians. The word Lilliputian has become an adjective meaning "very small in size", or "petty or trivial". When used as a noun, it means either "a tiny person" or "a person with a narrow outlook, who minds the petty and trivial things." The plural form of "dwarf" for a person with dwarfism is "dwarfs", while "dwarves" describes the mythical creature. The word "dwarf" has also been condemned by some as not only inaccurate but also insensitive due to its mythical and fairy tale origins.
The terms "little person", "LP", and "person of short stature" are now generally considered acceptable by most people affected by these disorders.
Dwarfism in history
The perception of people of shorter stature has changed in society over history. In ancient Egypt little people were eminently respectable and were well integrated into social life. Even a variety of Egyptian deities were of short stature, and a stigmatization of little people as misfits was absolutely not existent. The first description of a smaller statured person can be dated back to the year BC4500. Without social discrimination, people of short stature lived a normal life as servants, craftsmen as well as highly respected members of society. The latter can be seen by the close proximity of graves to the pyramids. (Schäfer, 2005)
An intensive search through the rich documents of the ancient Egyptian civilization
revealed images and descriptions of people of shorter stature. Below Seneb, a priest of funerary cults, and his wife and two children are portrait. The second image shows the name Seneb in hieroglyphs. Interestingly, Seneb translated means ‘is healthy’
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Name Seneb in Hieroglyphs = is healthy
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Seneb, dwarf priest of funerary cults in 4th Dynasty (c. 2640- 2510 BCE) Ancient Egypt,with his wife Senetites and their children. (Junker, 1955)
Since Antiquity people of shorter stature were ‘objects of illustration’. ‘Courtdwarfs’ and ‘Courtfools’ were often richly costumed and given as presents from one king to another. And who couldn’t afford a ‘dwarf’ went to the annual fairs and got entertained by ‘Lilliputs’ or ‘Humans in miniature format’, as well as Siamese twins and people with albinism - ‘freaks’ which served predominantly for generating money, by showing them around. (Cadenbach, 2009; Weidemeier, 2009) Up until the 20th century many cities in the world had ‘Lilliput-towns’, as for example Lilliputia a Utopian city of midgets that prospered within the confines of Coney Island's Dreamland before the whole amusement park burned down in 1911.
- Quote paper
- Jenny Haberer (Author), 2010, The little Difference - Dwarfism and the Media, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/160380