The Nerdy Curve
Exploring Hollywood’s insistence that scoliosis is a disease for dorks.
I didn’t know scoliosis was a disease for nerds when I was diagnosed with it. I was 12, standing in the kitchen, and I complained to my parents that my back hurt. My dad put his hand on my spine and noticed it was not spine-shaped but instead sort of a squiggle. A minor issue I’m sure, ha-ha, probably nothing to worry about, and in fact maybe we can forget we ever noticed it?
No; I would need to be X-rayed. Though I was short and weighed around 80 pounds, at this point in my life I regularly wore extra large men’s T-shirts. If you’re thinking this maybe should have tipped me off somewhat about scoliosis being a disease for nerds, particularly when combined with my glasses, acne, and odd affinity for wearing bracelets up to my elbows, I’d like you to understand that this is my time to talk; not yours. The shirts usually featured bands like Nirvana and Powerman 5000, but on this occasion my tucked-in extra large T-shirt was snowman-themed, because we were stopping off for X-rays on our way to a Christmas event with my dad’s work.
I had to take off my pants for the X-ray, the first of a series of medical-related embarrassments, and the dropping of my pants allowed the snowman shirt to unfurl all the way past my knees. The technician laughed, which was humiliating in the way any sort of attention received as a child is humiliating, and made some sort of comment about how the absurd largeness of my shirt was at least useful in this instance. It was, and the penchant for extra-large shirts would continue to be a blessing, as the X-rays showed I did indeed have fairly advanced scoliosis and would have to wear a brace.
Scoliosis, for the unaware, is a curvature of the spine that typically develops around the time of puberty. Its cause is not known, and its severity varies; many cases are mild and don’t require treatment, others require the wearing of a back brace, and severe cases can require spinal fusion surgery. The affliction can result in an overall unevenness; uneven shoulders, legs of different lengths, an asymmetrical rib cage.
While many cases of scoliosis take on the shape of a backwards C, with either one curve at the top, middle, or bottom of the spine, mine is a so-called “double major curve”: a right thoracic curve at the top and left lumbar curve at the bottom, looking a bit like a backwards S. It sounds worse, but having the two curves can kind of work to your advantage; balance out your fuck ups so that you are proportionally fucked up, rather than fucked up in just one direction. Any type of curve can result in pain, difficulty breathing, and other internal problems. Worse yet, they can result in the implication that you are ... a nerd.
Even if you don’t like nerd shit.
If you are aware of scoliosis, and don’t have it yourself, the awareness likely comes from nerds in TV and movies. Nerds always have scoliosis. There are nerdy throwaway lines — Mindy Kaling screaming “MY SCOLIOSIS!” while being tossed in the air in an episode of The Mindy Project — nerd characters shown in flashbacks with back braces, and nerd characters whose main contribution is the having of scoliosis. Of the last type, Joan Cusack’s character in Sixteen Candles is perhaps the most memorable.
Cusack has practically no lines, and I report to you with a heavy heart that her name is listed in the credits as merely “Geek Girl #1.” She’s seen at various points in the film silently struggling to ingest liquid — at a water fountain, out of a can — due to the mobility difficulties presented by her Milwaukee brace, a type of scoliosis brace that features a neck ring. Advances in brace technology have mostly phased this sort of brace out, thank god, but its overt awkwardness has made it the type used most commonly in visual mediums to depict a geek girl, number one or otherwise.
The film doesn’t attempt to explain why Geek Girl #1 should be laughed at; it doesn’t even present a bully to point out her nerdiness. Her existence in the brace is the joke. And obviously I get it; she looks ridiculous, and is not handling the brace gracefully, if we’re to believe it’s possible to do so. And it’s not something that one could cry “ableist” about, as the bracing aspect of the affliction is temporary and linked strongly to the awkward time of puberty.
But the whole business of portraying nerdiness through scoliosis is odd to me in a chicken-and-egg sort of way. Of most other ways to portray it — large glasses, ill-fitting clothing, suspenders; a love of sci-fi, or horses; the playing of chess — there is agency involved. But was Geek Girl #1 always a geek? Are we to assume scoliosis descends on nerds exclusively, or does it instead have some sort of geeky transformative power? Why was this particular disorder anointed by Hollywood as the disorder nerds have?
The whole business of portraying nerdiness through scoliosis is odd to me in a chicken-and-egg sort of way.
I reached out to a bunch of orthopedic surgeons to ask, among other things, whether they believe scoliosis disproportionately affects nerds, or whether they believe scoliosis instead has a nerdening affect on those who suffer from it. (Or whether they in fact don’t see their patients presenting nerdiness to a disproportionate degree.) I could find zero doctors willing to engage in this conversation. It is, I guess, maybe a HIPAA violation to discuss whether your patients are nerds or are seen as uncool otherwise, and then to speculate as to why. Fine. I would instead have to go to the source: strangers with scoliosis willing to talk to me about whether they were, or are currently, uncool.
Libby, who would prefer I keep her last name out in order to not expose her nerd status, first became aware of the condition through Geek Girl #1’s scenes in Sixteen Candles. In a twist of fate mirroring the film, her family had forgotten about her 13th birthday because of a family wedding the day before. To make her feel better, her mom recommended she watch Sixteen Candles. A comforting suggestion, like telling someone who just got drafted to watch The Deer Hunter. “Seeing Joan Cusack drink from the water fountain in her back brace and then wipe her face with the little skirt attached to the woman on her sweater was my first impression of scoliosis,” Libby said, noting that as a result she “associated scoliosis with nerdiness.”
Nerds always have scoliosis.
A few months later, in another twist of fate, Libby was diagnosed with scoliosis. But because she had already gone through puberty by the time her scoliosis was discovered, and because the curve was relatively minor, she didn’t have to wear a brace. This was lucky, she said, because she “was extremely nerdy already and would not have ever socially recovered from wearing a back brace.” Interesting. “I was a socially awkward bookworm with an extremely oily complexion and a mom who would only buy me clothes from Kohls,” she told me. Now she’s a bit uneven in her shoulders and the way she sits, and she has a slight hunchback when she bends over. She said her scoliosis was caught somewhat later than most cases in part due to the fact that her school, on the Kansas side of Kansas City, didn’t have statewide mandatory scoliosis screenings, unlike her friends’ schools on the Missouri side of Kansas City.
My school in Pennsylvania did have these statewide mandatory screenings, and they continue in about half of U.S. states today. From what I can tell, they all happen the same way: Students are separated into boy and girl groups and taken to a creepy room somewhere to stand in a line, take off their shirts, and bend over. At that point the school nurse checks if their spines are straight. It’s … well, it’s fucked up and weird. Hard to put it any other way.
At the point my school had its screening, my scoliosis was already confirmed in a non-disturbing setting, but I had not yet started wearing a brace. This did not spare me from the ghoul eye of the school nurse, who I suppose thought I was lying to get out of standing shirtless and bending over in a line of classmates. And why would someone ever do that? (It was similar to the occasion in third grade when I informed a teacher that I had a migraine, something I experienced frequently, and needed to go home. It was Ash Wednesday, the teacher told me I couldn’t go home but that I could go to church, and that the ashes would help. Surprisingly they did not, and I vomited on my desk.)
A lot of the time you’ll find scoliosis used as a one-off punchline; something thrown in for a laugh and never mentioned again.
This is sort of beside the point, but the reason kids in schools are tested for scoliosis seems to be at least a bit sinister, and — I don’t want to shock you — in part the product of a privatized medical system. The practice was phased out in most countries after the creation of antibiotics and vaccines that eradicated most of the diseases associated with disease-based scoliosis, like polio and tuberculosis. Non-disease based scoliosis (idiopathic scoliosis) is almost never deadly and is in most cases a primarily cosmetic issue, so testing for it, in places with universal healthcare, was largely deemed not worth the economic and psychological expense.
In the U.S., there was still money to be made; those who developed the treatments for disease-based scoliosis — surgical intervention, the Milwaukee brace (which can cost thousands) — campaigned in schools and public health agencies for nationwide mandatory idiopathic scoliosis screening (with posters warning against “The Dangerous Curve!”) and eventually, well, you can read more about it if you want, but it ends with me as a child standing topless next to my classmates with the school nurse telling me I was correct in telling her that I have scoliosis. Yeah, I know.
“I think a lot of this is because when people think of scoliosis they immediately think lmao that thing they checked for in middle school?” Jonathan Sessa, who was diagnosed with scoliosis when he was 11, told me. “It's often portrayed as just a dorky-ass thing.”
Sessa has since had multiple surgeries and often experiences debilitating pain. Are you wondering if he was a nerd in high school? Well — I feel like you’re sort of callously skipping over the fact of his debilitating pain, but yes, he was. “I wasn't bullied about [scoliosis], but I was for sure picked on. I also had cystic acne and hit puberty super-duper young and wore, like, vests and had long awful hair and wanted to be in the Killers, so they had a ton to work with.” He opted not to wear his brace during school hours, but he did have to use a rollie bag rather than a backpack. (“I couldn't be the kid with the acne, a back brace, and a rollie bag. Are you kidding?”)
The televised joke of scoliosis that I admire most is that of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Dee (Kaitlin Olson) has scoliosis and wore a brace throughout high school, earning the nickname “the aluminum monster.” Her depiction is not my favorite because it’s the funniest, even though it is, but because the rest of the gang has the decency to make fun of her for it regularly. A lot of the time you’ll find scoliosis used as a one-off punchline; something thrown in for a laugh and never mentioned again. For Dee, scoliosis is an actual character trait. The aluminum monster appears by name several times, and in person at least once. This is the respect we deserve.
The most aluminum monster-focused episode is “The Aluminum Monster vs. Fatty Magoo,” in which Dee realizes the biggest loser from high school (Fatty Magoo) is no longer a loser, which in turn makes her the biggest loser. But the most visually memorable episode is “The High School Reunion, Part 2: The Gang's Revenge,” in which the gang performs a dance at their high school reunion to George Michael's "Freedom.” Dee wears her brace for the duration of the performance.
Her scoliosis is mentioned in smaller ways, too; like the episode where the gang tries out for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mac: Dee, the second any part of your body touches that field, it’s going to shatter like glass.
Dennis: You’ve got bones like glass.
Dee: I don’t have bones like glass.
Dennis: You spent half your life in a back brace. Your body’s, like, 90 percent scoliosis, Dee.
The implication throughout the series is that Dee was a loser in high school primarily because of her brace.
I wore a brace for six months before it was determined that it was not stopping my curves from getting worse, and that I would need surgery. The brace functioned essentially like a hard plastic corset, with padding placed strategically to help prevent one’s spinal curves from becoming curvier, and worn tight enough that it could actually have that outcome. I hated this brace. It was bulky and embarrassing, but more than that it was painful. It ran from my collarbone to my hips, and required special long, seamless shirts to be worn underneath to prevent chafing, and it made it difficult to breathe. From what I can recall, I had to wear it 18 hours a day. It was torture. That it was not helping, and that I would have spinal fusion surgery, felt incorrectly to me at the time like a blessing.
My surgery took place in the summer between 7th and 8th grade, timed late enough into puberty that I could get a bit taller, because the surgery would essentially stop growth, and early enough that the curves wouldn’t become too severe. It took seven hours, and left me with rods on either side of my spine, and screws, and wires; all sorts of information I would not listen to at all of my many follow-up appointments because it was terrifying to hear about and I didn’t want to know. I wouldn’t even look at the X-ray. I stayed in the hospital for a week after, recovering and relearning how to stand and walk. I put a Powerman 5000 poster up in the room. I was fitted for a post-op brace. For a while after that, I had to sit on a chair in the shower.
Movement is not particularly allowed for the first few months after surgery, so I spent the summer in my room, on the computer, downloading music and posting on message boards. If I wasn’t a “nerd” already, which is up for debate — I was not smart and did not care about Star Wars or whatever, but I did love music and dressing like a freak, which is odd enough to be considered a nerd by those who didn’t understand that actually I was cool — (everyone) — losing the ability to participate in physical or social activities certainly didn’t help.
I had to wear the post-op brace for the majority of the following school year. This brace was similar to the first, but less painful; it came in two pieces that were fastened together on either side of my body, and it didn’t have to be worn as tight. As an additional bonus, I didn’t have to wear it while sleeping; instead, I had a walkie-talkie that I called my mom on in the morning so she could come to my room and strap me into it before I was able to sit upright.
I attended a small Catholic school, and the girls’ uniform couldn’t fit over the brace, so instead I wore my gym uniform, which was a grey sweatsuit, every day. Please take a moment to appreciate the image. Between classes students walked single-file around the single hallway where classrooms were held, until they reached their desired classroom, amounting to a slow-moving parade of uniforms; jumpers and slacks and knee socks and ties, and me in a grey sweatsuit. A grey sweatsuit that was not doing a particularly good job of hiding a plastic brace beneath it.
My classmates likely knew why I was in a grey sweatsuit every day, and maybe had even gotten talkings-to from their parents about how it would be rude to mention it, but students in the other grades were confused. One day in the hallway a giggling group of boys had gathered together and one, who was either dared or decided to be brave, came up to ask the question.
“Why do you wear your gym uniform every day?”
It seems obvious to me now that I was becoming myself while having the quite visible public experience of scoliosis; a duo that likely does affect one’s personality greatly, nerd or otherwise. I said to that kid, with an endorphin-releasing jolt of self-satisfaction that I’ve been chasing ever since: “I guess I just don’t know what day gym is.”
I’ve saved the most famous portrayal of scoliosis in visual media for last: Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. In the 1997 movie, Michele (Lisa Kudrow) is seen in high school flashbacks wearing a Milwaukee brace. She and Romy are bullied in these flashbacks by a group of popular kids, led by Christie Masters (Julia Campbell). In the most damning scene, Christie sticks magnets to the back of Michele’s brace:
(Lisa Kudrow’s character in the HBO series The Comeback also mentions having scoliosis, after the rod in her back sets off a metal detector. It’s the type of one-off joke I was referring to earlier, however in this case I assume it’s meant as a nod to the Michele character and will thus allow it without scorn.)
I reached out to Robin Schiff, the screenwriter behind Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, to demand an apology for the trauma she inflicted upon me as a teenager, just kidding, to ask what inspired her to include this detail as part of Michele’s nerdy backstory. What, to her, made scoliosis a nerd disease?
“I wanted something that was visual that they could pick on her for, and my best friend in junior high had scoliosis,” Schiff said. “I just remember her wearing a back brace, and how horrible it is, when you’re that age, to wear a back brace. Kids don’t like people who are different. So that’s why I thought of it; I thought of my friend.”
She pointed out, though, that Romy and Michele aren’t nerds, exactly. “I think of them as different,” she said, “as unconventional outcasts.” Scoliosis felt like a natural choice for a movie outcast, because the character had to experience cruelty, and the source of the cruelty had to be communicated quickly on-screen. “When you’re writing something in a visual medium, you want a shorthand to convey something; you want to come up with something that was going to tell the story without having to say anything. And there is something so cruel about making fun of people for having scoliosis,” she said. “And I don’t know … you know, I wrote the move 25 years ago.”
An interesting wrinkle here is that while Lisa Kudrow does not, in reality, have scoliosis, Julia Campbell does. I talked to her, too. “I was reading the script, and I was like — oh my gosh,” she said. “I’m not Christie. I’m Michele!”
Campbell, who was diagnosed with scoliosis at age eight while dancing with American Ballet Theatre, had a much worse experience with scoliosis than I did. She wore a back brace for three years before having surgery, because her spine was pushing into her right lung and giving her frequent pneumonia. After the surgery she was in a body cast from her chin to her hips for 11 months. During that time she couldn’t shower; her dad had to wash her hair on Sundays (while they watched 60 Minutes) while she lay on the kitchen table with her head over the edge.
“I remember girls saying to me at PE, like — ‘Are you gonna be able to play volleyball in that thing?,’” she said, about her time in the brace. “And there would be the whispers, ‘Can you go to the bathroom in that thing?’ Like, are you kidding me?” So when she was brought in to audition for Christie, she remembered those girls. “I just kind of said to myself, just channel all of those girls and just get on with it. And that’s what I did. I just started remembering my experiences and it made them laugh in the audition, which I thought was so mean. But they were giggling, so I was like, oh okay, I’m on the right track.”
“And shooting it …,” she said, “I had to step away a couple of times and remember: This is just pretend, nobody’s getting hurt. And the more I did it, the happier everybody was. So, it ended up being a positive. But boy was she horrible. Christie is so horrible.”
Because Julie was tall and her post-op cast made the upper part of her body immovable, she had to figure out a way to maneuver herself into a car. It was particularly difficult the first time she had to do it, as she was leaving the hospital. She couldn’t manage to get in, and saw her dad’s eyes tear up while he watched her from the driver’s seat. “So I was like, ‘Dad ... looks like you’re gonna have to strap me to the top of the car!’ And then we both laughed,” she said. “I realized, that’s how I’m gonna survive this. I’m going to find every funny thing about this, because I couldn't bear to see the tears in his eyes. So I found my humor during that time, too. And that’s how we survive.”