Laura Backstrom, “From the Freak Show to the Living Room: Cultural Representations of Dwarfism and Obesity,” Sociological Forum, 2012

Big Contradictions

Many contemporary reality shows focus on bodies that are “extreme” in one way or another. In a recent article, Laura Backstrom (Sociological Forum, September 2012) takes a closer look at a pair of these shows, finding that the presentations vary greatly based on conceptions of disability, responsibility, and identity.

Backstrom compares “Little People, Big World,” a reality show that follows a family in which the parents and one son are dwarfs, to “Ruby,” an eponymous show that chronicles the life of one obese woman. Both shows focus on the challenges posed by living with an abnormal body size, but in vastly different ways. In “Little People, Big World,” dealing with dwarfism is constructed as an identity project—encouraging bodily acceptance and a positive social identity. Additionally, the show attempts to de-stigmatize dwarfism and bring attention to the various ways that the world is “not built for little people.” Ruby’s challenges, on the other hand, are constructed as a body project—focusing on weight loss as the primary path to happiness. In contrast to the notion that the world should adapt to little people’s needs, there is no mention the world needing to be modified to fit Ruby’s body. Instead, the focus is on how Ruby’s body prevents her from participating fully in social life.

Backstrom finds that “Little People” follows the principles of the disability rights movement: little people are shown being encouraged to accept themselves as they are, exhibit a positive identity, and participate fully in the social world. Ruby’s obesity, however, is not a condition that fits into the disability rights model. Her  size is portrayed as a roadblock to a positive identity (and as an obstacle she can remove rather than accept). The solution to obesity in shows like these, Backstrom concludes, is always body modification, never de-stigmatization or acceptance of the obese body.


  • Joelle Stangler 5:38 pm on December 5, 2012 | # | Reply

    I read the article, as well as your analysis of it and found the subject to be very interesting. I personally believe the difference between the two shows is a byproduct of society’s expectations of our bodies as well as an attempt to appeal to a certain audience. I think more interesting than the disparity between the underlying message of the two shows, is the conscious recognition by producers as to who would be watching the shows and how they would appeal to their respective audiences. Most interesting to me is the fact the shows are both about happy endings, regardless of how the person on the show achieves them. In the end, I think the shows are much more similar than they seem.

    For instance, I believe the appeal in watching Little People, Big World would be because of curiosity and interest in the audience to learn more about a particular group of people, struggling with a disability. Thus, the producers would want the show to appear more sympathetic and have a softer outlook on the lives of these people who receive a lot of media attention in regards to entertainment. Also, I believe the show is also an attempt to pacify little people who feel wronged by the exploitative shows starring “midgets.” As Backstrom points out, dwarfs are seen as a commodity of sorts in modern media and entertainment outlets seem to use this to their best advantage. In contrast to Spike TV’s shows of midget wrestling and even Chelsea Lately’s blatant disrespect to her “midget Mexican side-kick” Chuey, this show provides a different side to the story, which brings support from the population of little people who feel wronged.

    In contrast, I believe the audiences for Ruby are looking for one thing, to see someone lose weight. After the success of shows such as The Biggest Loser, it seems as though weight loss becomes a game and a thrill, rather than an issue surrounded by emotions and struggles. In comparison to the tough trainers on The Biggest Loser, a woman being followed in her day to day life battling with obesity is much more relate-able and allows for Ruby to seem like a real person, not just a contestant to root for. Also, I think the show allows those suffering from obesity to relate to another person in a similar situation and see they are not the only one.

    Personally, while I think society has unrealistic expectations of body image and the stigmas surrounding obese people may have a psychological effect on them, I believe the expectation of body modification is one Ruby and others suffering from obesity would support. Obesity is a health hazard, and as Backstrom said, is an achieved status, not ascribed. That being said, I don’t think the difference between the two shows is necessarily about a certain type of abnormal body size being more acceptable than another, I think the difference is the audience it is serving. In addition to this, I think both shows have an underlying message of being healthy. While Little People, Big World is focused on the mental health of accepting oneself, Ruby is focused on the physical health of a woman trying to reach a healthy body weight once more.

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