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From the Freak Show to the Living Room: Cultural Representations of Dwarfism and Obesity


  •  The author thanks William Corsaro, Brian Powell, Lisa Warner, and Martin Weinberg, as well as three anonymous reviewers, for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.


This article examines how cultural representations of deviant bodies vary based on historically informed narratives of bodily stigma. Using content analysis of 40 episodes of reality television programming, I contrast cultural representations of dwarfism and obesity. Over time, dwarfism became constructed as an identity project with the aim of bodily acceptance, whereas obesity became regarded as a body project with the goal of body transformation through weight loss. The mostly positive historical characterizations of dwarfs allowed them to easily adopt the tenets of the disability rights movement as they evolved from freak show performances to television as an educational platform. They have adopted a social model of disability, positive social identity, self-acceptance, and full social participation. By contrast, the past and contemporary representations of obesity have been overwhelmingly negative. Obese freak show performers were openly mocked, and classifying obesity as a disability has not yet gained traction as a civil rights movement. Instead, obesity is viewed through the lens of individual responsibility and limits of social participation are emphasized. Body modification through weight loss constructs an identity based on self-change. Generally, this article suggests that cultural representations as de-stigmatization projects are enabled or constrained by historical factors and the nature of the bodily stigma.