In the mid-sixteenth century, someone in England thought a display of abnormal humans would be something people would pay to see. He was absolutely right. Freak shows quickly grew in popularity and spread to the United States.
There’s something about the abnormal that invites the imagination to see what can be. What is more fascinating than the sight of a man entirely covered in tattoos? Or as grotesque as an obese woman? Or adorable as wallet-sized adult? Or as creepy as a pin-head? Probably a lot of things actually; but in an era where everyone looks the same and those who don’t are hidden away, absolutely nothing is quite as intriguing as a ‘freak.’
In the mid-nineteen fifties, scientists were finally making discoveries that could explain genetic anomalies and disabilities. Over the next few decades, the world slowly developed a new attitude of acceptance and celebration of all of our differences.
But we are still obsessed with the unusual. Everyone has paged through the Guinness Book of World Records and scrunched their noses at whoever is the current record holder for longest fingernails. Or watched some reality TV show and laughed as rich white ladies tear each other apart. Tiny or giant versions of regularly sized things are continually instagrammed: tiny food, tea-cup pigs, giant dogs, the list doesn’t end.
We act like ‘weird’ or ‘dysfunctional’ is the new ‘normal’ but it’s not. We’re still just a bunch of people who all look the same who stare at the collection of ‘freaks’ the world has to offer. The only thing that’s changed is that now we do it in secret. We gaze over the top of our phones and US magazines, and strain our eyes to keep them in our peripheral vision. We silently make assumptions about what they’re mothers did during their pregnancies that lead to their deformed arms, or wonder how they could hate themselves so much that they would want to vandalize their bodies with tattoos.
I’m just as guilty as you are.
In the town I live in, there is this woman in an electric wheelchair with an American flag at the top of a tall antennae attached to the back. Almost every day she goes on a walk or I guess her case, a roll around town. And when I see her I can’t help but stare. When I’m walking I peer at her from the corner of my eye. When I’m driving, I slow down and watch her from my rearview mirror.
She’s massive. Almost too big for her chair. Her second chin allows her body to forgo a neck and melt into her shoulders. Her arms appear to be cut off from circulation when she wears more fitted shirts. But what draws my eye is her stomach. Her enormous tummy spills over her waistline and hangs next to her ankles. I try to catch a glimpse of her when she rolls over a bump in the sidewalk and her belly sways into one of her legs.
I’m not proud of this. I kick myself for staring. She is a person. She doesn’t go outside for my amusement. I don’t like being scrutinized and I doubt she does. I know that I should pay as little attention to her as I do to everyone else. I don’t mean to watch, but I do. We all do. It’s not 1950 anymore, but we’re still on the look out for a freak show.