Editor’s Note: First Person is a new series of personal essays exploring identity and personal points of view that shape who we are. The first contributor is Cara Reedy, a senior administrative assistant for CNN Money. She writes and performs comedy about her life in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
Cara Reedy was born with achondroplastic dwarfism
She says that little people are often treated as less than human
Reedy's family protected her but never let her hide from the world
Tired of strangers' inappropriate reactions, she decided to speak up
From the moment I was born, people around me were saying, “Oh, God.”
The nurse exclaimed it when I finally arrived, a month late (a habit I have kept). That’s how my parents found out that I was a little person, a dwarf, of short stature. They were shocked and upset, knowing that my life would be hard. My maternal grandfather told my mother, “I don’t care how tall she is, she’s my first granddaughter, and she’s pretty. “
They didn’t find out I had achondroplastic dwarfism until a few months later. “Achondroplasia” is a word that haunted me in my childhood. I never wanted to hear it. It wasn’t who I was. I was not different.
According to a 2009 report by Richard M. Pauli from the Midwest Regional Bone Dysplasia Clinics, achondroplasia happens 1 in every 25,000 births. It doesn’t really matter how often it happens, we happened, and we’re here.
My brother is as big as I am small and has been my protector from day one. He made it possible for me to live whatever life I choose. My parents grew up during the civil rights movement. They and their siblings were the only black kids at their respective Catholic schools in middle America. They were treated as subpar. While they were allowed in, they weren’t allowed to fully participate. They were denied equal treatment. The indignities they endured are too many to list. My parents made sure my brother and I participated in whatever we wanted.
My family cares for me and at the same time has never shielded me from the world. That’s how they raised me. I am Cara. Expectations are not lowered. We can talk about it whenever I need to, but I have not been allowed to hide.
Even so, living as a little person is like being the main attraction at the circus every day of my life. Going grocery shopping, getting tampons at the drugstore – it’s like being a celebrity, and the whole world is my paparazzi. The tag line of my blog, Infamously Short, is “celebrity without fame or money,” and that’s pretty accurate.
I don’t believe anonymity is achievable for me. That can make a person a little crazy. And angry.
When I was a child, I used to walk into public places and scan the room to figure out who would be the first to say something. Inevitably, they did. Most of the time it was “Isn’t she cute?” But sometimes it was more cruel. Deeper. Darker.
They hold their hands over their mouths and laugh, trying to look away but also alert their friends. They whisper, “There’s a midget.”
When I make eye contact, they look away and try to hold in their laughter. I can read lips. It’s from a lifetime of watching people mouth “midget.” There are times when they don’t even pretend to hide their ridicule. Walking in a mall, I pass a store. Someone spots me and then brings their whole family to stand in the store window to laugh and jeer.
My existence is a joke to them. When these people refer to little people, they often say, “Look at it.”
To them, I am not even human. I’m a different species. It’s even used in a clinical capacity. In medical journals, the language is something like “this male dwarf.” Do they say “this male autistic” or “this female cerebral palsy”? The answer is no, it’s always “this person” with “fill in the condition.”
When I was a child, I used to internalize the torment. Outwardly, I was stoic. I pretended it wasn’t happening. Inside, I was crying and wishing I was someone else. It shaped how I felt about myself. I was often the target of bullies in school and felt prejudice from some of my teachers. They never outwardly said anything, but they made it difficult to participate in activities. I also had some wonderful teachers who cheered me on, even when I was being lazy.
I played basketball in grade school, not very well, but I tried. The coach, Mr. Sweeney, worked out plays so that I could score. I took dance, something to which I was much more suited. Mrs. Wren required I work as hard or harder as the other girls. She showed me how to be graceful in a body that is typically not regarded as graceful.
I have always been a bit of a drifter searching for a new adventure. When I was 12, I went to India, and it changed my life. I was gone almost a month and was at least three travel days away from my parents. I was scared, exhilarated and free. That trip set the tone for my life.
From the age of 18 to 27, I lived in six cities and moved eight times. During that time, I got three degrees: in political science, theater and photography. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to be when I grew up – or, more accurately, I had a hard time figuring out what the world would allow me to be. When I moved to New York to start work as a photographer, I finally had to face why I had been running: I am a little person.
Manila’s little people seek their own community
Coming to terms with being a little person has been a long process, complicated by the world’s prejudice. I don’t wake up every morning and think “Oh, woe is me, I am a little person.” I wake up and get on with my day. (My first thought is usually “Oh, no, I am late again.”) I fly out of the house in whatever outfit I have cobbled together, grab breakfast at the bodega and check my email while rushing to the subway. As each moment passes, I calculate how many minutes I am going to be late.
But, like a kick in the chest, I am startled, because someone interrupts my morning routine by pointing, laughing or taking a picture. I am no longer just Cara, the free-spirited comedian who has trouble getting to work on time. I am the little person who deserves ridicule. I’m late to work, running with a body that doesn’t have the greatest leg span, praying that the A train is working, and now I have to interact with someone who thinks my mere existence on this planet is a joke. It’s a fantastic way to start a day.
Within the past 10 years, I have stopped internalizing my anger and started directing it outward, where it belongs. Why should I put up with the taunting, the picture-taking, the inappropriate sexual propositions on a daily basis just because I am different externally? The answer is: I shouldn’t.
I have different levels of response to people’s reactions.
If someone laughs, I ask, “What’s funny?” Most of the time people say, “Nothing, nothing,” and then run off in embarrassment.
If people use the word “midget,” I say, “It’s called dwarfism. Don’t use that word.”
Then there are the sexual deviants. Men approach me in the street and start conversations with “I want to try it. Sex with you would be different.”
I yell back, “I am not a sampler platter, no.” They respond with an indignant “I just want to try it. It would be fun. You don’t have to get nasty.”
That’s what I hear whenever I defend myself. Apparently, I am supposed to take it. I am supposed to suck it up.
One of my friends says, “Cara is always trying to prove she’s normal.” I am normal. I have the same thoughts, feelings and desires. The world treats me as if there is something wrong with me. It took me a while not to trust the world’s opinion.