A few weeks ago, I walked into our living room to discover that my husband was watching what first appeared to be some documentary on the WWE. My husband loves sports and sports documentaries and as soon as I walked in and saw Hulk Hogan on the screen, my first instinct was to turn right back around and figure out something else to watch or do on my own – no offense to the Hulkster, I simply could care less about wrestling. But just as I was about to leave, this extraordinary man appeared on the TV. They called him Andre The Giant and I was informed this man was 7’4″ and nearly 500 pounds. Now, maybe its because he was famous before my time, or maybe its because I have literally zero percent interest in the WWE, or maybe it’s because I’ve been living under a rock, but I simply had no idea that this Andre man ever existed (much to my husband’s dismay). I’m sure there are many of you who have heard of him, but in case you haven’t – Andre became one of the most popular wrestlers in the WWE, and is also famous for starring in the film, The Princess Bride (where his role was literally that of a giant). I was immediately captivated by his story and couldn’t turn away… so I sat down and watched his entire life story as told by his closest friends, family and co-workers.
It’s important to know first that he simply wasn’t born this massive without complications – he suffered from acromegaly, otherwise known as “giantism”. Acromegaly is an endocrynological disorder that causes the body to secrete excessive amounts of growth hormones and produces continual growth, especially in the head, hands and feet. Shockingly, I had also really not ever heard much about this disorder, either – so it was super interesting to learn more about it. The documentary notes that at some point during his wrestling career, he learned about his disorder and was presented with treatment options (there are drugs that can reduce the effects of the growth hormones) – but ultimately decided for no treatments as he was worried that it would affect his career as a professional wrestler as he had made a name for himself by becoming this giant and I think was concerned he would lose that in some capacity.
Now, for me to be standing at 5’10” and coming in at about 350 pounds less than him, it’s fair to say that we aren’t even close to being in the same playing field as far as stature or presence is concerned. None of us are – that’s why he was such a unique human being. With that being said, I wanted to write this blog post after watching his story because there were several sentiments and/or experiences shared throughout the documentary that I felt like so many of us could relate to and also because I truly felt for this man on such an emotional level that I wasn’t expecting to feel when I first started watching.
By the time he was 12, Andre was already around 6’3″ tall. Cue emotional reaction #1. Now, I don’t know about you, but by the time I was 12, I was probably around 5’8″ or so, and already felt just lanky and awkward and slightly out of place. I tried to imagine how much more those feelings would have been intensified had 7+” been added to my frame. As some of you know, my sister Amy is about 6’3.5″ and had struggled for many years to accept and embrace her full-grown, adult height. Picturing her at her height but with the face of a 12 year old gives me all the feels and I instinctively wanted to reach out and hug his young self on the screen. Imagine having that type of presence at such a young age. Mamas speak to us all the time about how their children get confused for an older age because of their height and therefore get treated differently or are given higher expectations than their peers who are the same age. I can only believe that this applied and was relevant to his life as well. On a totally unrelated note, but related to his younger years, his family (who lived in France) spoke about how they had a wooden chair custom made for him so that he could be comfortable in his own home. That made me smile.
The documentary goes on in great detail to discuss his career in wrestling and in the WWE. It should be no surprise to anyone that because of his physique he became a superstar in this industry and eventually branched out to the film industry as well. In the wrestling world, he was portrayed as a large, immovable monster and the public was absolutely fascinated by him. If you want to learn more about his time in the entertainment industry, you should definitely watch the film, but for the purpose of this article, I’d like to skip over his career highlights and continue to touch on some of the more personal stories they shared about him instead because I think they serve a bigger purpose.
They spoke about his struggles when traveling anywhere. Cue emotional reaction #2. It was so heart wrenching to listen to his experiences and see old images flash across the screen. There were times when they would order a car to pick him up only to realized he physically couldn’t fit in it. When flying, he had to reserve not one chair, not two, but an entire row to himself. His peers recalled many flights where he couldn’t fit into the lavatory, so they would have to set up a bucket and some curtains for him to be able to relieve himself in the back of the plane. Even though his frame and his stature made him a house hold name and a huge success, moments like this would cause him extreme embarrassment. “He would cry. You never think a guy like that would cry, but he would cry,” his friend remembers. Great, now I’m the one crying. The documentary goes on to show a clip of Andre explaining his frustrations about being his size in an average-sized world. “It’s difficult everywhere I go,” says Andre. “They don’t have anything for big people. They’ve got everything for blind people, for crippled people, for some other people but not for big people. So, we have to fit in there and it’s not too easy all the time.” I mean, haven’t we all shared some degree of this sentiment at some point? I just recently wrote an article about a frustrating experience traveling as a tall girl with an above-average sized toddler (you can read that article here). However, I must also acknowledge that none of us have probably ever lived through the nightmares to the degree that this man did, and for that we should all be extremely grateful.
Andre was obviously very well-known, and because of his physique he couldn’t hide, which affected his personal life very negatively. He couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking for a picture, someone asking him to place his hands against their hands, someone making a comment about his body, etc etc. People even went so far as to create many myths about him. Andre always expressed to his friends that he wished he was normal sized so that he could be left alone. He wished so deeply for the opportunity to go to the gas station without one single person approaching him or gawking at him. For those reasons, he bought a ranch in the small town of Ellerbe, North Carolina – with a population of less than 1,000. He longed to experience daily life as a normal person would. To me, it was really sad to realize that the only place he could ever feel normal or like he fit in was in his own home, secluded from the rest of society.
I write about all of this because his story has such a giant (pun intended) takeaway: Even though Andre became famous and had a successful career because of his physique, he did not want to be defined by it. As soon as he stepped out of the ring, he wanted people to acknowledge him and treat him like they would anybody else. He was frustrated that people couldn’t see him beyond his body and hated that people made comments about his body when he was still within earshot. Basically, he wanted to be known for more than his height. Sound familiar? Although we may not experience life to the extremes that Andre did, many of us can relate to his sentiments. We want people to stop commenting on our bodies without our permission. We want people to stop staring and comparing us to others. We want to be treated the way we treat others. And we want people to recognize that our height is only one very small part of the person we are in total.
The documentary Andre The Giant is available on HBO.