Dwarfism and me: ‘We’re still treated as less than human’

Dwarfism and me: ‘We’re still treated as less than human’


My name is Cara Reedy. I’m a writer and
podcaster living in New York City. I’m also one of an estimated 90,000 people
with dwarfism in the US. As a dwarf, or little person as it’s sometimes
called, my body is always on display. I’m stared at, followed, had the word
midget screamed at me and been discriminated against at work. From the way I’ve been treated and from
the way the media still portrays us, it still seems acceptable to treat us as
something less than human. I’m on a journey to understand why and to find out what it means to be a little
person in America today. Little people are kind of like,
the last acceptable blackface. We believe the same,
our hearts are the same, we’re just little, we’re just short stature. We need to be allowed to tell others what it means to be a little person. So that’s what we’re fighting for. I’ve come back to my home of St Louis to understand how the perception
of my own dwarfism began. I was born with achondroplasia,
the most common form of dwarfism. The first thing that happened,
you’ve just been delivered and I thought, ‘oh what a gorgeous child’ and the aide said, ‘oh my God, look at her,
look what’s wrong with her!’ ‘Look at that, look at that.’ Well, two other aides hustled him out of the room. What did you guys feel like? We looked at her and we were like,
‘are you blind? this is a perfect child.’ She’s gorgeous. My first instinct was to protect you
because I knew, you know, that it wasn’t gonna be easy. Once I get to high school,
it changed, when I really started to feel it at like 14-15. Do you remember and we went to
the Natural History Museum, maybe, in Chicago? There was a group of Cub Scouts … One of the cubs saw you
and pointed you out to the others. Well, the display cases were large and you were trying to kind
of duck around the display case. And that was just … That used to be my tactic, was to hide
behind things to like get away. You don’t want to be seen and, like, pointed at. It was the first time I realised that people don’t even realise that they’re
prejudiced, they just do things because they think it’s, well, of course
this is the way it is. There’s no one happier than a happier kid
which I was often, but I also when there’s disappointment it’s pretty low and I had quite a few knocks. It taught me very early to fight and stand up for myself. When you hit a certain point in your
adult years it does wear you out. I want to hear from others in the community
so I’m headed to meet Rebecca Coakley, a former Obama appointee who
oversaw diversity efforts from the administration. Two of her children also have dwarfism. When I worked in the administration, I had a meeting with the
civil rights leader who told me that he found it so inspirational that President
Obama would hire a handi-capable person like me. You know, it’s a great example of
charity that you’re here and I remember just being like, OK we just need to
move on at this point because otherwise there’ s going to be an incident,
I don’t want it incident. People don’t believe the shit
that averages say to us until they actually witness it
and then it’s like, they’ve been pulled out
of the matrix and they’re like, oh my God. ‘This is a real thing.’ Why do you think
that the prejudice still exists? You can’t erase vaudeville, you
can’t erase the fact that our people were bought and sold across circuses as
actual literal property. The fact that our people were forcibly bred
to create more entertainers. The fact that we still have people
perpetuating a lot of that doesn’t help. People in our own community.
– People in our own community. When you see shows that perpetuate the
idea that we’re clowns. That doesn’t make it easier
for those of us out here trying to change the world for the better and get humanity to
perceive us more as humans. The fetishisation of dwarfs has long been part of American popular culture. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s,
the bodies of little people were objectified as entertainment at sideshows and exhibits. In the early 20th century,
midget villages were built. Miniature cities that
average-height people could tour and watch people with dwarfism live
their daily lives. I’m going to show you the seize
of these little people, by having them sit down
one in each one of my hands. And when you go in here,
you’re going to see 158 of them. America’s obsession with our size has
left a lasting and damaging image that has continued to this day. To understand more,
I’ve come to meet Marc Hartzman, a sideshow enthusiast and author. Hi!
-Hi. Come on in, nice to meet you!
– Nice to meet you. Did you get Tom Thumb. And his wife? He also collects vintage images of dwarves. I think she was the world’s
lightest woman. I think ever. These are the wild man
of Borneo. But their real names were
Barney and Harem Davis of Long Island. What was the attraction seeing little people in sideshows? With anyone in sideshow,
it was they were somebody different. Right, so you had the tall people,
you had the super-thin people, the very heavy people … Anything that was
different and then you have of course the little people and so this was
something you didn’t see very often. Because they thought they were cute little people and, ‘look how adorable they are.’ They were unique and they were dressed up like a
perfect little miniature adult. I find it inspirational always that these people
were able to take the situation they were in and make the most of it
and live a life … They were in many ways really extraordinary. To me it kind of dehumanises
people that have differences. For you, like, you’re seeing this
and like this has changed but for us, we still see this. Like, in our life. Seeing midget villages that’s something that gets screamed at me a lot. Like, just in the streets and stuff. So when you see it written down
and that people were … The term midget, you mean? Oh yeah, like people just scream stuff at me. People really do say that to you? Every day. Every day. That’s amazing. I would think people would
look and try not to look. It’s just, I see these voyeuristic
photos of these people’s bodies and that’s me going on the subway. Right. I left feeling like Marc didn’t quite understand how harmful sideshows were and their effect on how dwarves
continue to be seen. There is violence and
objectifying people and their bodies. It’s not inspirational that we had to trade
on our appearance in order to make a living. Remnants of the sideshow continue to exist. In Indianapolis, I’ve come to meet a traveling group of dwarfed wrestlers, called the micro wrestlers. Jack Hillegass runs the show, a full-scale WWE-type event with an entire cast under five-feet tall. In the venue, there was an
excitable, heavy-drinking crowd that more than once
mistook me for a wrestler. Jacob Brooks is from Mississippi and has
been wrestling since high school. He earns $300 a night wrestling under the
name Little Show the Redneck Brawler. Was this always your dream to be a wrestler? Yeah! Always my dream. Like this was it? Yeah, this is it. You know, because I don’t really know
what else I can do. I mean, I’m pretty good at it. I gonna get up there and do stuff that they’d never thought
they’d see a little person do. Because, my man, you know, we bleed the same,
our hearts are the same we’re just little. We’re just short stature. What was it like growing up?
The two of you? As little people,
you were the only ones … Yeah, like our dad he grew us up, he’s like, look worrying, world’s not gonna feel sorry for you because you’re short. Whenever he found out
that we wanna wrestle, he’s like, ‘you sure that’s what
y’all want to do?’ I was like, ‘yes, sir!’ He was like, ‘if you go and do it,
you’re gonna be the best at it.’ This is the Redneck Brawler, Little Show. I was ready to hate what I saw but I was
impressed by the athleticism and talent of the wrestlers. They fly through the air, fling each other across the ring, jump
from the top ropes … But at the same time, there was lots of
laughing from the crowd more than once I heard people
say how cute they thought they were and I couldn’t help but feel
that our bodies were yet again being exploited for the sake of entertainment. Backstage, I spoke to the owner Jack Hillegass. What’s the attraction of micro wrestling? It’s not the wrestling, People are here for the little people and they leave intoxicated because they
couldn’t believe the athleticism that they saw. Do you ever feel like
you’re exploiting little people? You can’t exploit someone
if they’re doing something they love you know, these were kids that
were born with a disadvantage in life and they were told, you’re not gonna be able to work normal jobs like most people, now they’re
living their dreams as professional wrestlers. This is like my third group
of little people who have worked for me and this by far is my most
talented and most cohesive group of kids. Here we go, one, two three,
say ‘micro’. I left with sort of like a
complicated perception. In one hand, like,
they’re super athletic, they’re very talented at what they do,
so I guess my problem is that when you’ve got a marginalised group, like
little people, like us … Does it hurt the cause? And I don’t know. Do we tell them to stop doing it? Just because some drunk people
can’t see past their height. I don’t know. I don’t know. Los Angeles, where for generations
the image of little people has been defined. Selena Luna is a Mexican-American actor, who’s trying to change
that representation. She’s featured in Pixar’s Coco, starred in Margaret Cho’s
the Cho Show and toured with Dita Von Teese’s burlesque show. Lately she’s been focusing
on her stand-up comedy career. So over the holidays, I went to a
Christmas party with a host, took it upon himself to hire a bunch of little people
to dress up as Christmas elves and hand out appetisers. All night, party guests
kept coming up to me it’s like, ‘oh well, where’s your little uniform?’ What? Like a little bitch just can’t be at a party? What’s your view of using your comedy to
change the representation game for little people? If I try to illustrate to
people that we have regular experiences like anyone else, I mean that’s what I
talk a lot about my marriage, you know, I have a normal-sized husband
and I talk about that and people are shocked that I’m not married to like a Keebler elf. You know … I don’t understand how little people are kind of like, I don’t know
how to say this, the last acceptable blackface in the world portrayed in entertainment as a creature,
a mystical monster … Why is it not important for little people to be
represented in a dignified manner? I think everybody who has support for us has
to kind of come out of that and work through it and it can take a really long time. When did you have that moment
where you were like, I’m going to figure this out? When I was 35 years old,
where I turned the corner and I finally accepted this
is my circumstance, I need to live with it without anger, without resentment
and create a life for myself that I create, that I make work without
depending on outside validation. Like Selena, I had to push past my own anger
to create a positive identity for myself. Joseph Stramondo, a professor of philosophy
and bioethics at San Diego State University has written much about
embracing that identity. There is thousands of years of mainstream culture
defining the meaning of what it is to be a little person but to them that
identity is the Oompa Loompas, a freak show. The question is, do you think I
understand that this has the potential to be a positive identity? That can originate
from the community itself and that isn’t placed upon them. In order for the community
to succeed in defining itself, we need to be given the cultural
space to do that. Right? We need to be allowed to tell
others what it means to be a little person. Right? So, that’s what we’re fighting for. How do you see their future? And do you have hope that the world’s
going to change so it’s gonna be better for them? I would like them to not really
feel like their expectations have to be perceived through like an abled gaze, that they can have a career, that they can have a family,
the skills and knowledge that they need to push back. I’ve spent the last few months exploring dwarfism
in a deeper way than I ever have before. I’ve realised that the oppression of
little people deeply rooted in American culture is one of the last accepted
forms of discrimination. In many ways, it still defines our lives but the people I’ve met during
this journey have made me understand that there is a thriving
movement to reclaim our identity based not in the way society sees us but
by the way we see ourselves.

Author:

32 thoughts on “Dwarfism and me: ‘We’re still treated as less than human’”

  • Simple Simon Speaks says:

    i guess equality is measured by one's mans mass, height, sex, race, culture, religion wealth… oh wait that's life…says more about society than whatever anyone person is dealing with…perhaps it's time to change our economic structure? it's obvious that our legal tender practices are the cause.

  • Peter Dinklage aka Tyrion Lannister from Game Of Thrones, is the first dwarf person to get a top role in any media work which isn't focused on using his size to entertain others. And he earned more money than 99% of the cast.

  • I might need security says:

    Why do people always want to compare their problems to being black. Dwarfs were not killed due to their height nor were they ostracized because of it. Yes I agree people look and are intrigued but to compare to being black is offensive

  • What flower garden do you live in lady? You are different and will be looked at. There are ignorant people and not. This is no conundrum . Don't tell anyone you haven't, in your life time seen someone "different" . This piece is stupid. Everyone is a victim of some sort today, get on with your lives be thankful for what you do have. I just can't listen to your boohoo speech.

  • Don't hold your breath waiting to be treated like a human being. It ain't gonna happen anytime soon. There are other priorities, like all those people who are whining much louder than you are. You may even be behind autistic people in the queue for equal treatment. Even though you've got far greater representation in the world of media.

  • Not trying to marginalize their experience,but being black has and will have a different set of challenges.And I also think that nba and nfl players bodies are used for the entertainment and financial gain of others too.

  • You do realize folks on those shows clowning and what not are willfully doing these things and are getting paid for it. No one is holding a gun to these folks heads. Why are we seeing victimization in EVERYTHING? Folks ask for diversity and exposure into everyday life, then complain about the exposure they get. From the little folks I've met, they are treated like everyday people and normal. They fight and party and have fun like every other human being. This social justice stuff is getting sickening.

  • Cara, you are a queen among men. An alchemist, helping turn our suffering and resentment and struggles into golden wisdom. Thank you so much for all you've done and are doing for our people.

  • I'll never forget the first time I saw Peter Dinklage in a role. It was the first time ever I saw a little person represented as an actual real human being. It had a strong impact on me and made me realize how much prejudice I had in me, even though I've never met a little person in real life. It's a truly bizzarre and dumb part of our culture

  • 90000 estimated people in a country of give or take 360 million have dwarfism?
    No pun intended. But that's a small community.
    Thank you Ms Reedy and the guardian for this piece.

  • I saw a SciFi movie with Peter Dinklage called Rememory…a great film…he played regular person, and the fact that he was a little person was never brought up…he was just who he was…and I think that is what little people want…if you are tall or short or thin or fat…you are just a person…not that different from anyone else…

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