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Specimen, Spectacle and the Smoker

"Theologically discredited, morally condemned and shamefully exposed, the flesh has thus been pummeled, punished, exploited, and subjected to the prying, prurient gaze of science, medicine and the public.  Yet… ‘vile bodies’ have had richer tales to tell" ~ Roy Porter, Bodies Politic: Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900.

The woman walks into the room of waiting children, her loose outfit doing little to disguise her emaciated body.  Attractive and painstakingly made up (pink lips, red nails), despite her gauntness, she is wearing a leopard-print hat that she whips off to display her bald head. The wide-eyed audience of youngsters gasp collectively in response. “Look at my arms”, she demands, holding them out for the audience's inspection. “I don't know if you can see it but it’s where the bones stick out. You know what? The bones stick out of every area of my body now. My feet, my legs are blue, or they like to call it cyanotic, which is like a purple tinge. And you know what happens? When your tissues start to die, they turn black. Oh, yes! Oh, yes, people. They turn black. And there isn't a perfume on the market that can hide that smell”. 


The woman in question is Barb Tarbox. A long-term smoker diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002, before her death the following year she toured across Canada lecturing young people about the dangers of smoking. The focus of her presentations? Her ‘abhuman’ body — a term coined by the Victorian gothic writer W.H. Hodgson to describe a body that “has failed to hold itself together; it is falling apart, it reveals what should be hidden, it is therefore on the way to becoming something terrible” (Barnett 2014: 39). This she offered up as a fleshly testament to the perils of the habit.


Eighteen years later, anyone who smokes in Canada is intimately familiar with Tarbox’s abhuman body, because it’s prominently featured on not one but two of the 16 Canadian cigarette warning labels — labels that take up 75% of the visual space on any given cigarette packet. “This is what dying of lung cancer looks like”, proclaims one. “Remember this face and that smoking killed me”, states another. The remaining warning labels are equally confronting. A needle skewers an eyeball. A mouth is opened to reveal a tongue covered in stomach-turning white growths. A man grimly displays the stoma from his tracheotomy.

Barb Tarbox's abhuman body

The Canadian cigarette warning labels exemplify what Deborah Lupton (2014) terms the ‘pedagogy of disgust’ — i.e., the explicit use of disgust as an educational strategy. Such images have arguably long been a staple of public health campaigns, although their intensive use  is typically attributed to the rise of social marketing in the late 1980s (e.g., Hastings 2012; Lupton 2014). Tobacco control imagery from this period, such as Australia’s influential “every cigarette is doing you damage” campaign, has consistently featured hard-hitting images of the effects of smoking on the organs and physical appearance of the human body. Over time, images have become more and more confronting — as the Center for Disease Control’s latest series of anti-smoking advertisements attests.

In what follows, I want to provide some reflections on such uses of the image. In doing so, I depart from the ways that they have most frequently been written about, which tend to focus either on their effectiveness as public health tools, or, to a lesser extent, the ethical implications of using them in this fashion. Instead, I’m interested in the history of these kinds of representations, which I want to suggest share marked similarities with images of bizarre curiosities — ‘freakery’, in other words — in the Victorian era, both in terms of how they are framed and received.


As Roy Porter (2001) observes, monstrosities of all shades and stripes have been exhibited at fairs and shows for centuries; indeed, the word ‘monstrosity’ itself comes from the Latin term monstrum, which means something put on show. But the Victorian era is the one most commonly associated with the freak show and the notion of ‘freakishness’ itself, which didn’t develop its association with human anomaly until this time (Garland Thomson 1996; Adams 2001; Tromp with Valerius 2008; Durbach 2010). During the Victorian era, the exhibition of bizarre curiosities, both living and dead, was a thriving industry (Adams 2001; Tromp with Valerius 2008), although this was often done in the name of science as well as titillation.

For example, places such as the Westminster Aquarium in London were essentially pleasure palaces masquerading as sites of scientific and educational interest (Durbach 2008, 2010). One of the most famous exhibits of the period was Krao Farini — a seven-year-old Lao girl with a rare disorder that produced excessive hair growth, who was displayed at the Aquarium as the ‘Missing Link’.  The advertising for the exhibition drew equally on emerging scientific discourses about evolution and sexually prurient displays of her freak-ishness; thus, if this was entertainment it was edifying entertainment (Durbach 2008, 2010). P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City similarly promised to “educate and uplift, as well as entertain, its middle- and working-class clientele” (Adams 2001: 11).

According to Rachel Adams (2001), ‘freakishness’ is a historically variable quality “derived less from particular physical attributes than the spectacle of the extraordinary body swathed in theatrical props, promoted by advertising and performative fanfare” (p. 5).  Following Judith Butler’s work on performativity, Adams argues that “freak isn’t an inherent quality but an identity realized through gesture, costume, and staging” (2001: 6). However, although the components of freakishness have changed over time, the body remains the determining feature of the freak’s identity. To use Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s (1996) characterization, the freak is “a single amorphous category of corporeal otherness” (p. 10).


With their combination of scientific discourse and visceral imagery that treats the smoker’s body as spectacle, anti-smoking campaigns rely strongly on these displays of staged otherness in ways that uncomfortably mimic representations of circus freaks and bizarre curiosities in the Victorian era.  We see this very clearly in the performances of anti-smoking advocates such as Barb Tarbox and Terrie Hall (the woman from the CDC advertisement ), and the centrality of bodily displays where their ‘freakishness’ is explicitly marked as such.  It also comes across strongly in the cigarette warning labels themselves.

How different is this...

Arguably, a critical difference between the representations of the body on cigarette warning labels and those presented as freakish curiosities is the assertion of absolute difference in the latter context. As Adams (2001: 6) notes, freak shows are guided by the assumption that freak is an essence: “they provide the basis for a comforting fiction that there is a permanent, qualitative difference between deviance and normality, projected spatially in the distance between the spectator and the body onstage”. However, the cigarette warning labels invite the smoker to reflect upon the future that awaits her if she fails to relinquish the habit (Dennis 2011). In other words, the body presented as spectacle is hers unless she quits. But in both cases the line between the normal body and the deviant one is more complex than it might initially appear.


Scholarship on freakery, drawing on notions of the grotesque (Bahktin 1984) and the abject (Kristeva 1982), has consistently pointed to the ways in which freak shows, by providing a visceral confrontation with the human form mirrored back in distorted embodiments, force us to contemplate “the potential dissolution of our own corporeal and psychic boundaries” (Adams 2001: 7; see also Grosz 1996). Thus, far from being environs where politically invested distinctions between the normal and the pathological are straightforwardly affirmed, they are volatile interpretative spaces.


I want to suggest here that the same is true of the grotesque images of debility and death that increasingly characterize cigarette warning labels, although to inverse effect.  As Rosyln Diprose (2008) and Simone Dennis (2011) have highlighted, smokers often reject anti-smoking messaging in its attempt to close down the future of the body — choosing to highlight instead the unpredictable elements of human agency and material life. Indeed, Dennis (2011: 27) argues that anti-smoking advertisements “contain the seeds of subtle embodied resistance”. She suggests that because the body is a sensory faculty rather than a ‘thing’, when it is reduced to such it “may very well not recognise itself as itself” (p. 27).

This is exactly what I have observed in the responses of smokers in Vancouver to the Canadian warning labels. There is little question that many smokers do indeed find the images confronting — to the extent that most avoided visually engaging with them (see Bell et al. 2015; Haines-Saah and Bell 2016). But this ‘yuck’ response can’t just be straightforwardly read — as it invariably is in research on the effectiveness of cigarette warning labels — as evidence of impending cessation (Dennis 2013), with the smoker understood to be the docile recipient of the message in its intended form.


For a number of smokers, the ‘freakishness’ of the labels served to place them in the realm of spectacle rather than science, encouraging viewers to question their veracity (Haines-Saah and Bell 2016). Particularly intriguing was the ways in which the images were re-imagined as evidence of the normal rather than deviant body.  In other words, my informants often re-read the labels in a manner that domesticated the bodies and body parts they contained. 

This label...

In sum, although the images are clearly intended to be read in a particular way, their meaning can’t be fixed in the form that legislators intend.  In many respects, this is an extremely obvious point. But perhaps less obviously, I have suggested that the warning labels take considerable impetus — whether intentionally or not — from longstanding representations of freakery and bizarre curiosities that have been with us since the Victorian era. While such images attempt to force smokers to contemplate the future dissolution of their own corporeal boundaries, freakishness and abjection can’t be politically harnessed in the ways the warning labels intend.  Indeed, like freak shows themselves, the labels are volatile interpretative spaces that challenge “the authority of discourses like medical science to name and explain the significance of the human body” (Tromp with Valerius 2008: 8).



This piece began life as a paper prepared for the ‘Image as Collaborative Inquiry’ session sponsored by the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography at the Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Meeting in Vancouver in 2016.  The idea of remediating the paper as an online exhibition came from Hannah McGregor.

This research was funded by a Population Health Intervention Research Grant titled 'Confronting Cigarette Packaging', which was jointly sponsored by the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Rebecca Haines-Saah conducted some of the interviews for this project and my thinking about this topic has benefited significantly from conversations and co-authored papers with her on cigarette warning label imagery. The posters were created by the graphic designer Leigh Peterson based on briefs I provided.


I have not obtained copyright approval to reproduce the Health Canada warning labels or the CSI image because they clearly fall under the fair dealing clause in the Copyright Act of Canada (see especially s29: fair dealing for the purpose of research, education, parody or satire and s.29.1: fair dealing for the purpose of criticism or review).  The other images are either open source, purchased from stock photo sites, or are out of copyright.


The opening vignette about Barb Tarbox has been reconstructed from various sources, including her CBC obituary and a YouTube video — the words spoken are a direct quote from one of Barb’s lectures. The carnival music was composed by Derek and Brandon Fietcher — with their permission, I have embedded their YouTube clip '1 Hour of Creepy Circus and Carnival Music'.




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Tromp, Marlene with Karyn Valerius

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