In 2013, Mexican woman Julia Pastrana was given a proper burial — over a century and a half after her death in 1860, the New York Times reported. Pastrana suffered from a genetic condition called hypertrichosis terminalis, which left her face and body covered in hair and various body parts enlarged. Instead of receiving treatment, however, she was exploited, known in her country as "La Mujer Mono," or, "the Monkey Woman." Her husband (who seems to have acted more like an owner) exploited her as a sensationalized "freak show" attraction during her life and even after her death by continuing to display her mummified body, BuzzFeed reported.
Learning Pastrana's harrowing story saddened artist María María Acha-Kutscher, but also piqued her curiosity about other women featured in similar sideshows, which she defines as "a secondary production associated with a circus, carnival or fair" that exhibited "human oddities" — throughout history. She soon found that while the type of abuse Pastrana faced wasn't uncommon, it was not universal. In fact, for some women, appearing in a sideshow was an unprecedented opportunity for freedom.
"I discovered that not all women were exploited by the circus owners," Acha-Kutscher told Mic. "Some of them had fascinating life stories."
The artist chose 10 such women with "different abnormalities" but "special, hopeful stories," and recently compiled them into an eBook entitled Les Spectaculaires. Inspired by these women, Acha-Kutscher decided to honor them by artistically altering real portraits of these women to reflect "dignified" scenarios: "in their homes, in their favorites places, in their environment that I imagined after reading their life stories," she explained.
Considering that women in the 19th century were normally financially dependent throughout their lives — first on their parents and then on their husbands — many women with abnormal physical characteristics found working in sideshows offered them some independence.
"Frances O'Connor ('the living Venus De Milo'), supported her[self] and her mother with her sideshow salary," Acha-Kutscher said, adding that other women with abnormalities also supported themselves and earned enough money to retire comfortably.
"Krao Farini ('the bearded girl') was of above average intelligence, and spoke several languages," the artist told Mic. "She was never exploited by her promoters — she performed and displayed herself according to her own rules and terms, and lived an independent life outside the sideshow. ... She had her own apartment, where she cooked and kept house for herself. Her favorite hobby was the violin."
Not only were their personal lives subversive, however, but publicly showcasing their differences often defied and dismantled what society's "preconceptions about beauty should be," Acha-Kutscher said.
For example, Mademoiselle Gabrielle was born without legs, but "firmly believed that she was 'no less a woman' despite her physical impairment" and even "attracted men in droves and married at least three times."
The Les Spectaculaires series "is an homage to these heroines, but also to all human beings who are 'different' or 'feel different' and made this difference into something special, unique," Acha-Kutscher said. "In our society, the idea is to cure the different, instead of accepting the normality (the issue of homosexuality, for example). We have to learn to see 'the difference' as part of 'the normality.'"