“I was born with a genetic condition known medically as achondroplasia but commonly referred to as ‘dwarfism.’ Interestingly, I was fairly ‘average’ as an infant. At birth, I weighed in at 9 pounds and measured 21 inches long, which is on the ‘tall’ side for newborns. Quite simply, as those of us with this type of dwarfism get older, our arms and legs do not grow at the generally expected rate while the rest of our body does. Consequently, the older I got, the bigger the differences became between me and my peers.
I recall, when I was 3 years old, being frustrated by two boys at preschool calling me a baby. I now know they weren’t doing it to be mean. They genuinely thought I was a baby. But I did not yet understand my own condition and I wondered why my classmates kept calling me a baby and even worse, why they so often treated me with that saccharine-sweet condescension kids employ when talking to a baby. Why couldn’t they understand I was their peer?
I brought up my frustration to my parents and I saw them look at one another and each offered a slight nod of the head. Later that evening, we had an informal meeting as a family. I am the fifth of six children in our family and my parents had all of us kids sitting on their bed as my dad began to address us. Well, to be more precise, Dad began to address me as the rest of my siblings turned their eyes in my direction. I was very young so the details of what was said in the meeting I no longer recall. What I do recall is the atmosphere was calm and even ‘happy’ in its feel. My dad said, very matter-of-factly, ‘Rachel, you have dwarfism.’ Then, with a smile and in a comforting voice, he stated, ‘You’re going to be tiny all your life.’
And that was all I needed to know. I then knew why others outside my family saw me differently and I knew what to tell them, though my pronunciation still needed some work. When some new kid would call me a baby or a midget (which is an offensive term to little people), I’d correct them with, ‘No, I’m not. I’m a dorf!’
‘Dork?’ they’d sometimes reply, not always because they misheard me. ‘No, DORF!’ I’d respond emphatically. Even with speech therapy, it took me a while to be able to say dwarf. I don’t know how I was able to gain this attitude but, most of the time when someone called me midget, I was able to brush it off. Even when kids stared at me at the store, it didn’t usually bother me. Though, at times, the hurt came despite the fact that the person confronting me meant no harm.
On a PTA night at the local skating center when I was 8 years old, I was approached by a girl around my age. I had been skating alone and I heard a voice exclaim, ‘Little girl!’ I turned to see this girl, whom I did not know, skate to me and squat down unnecessarily to speak to me at my level. In a patronizing tone, she asked me where my mommy was, and if I needed help finding her. I told her I was 8 years old and surprised but satisfied, she simply skated off.
My spirits sank and I felt defeated. I skated to my mom, who had been watching me and my siblings skate from a nearby table. Without telling her what happened, I stood in front of her with my head down and asked, ‘Mom, why did God make me this way?’ Now I am a parent myself, I realize my mom probably cried for me in private more often than I will ever know. Mom just pulled me into her arms and tears flowed from both of us. She told me God knew me and He knew I was strong enough to handle these challenges. As I’ve had to do from time to time, I had to take in such reassuring thoughts, turn around, and march back out into the world.
Yes, what happened hurt, even though the girl had approached me with good intentions. Being treated as someone so ‘different’ hurt. It’s ironic in a world where so many fear blending in and strive to stand out from the crowd, when you are physically very different from the norm, you often ache to blend in and to be viewed as just another ‘normal’ human being. I am pleased to say outright meanness and cruelty have been relatively uncommon in my life. When I have experienced it, it has tended to come only from those who did not know me, who did not have to look me in the eye as they offered their hurtful words. The cries of ‘Hey there shorty!’ or ‘Look at the midget!’ usually came from a passing car or some other cowardly method of delivery.
I came to realize once someone got to know me, my height was soon forgotten, no more important than my eye color or shoe size. I was simply ‘Rachel’ to friends and family. In middle school and high school, I didn’t retreat into the shadows. Just the opposite. I figured that the best defense against being viewed as an oddity was for people to get to know me so I became very involved in student government and in my senior year, I was even elected student body president.
In college, I continued my efforts to use familiarity to fight ignorance and insult. I began to perform stand-up comedy where I invited the audience to visit inside my life and I even had the opportunity to turn the tables on the ignorant few who I had encountered over the years. Once the audience got to know me, these jokesters became the fools. I’ve since enjoyed success in the entertainment world and in business pursuits. I’ve realized my dream of a marriage to a wonderful man and have become a mother to a lovely little girl. Through all of this, I have continued to find acceptance and kindness at nearly every turn and my life has come to feel very ‘normal’ by almost any standard. The insults and ignorance I’d seen in my youth seemed to be a thing of the past.
And then my video went viral.
In recent years, I have developed a modest following of around 400 people on Instagram, mostly consisting of family, friends, and associates who I have been blessed to have touch my life. Each October, I get very active on Instagram in spreading positive information for Dwarfism Awareness Month. I share my own experiences and interview others who have lived with this condition or speak with parents and siblings.
One afternoon, my sister and her twin daughters were visiting just as I was about to create a lighthearted video for Instagram’s Reels. I chose a song, ‘Choices’ by E-40, which features the repeating words: nope and yup. As I danced on the video with my nieces also dancing in the background, I showed pop-ups of various questions I have been asked about dwarfism over the years. We filmed this in 15 minutes, then posted it before I ran off to a meeting. I checked later and saw a number of my followers (less than 100) had viewed this and some commented it was entertaining, creative, and informative.
2 days later, I awoke early to start my day and noticed I had an unusually high number of notifications. I clicked on the first comment and it simply said, ‘You’re a midget!’ I was surprised and when I checked his profile, he appeared to be a teenage boy. I dismissed his comment as typical for immature adolescence. To my shock, I saw my video now had tens of thousands of views and I was notified by Instagram my video was being featured as a recommended video. By the end of the day, the views would surpass one million and within the week, more than 10 million people across the world had watched my video.
Even more shocking was the avalanche of mean comments that began to pour in. I sat slack-jawed at the vitriol that was shot my direction at machine-gun rate. ‘You’re just a midget!’ ‘You were born for our entertainment.’ ‘I’ve always fantasized of midget women.’ ‘I’d like to toss you, midget!’ ‘Nobody cares and your kids look like they’re being forced to dance by Mommy the Dwarf!’ Many comments are not repeatable and there were (no exaggeration) thousands of these intentionally mean comments aimed my direction. I was incredulous at what I was witnessing.
The actor Peter Dinklage is also a little person affected by achondroplasia and he once observed, ‘Dwarves are still the butt of jokes. It’s one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice.’ These words echoed in my mind as I read comments of the sort that few would be comfortable uttering these days against racial minorities or toward those afflicted with other afflictions, whether physical or intellectual. It was crushing, almost physically crushing, to bear the weight of so much hate, ignorance, and cold indifference to the humanity of the person being attacked.
Certainly, amongst all the negative jabs came expressions of support and, as the meanspirited comments were viewed by my many friends and followers, a swelling wave of counterattack came forward to defend decency and to correct falsehoods. While there have been thousands of strangers willing to be cruel, there have also been hundreds of supporters who know me and know better and were willing to speak up based on their first-hand knowledge of the facts.
My feelings swung like a pendulum from deep despair to renewed determination. This experience with going viral has underscored how true it is that it’s easy to hate those who are strangers to us. But hatred and indifference are harder to hold onto as we get to know those who are the targets of our ill will. This experience has strengthened my resolve to reach out to a world still quite ignorant about dwarfism to put a face and a soul to the many false perceptions that remain after centuries of caricaturized and fantastical depictions of those, like me, with genetic differences that set us apart from the average. I still believe people are basically good but I’m more convinced than ever people become even better as they reach out and get to know their neighbors, even those remote neighbors only seen on the pages of social media.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rachel Wherley from Las Vegas, NV. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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