Sunday, April 29, 2007

When reality TV goes right...right into your own psyche

I like the show, Little People Big World. I like it because it's first a show about people, a family, that is done in a true documentary way. There isn't any interference from the show makers to create some lively drama, no artificial situations...or at least it doesn't appear to be. I like it second because it's a show that teaches me about a way of life I wouldn't otherwise know anything about.

I find myself alternately surprised to consider something little people have to face and sympthetic because I know how something feels (e.g., parenting issues, life situations, remodeling challenges, time management and balancing acts, etc.).

If the Roloffs' intent was to demonstrate that (and I loosely quote something repeated at the beginning of each show) little people can do everything anyone else can do, just in a different way, they've succeeded. If they want people to get to know them, and have the show morph from a program about little people into a program about people who happen to be little, then they've succeeded.

Still, I can't help but think that the lily is a little gilded.

In one program, the microphone caught some idle chatter that was troubling. Amy was hosting a post-preschool graduation reception at the gorgeous Roloff farm. One mother was describing her daughter's and her own first impressions of Amy, that is, Amy as a dwarf. The mother was using that light, jokey tone when she said, "She kept coming home telling me she was taller than her teacher, and I thought..." insert nervous laughter.

Amy said, "You thought..." and the mom interrupted and said, "She was..." Amy spoke, "Yes?" The mom laughed, somewhat nervously again, "I thought she was crazy or else her teacher was a..." And Amy said, "Little person. Excuse me." Amy walked away. Amy has a somewhat dry and practical tone most of the time, so it was pretty hard to tell what she thought.

I winced.

Good grief, what an odd conversation to choose to have with one's host. Whatever happened to Abraham Lincoln's concept of, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

What possible purpose did that entire conversation serve?

Was it the height equivalent of, "Oh not to be racist but..."

Was the mom nervous? Ought I have pity for her (misguided) attempt to show she was acknowledging Amy's dwarfism but "cool" with it?

See, that sort of thing---joking like that---indicates to me that a person is not actually cool with it.

I don't make comments about height. It's a button for me. In fact, I don't like to make comments about the most obvious thing about anyone, not straightaway...especially about something that is simply how a person is made.

It's not usually very cool (who wants their most prominent feature--good or bad---immediately noted out loud, and commented upon?) and it's frequently teasing. I generally find teasing a vicious tool of bullying.

I doubt anyone would sanction a comment like, "Hey you must have a great sense of smell with a nose that big!" or "Hoo YA what a rack!" or "I bet you have no balance problems with those huge feet!"

Therefore, I don't think any conversation with another person---especially one you don't know well---needs to center around the most prominent physical feature of that person, even if done somewhat kindly.

A person's physical being is---although fairly available for public viewing---still a somewhat private thing. If we aren't close, and don't know one another well enough to know exactly where the bull's eye on the target is, then any comment on the physical---that being features of yourself that you cannot control, and were simply born with---have a high possibility of straying way off target, regardless of how it is intended.

Yeah, it's personal. As a woman who happens to be very tall (the exact opposite problem of Amy Roloff) I have no patience for the comments, nor do I have it for the commenters...who are typically men, and even more typically men shorter than me who lie about their height.

"How's the weather up there? Bwahahahaha."

"You must play basketball. Bwahahahahahaha."

"You're one long drink of water! Bwahahahahaha."

"How tall are you, anyway?"

"I guess you never get to wear high heels!"

"I feel so short next to you!"

And on and on.

For the record:

* The weather at 5'10" is the exact same as it is for you, at 5'7"

* I don't play basketball. It's not a lack of physical coordination or ability (I have been known to acquit myself fairly well); it is instead a total miss on the mentality required for competitive sports.

* I believe the average human is comprised of 60 percent water (70% of the brain, 90% of the lungs, and 83% of blood) and this is static regardless of height.

* I am exactly as tall as I am, as my genes designed me. If you must know more (and it is clear that you must), I am 5'10" and A HALF. Do you need to know my measurements, as well? You hand-tailoring clothing for me? Otherwise, I can't possibly imagine what business it is of yours...unless...you are a man shorter than me and the next reply from you is, "NO WAY! I'm 6' and you are taller than me. You must be 6'4" AT LEAST!" In which case I say, "Sure...I must be 6'4" at least because you are definitely 6' tall. Sure. Okay. I'll make sure to notify my doctor at my next physical."

* I do wear high heels, however, as rarely as possible. They are uncomfortable, and don't work well with the reflexive sympathy dystrophy. When your nerves don't carry the appropriate messages and signals for your muscles, it can get a little dangerous to walk. High heels just make it worse. However, this isn't something I like to talk about. It's nearly impossible to explain without sounding like a shameless plea for pity. Or a conversation trump card: hello, I have a disability and don't you feel like shit now! Ha! Who wants to be that way. Not me. So then I'd have to go into the brave, brave me show and all the work and so forth I do to keep it managed. UGH. Just believe I am too ashamed to wear high heels since I am already so tall. Much easier.

* This one stumps me. Is this a problem? Do you want to go stand next to someone else?

In any case...I can't imagine why anyone would ever say anything like this.

I'm supposed to laugh, smile, play along, be a good sport because they don't (consciously) intend any harm, right? I usually do just laugh, smile, play along, be a good sport. Now and again, though, I'm in the wrong mood, or it's the wrong person, or the comment is so egregious that I respond with sarcasm. Instead of any kind of apology, all this nets me is, "Hey, you should take it as a compliment, a lot of people would kill to be so tall. You need to be okay about your height."

I am okay with my height, actually. I've lived long enough with it to see the pros. But, as with everything, there are cons, too, and it can be an aggravation. And these sorts of comments are one of the bigger ones.

And the notable absence of such on Little People Big World make me wonder. Has the show been sanitized? Or does it just not happen as much?

I don't get too many comments these days.

I'm not in school, going to clubs, or working in an office---the most likely places. But I'm also older, and it's post-PC.

Have most people cleaned up their acts?

Or have I just gotten better at avoiding Those Sorts in general, or does it roll off my back better so that I barely take note?

The truth is, no, my tallness isn't any kind of disability and I'm not even trying to compare it to dwarfism. I'm just saying that if we look within our own life it doesn't take much, I suspect, to find something to draw upon for a basis of understanding why one just would not make a joke about how someone looks, especially if it is out of the ordinary.

Differences aren't to be ignored as if they don't exist, but they aren't to be in the limelight either, as if it is the most prominent feature of the person within, just because it is the first thing you notice. It's not something to be studied or probed, joked about, or feared. I'd say see it, then look past it. Use intuition to determine how to proceed, and use good manners until you have enough information.

Two people have caused me to think long and hard about this: Matt Roloff and Rob R-H.

Rob is a blogger I've read for gosh, probably more than a decade. I found Rob's online journal when there weren't many online journals, and I read and kept reading as he detailed his life, all its changes, and his thoughts about the world. He's one of the most engaging writers I can think of. Rob has transitioned his journal many times, until now when it finally morphed into a blog called Schyler's Monster: The Blog. This blog---unlike his previous journals---focuses itself solely on his parenting. He had two recent posts---both very moving---about differences:

Fragile Innocence

Coffee Talk

One episode of Little People, Big World focused on Matt's nonprofit group, Coalition for Dwarf Advocacy. In the show, Matt was facilitating having CODA cover the legal fees for a family adopting a young boy with a type of dwarfism. Matt provided a tremendous amount of education about issues little people face in a world built for average height people and physical problems little people might have to deal with (such as this young boy who was on an oxygen tube). He was very inspirational about children with a form of dwarfism who seek families.

We never can walk in another person's shoes. So some toe-stepping is inevitable. I'm an insatiably curious person and trust me, I make many gaffes when my curiosity overwhelms my good manners and judgment.

Still, since I judged her, it's fair enough to ask me what I would have done in that mother's shoes when talking to Amy Roloff.

I hope I would be gracious and lovely, say something along the lines of, "Your farm is simply lovely. Thank for for sharing it with us for this special event. So generous...so wonderful...thank you."

But I might babble nervously about what struck me most, but in all sincerity that would be the fact that the teacher invited the entire class and families to her beautiful, dream of a farm. I promise you the foot in my mouth would more likely be, "Wow, it's just so awesome you invited everyone here. It's so beautiful. I would just be too overwhelmed to have so many people at my place, I don't know how you do it." I hope I'd stop before the last sentence, but you know, we all misstep now and again.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

12 comments:

scribbit said...

Cracks me up. I get so tired of people asking me if I play basketball. I was always taught it was rude to comment on anyone's physical characteristics unless to compliment them on their appearance.

I would never say, "Gosh, are you a sumo wrestler?" or "Wow, you must be a jockey!" Why is it okay for me to be considered a basketball player?

slouching mom said...

Ah, but you see as a relatively short person, I yearn to be tall. For me, tall is not pejorative. Quite the opposite. I am jealous!

Now, short... ;)

(This is entirely and willfully off-topic.)

Aliki2006 said...

Excellent post--I love that show too, and watch it often. My husband is skeptical about the "realness" of it (but he's often skeptical about shows portraying real people) but I try to watch it when I can.

Lawyer Mama said...

Oh yes, I love that show too. My nephew has down syndrome and so many of the comments... Well, people can say really. stupid. things.

I'm a shortie & about a month ago I had a partner in my firm drag me into his office - "You have to hear this!" And play that annoying song about short people for me. You know, "short people got no reason to live"? Lovely.

Mayberry said...

I absolutely HATE "I don't know how you do it." Thank you for pointing out how annoying and insulting it is.

Ali said...

I often read your blog - though I don't think I've commented before.

I'm 5'2" with the shoe size of someone who is at least 5'10". I guess that makes me a 'well grounded' person...

I'm grateful for scribbit's comment because I was thinking of all the times I've commented on someone's physical attributes upon meeting them and slowly shrinking into the mirky mire of 'Oh, I'm a totally clueless moron'. This may still be true of course, however I only ever comment as a compliment. Whew!

Ali

Julie Pippert said...

Scribbit, oooh those are better examples than I came up with. I absolutely agree with you.

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SM, I'm sure it's not meant as a pejorative with most people. Still, there are cases.

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Aliki, thanks! I confessed a bit of skepticism. I mean, it is edited. I also admit to going to the family site and seeing their Q&As and blog posts. LOL

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Lawyer Mama, DUDE! Oh WRONG!

No doubt people can say and do stupid things.

This goes back to my assertion that the saying, "Words can never hurt me," is false.

Do you know...I once had a boss who required me to always be seated because I was about half a foot taller than he? And he couldn't stand it? I had no name. I was just The Tall One. I LOL about it but a part of me was like WTF?

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Mayberry, oh yes. And you're welcome. Did you ever read that book?

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Ali, well I'm glad you took the time today! Oh trust me, I'm sure we've all done it and meant it well. I admitted I have! If I strike wrong, I do try to say something about sorry. I might also be more sensitive, having heard just oh so many comments. :)

**

You know, thinking more about the idea of commenting on height and meaning it as a compliment, as in, "Oh wow, you're so tall! You're so lucky!" it strikes me that there are a couple of issues at play:

(a) commenting on appearance, even if meant well, and on something that is a Stand Out feature, such as height, likely will always hit a button because for exery compliment there are probably four bad memories, and people often just don't want it noticed, which leads to

(b) feeling uncomfortable with our bodies (my last post) and how we look and not feeling comfortable with compliments.

Ali mentioned her height and shoe size. I have also had my feet commented upon!

I think...somewhere we got "average" and "ideal" mixed up!

Now anyone anywhere past "center" on the spectrum feels "off."

I wonder if people have always been so obsessed.

Next point re. tallness being a point of envy.

I realize height is often esteemed. I understand that insecurity and some degree of jealousy often motivates some of the comments. But again, in that case, it is often meant to Put me Down, Cut me Down to Size...KWIM? If someone feels at a disadvantage, they might want to even things up a bit.

But like Scribbit said above, I'd never look at a shorter person and say, "Wow, you must be a jockey!"

I try to steer away from statements of the obvious that are unecessary, and stick to compliments that are obvious, (and more in our control), such as, "Your new haircut is really flattering," or "I like that outfit, very elegant."

Aimee said...

This is a great post. I've always been of the "why would you even mention it" mindset. People say things that make me cringe on a daily basis. It might be appear uncaring (when I'm not prying into someone's business) but it seriously invokes a horrible physical response in me when someone says something that I think its inappropriate (like what you're talking about).

I love the roloffs. I just want to squeeze Zach because he's just such a nice kid. A nice teenager is a rare find, indeed. haha.

I'm a thick girl - and I think I should be very thankful that no one has asked me "what I'm gonna do with all that junk inside my trunk" :)

Christina said...

Oh, I always have my fill of stupid comments about my daughter. She's two and a half, but stands 38" tall.

Strangers either assume she's much older than she actually is, or they make comments about how enormous she is, how she'll play basketball one day and no one will ever mess with her because she could squish them.

Yes, she's an Amazon - we get it.

Kyla said...

"see it, then look past it" Perfectly stated, Julie.

I think about things like this a lot, because of KayTar. Her differences aren't always visible at first glance, but they are noticeable. I wonder what sort of comments she will have to endure, especially once she starts school.

Sparky Duck said...

Mrs Duck is short, 4'8 short and while I can't speak for her because she has lived with it all her life (amongst other things) and I have just dealt with her height for a few years, their are still things that annoy me.

People still stare. I take great pleasure in staring right back!
People at counters ignore her. Which is why I let her do the talking, to make them realize what an idiot they are.
People say insensitive things, though luckily it is no longer a joke, its more like a foot in mouth item.

great post though

Julie Pippert said...

Aimee, I wonder the same thing. And great scott, anyone refers to any junk in trunk, support from me for anything you say (or do). The Roloff kids do all seem nice.

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Christina, see, and that is why I don't get the need to state the obvious that way. I se your similar situation every day. My friend's about 3 yo is the size of my 5 yo. It's tough for the kid b/c people mistake (and expect her to be) a 5 yo. Then rather than simply say, "Oh, sorry, my bad..." they somehow have to make it the kid's "fault" for being big...and add on predictions about what she'll be later in life. Inexplicable. Annoying.

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Kyla, you should go read Rob (linked in the post). He's pretty honest about his daughter, himself, what they see, etc. Their story is different, of course, than yours, but it might be relateable. I hear you on your concern. I'm not even sure the best thing for it. I do think the important thing is that K has a loving family, and has loving people in her life so whatever she encounters out there won't come to define her in her mind KWIM? I think that's true for any kid, actually.

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Sparky, yeah, I can completely imagine it's tough on either end of the spectrum. You know, I find it very cool that you do not feel the need to handle it all, and step back and let her do her thing. And thanks. :)