Researcher’s New Book Explores Cultural Significances – and Struggles – of Those with Extraordinary Bodies

By Tom McLaughlin

Recognizing other people as bigger and smaller than ourselves is a natural part of “the human measure,” a way of viewing and knowing the world, explains Lynne Vallone.

However, contends the Rutgers University–Camden researcher, this natural inclination to compare bodies is so obvious, so universal, that it paradoxically goes unnoticed.

Vallone argues that the invisibility of size difference in culture obscures the struggles of size difference.

“Certainly, big and small bodies are everywhere – thus, nowhere in particular,” says Vallone, a professor of childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden.

In her thought-provoking new book, Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies (Yale University Press, 2017), the seasoned researcher argues that both the physical and ideological status of people and bodies considered to be gigantic or miniature are hidden in plain sight.

According to Vallone, this invisibility of size difference in culture obscures the struggles of size difference. While it’s impossible not to experience size difference on a daily basis, she says, some experience more difference, as it were, than others.

Simply put, says the Riverton resident, size – a crucial marker of difference often ignored – informs human identity and culture, just as race, gender, and class do.

“One could say, ‘I don’t see race. I don’t see gender. I don’t see size.’ In my opinion, all of these statements are suspect,” says Vallone. “It’s the last of these that I take up in Big and Small, seeking another way to understand the world around us.”

She posits that, although humans “instinctively appreciate the grandeur of the huge and the preciousness of the small,” they also downplay the judgments that are made about size and “the anxieties attendant upon confrontations with bodies out of scale with our own.”

In Big and Small, Vallone historicizes and examines the reactions to and valuations of the lives and contexts of those with extraordinary bodies in realms as diverse as court portraiture, folklore, scientific theories, children’s books, photography, politics and public policy, among others.

In Big and Small, Vallone explores the cultural significance of size as another way to understand the world around us.

“Our dismissal of the different body, our disgust or fear of the extraordinary or anomalous body, as well as our longstanding fascination with the very big and very small, are all cultural symptoms of an unease with difference,” maintains the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

Vallone argues that the examinations of persons, characters, and figures with extraordinary bodies – the dwarf, the child, the obese, the giant robot – as well as the miniatures and giants of folklore and tall tales, embryos and embryonic stem cells, and the tiny heroes and enormous monsters of children’s books, all help humans to understand what size means culturally, aesthetically, and politically.

In one example, she explores how the miniature is often the focus of intense desire. Tom Thumb, and the related “Tom Thumb trope,” she explains, provides a good illustration of the integrative function of a character no bigger than a man’s thumb.

According to Vallone, this trope of desire may be traced from the early modern folktale roots, such as Tom Thumb’s embodiment of his infertile mother’s wish; from early theories of sexual reproduction revealing the previously unseen in an attempt to explain the previously unknown; to the fierce debates surrounding practices such as human stem cell research and embryo adoption.

“Each of these arenas, I argue, may be illuminated by an acknowledgment of the critical role size plays in arguments about civil society, gender, race, politics, art and science,” says the childhood studies researcher.

Through countless human experiences – for instance, cradling a little baby or admiring the expansive starry sky – Vallone argues, it’s human nature to seek validation in size difference. However, she maintains, doing so is a slippery slope.

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