If you haven’t caught it already, Jonathan Novick’s video documenting his experiences in public as a person with achondroplasia is worth your time. Having grown up in a small town where almost everyone knew his backstory, Novick’s move to New York City was a rude awakening to the problem of street harassment. A day out and about, recorded by a hidden camera, features strangers shouting at him from afar, “Hey, short stuff!” “What is he?” “Little midget! Big man, big penis!” A few ask him, “Have you ever been on TV?” “Are you on that show with the little people?” “Can I take your picture?” Two people walk by while photographing him, without asking for permission.
Although I did not undergo limb-lengthening to blend in (more on that here), it has undeniably spared me a lot of this unpleasant commentary which so many dwarfs endure, and which I used to endure as a child. Writing from the U.K., Eugene Grant’s blog demonstrated last year that Novick’s tales of being incessantly photographed and called “Big man!” are far from rare. On Tumblr a college student reported this incident last September:
Walking home from coffee, a random car driving by yelled, “Slut” out their window. I’m not sure who it was directed toward. I was technically showing more skin than the other two in our party, but I also am the height of a 9 year-old and from a distance in the dark it’s hard to determine my age.
Either way assholes are assholes.
This is what sociologist Lisa Wade has called the burden of not being able to assume it’s not about you. This is a burden most people who are visible minorities carry with them. In a review of a street photography project by an artist regularly harassed for being fat, Wade explains:
The truth is that [she] often does not know what’s going on in the minds of her subjects. Yet, because she carries a body that she knows is disdained by many, it is perfectly reasonable for her to feel like every grimace, look of disgust, laugh, shared whisper, and instance of teasing is a negative reaction to her body. In fact, this is how many fat people experience being in public; whether they’re right about the intent 100% of the time is irrelevant to their lived experience.
And this is how people of color, people who speak English as a second language, disabled people and others who are marginalized live, too. Was that person rude because I speak with an accent? Did that person say there was no vacancies in the apartment because I’m black? Was I not chosen for the job because I’m in a wheelchair? Privilege is being able to assume that the person laughing behind you is laughing at something or someone else, that the scowl on someone’s face is because they’re having a bad day, and that there must have been a better qualified candidate.
While I’ve had my fair share of strangers asking about my scars, hands, and gait, they usually have to be particularly nosy in order to take notice of these features in the first place. This happens to me a lot more often in certain rural areas than in the urban setting I call home.
This is why the small town vs. big city debate isn’t quite as simple as Novick presents in his film. I understand the idea that extraordinary-looking people can benefit from living in a close-knit community, where most are already aware of your condition and don’t need you to explain it to them. Conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel’s parents have also claimed their daughters benefited from this. But plenty of people who belong to minorities can attest that small towns do not always embrace diversity in their community. And while there are tremendous advantages to an atmosphere where people are outgoing and unrepressed, there is a fine line between friendliness and nosiness: In places where everyone knows everyone’s business, the assumption that everyone has the right to find out what they don’t know about you can be pervasive. In the choice between small town gossip versus big city street harassment, I’d choose neither.
In my experience, what matters is not the size of the place but the culture. Cities do not have to be hostile environments of street harassment, and villages do not have to be breeding grounds for judgmental hearsay. As Novick says, “I’ll ask that the next time you see someone who is different from you, think about their day. Think about what their day might be like… And then think about what part of their day you want to be.”