My life as a dwarf before and after The Station Agent. Or, my small celebrity.
Everybody and their grandmother wants me to see The Station Agent with them. Like Peter Dinklage, the star of the film, I am a dwarf.
If you saw The Station Agent, then you have some idea what we go through. The handsome Peter Dinklage stars as Fin, a steely and wise recluse who wants nothing more than for people to leave him alone. As a dwarf myself, I can relate to Fin's tough, unaffected reserve. After being a public anomaly all my life, and after dealing with the resulting lack of privacy and invisibility, I also developed an armory of stinging comebacks. I need them to deal with the ignoramus who asks me if I was in Total Recall, or if I know his cousin's best friend's brother, Bart, a three-foot-tall dwarf who is 12 and lives in Ohio--as if we all know each other. And then there's the hippie mama who wants to have a private Q&A session with her kid on what it's like to be "different."
Judging from the hysteria generated by The Station Agent on the Internet, most dwarfs believe the film marks a turning point for us in popular culture, a step away from the typical cringe-inducing Mini-Me roles. I left the theater with a profound sense of satisfaction, a feeling that we are finally getting some positive attention.
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For a 26-year-old woman who is only four feet tall, going out into the world can make you feel like a has-been celebrity--everyone is staring at you, but nobody wants your autograph. There are times when the stares, confusion, and stupid questions are more hassle than the trip to the grocery store for a gallon of milk is worth.
After living in Seattle almost my whole life, and being almost impossible to miss, everybody either knows me or has seen me. I was raised by a hippie/intellectual woman who didn't subscribe to the self-pity that was the norm. She wanted me to think I was just like everybody else. My grandmother would slip newspaper clippings inside my birthday cards about dwarfs who defied society's expectations and made it as doctors, lawyers, and circus clowns. It was her attempt to bolster my confidence. My mother would throw the clippings away before I saw them.
Then, through a chance meeting with another parent whose child was a dwarf, my mother found out about Little People of America (LPA), an organization founded in 1957 by the late dwarf actor Billy Barty. Little People now has over 5,000 short-statured members worldwide and holds a weeklong blow-out convention every year.
The first time I went to a local LPA meeting I was 13 years old. I had a very bad experience--an experience that's typical for dwarfs who aren't accustomed to being around their own kind. I was mortified by these stumpy, roly-poly-looking characters. It was a harsh reminder of what I must look like to the outside world.
Some of the little people, as they preferred to be called (I find the term silly), looked more like very short people, not dwarfs at all. Others were so tiny it was hard to see how they survived. When you're two-feet-five and with a head as large as a basketball, how do you function? It was very depressing, and I decided that my first meeting would also be my last. I didn't need to hang out with other dwarfs to feel better about myself. And I didn't find anyone at the LPA convention who I had anything in common with. Most of the other dwarfs I met were sheltered, suburban, and conservative. I wasn't brought up like that.
As a teenager in Seattle, I longed to get the hot guys in school like my AP girlfriends. ("AP" is LPA lingo for average-sized person.) They had serious problems of their own, from eating disorders to drug-addicted parents. But those issues seemed tolerable to me compared to what I was given to work with. Inevitably, having been raised on a diet of Nina Hagen and Camus, and with a subscription to Sassy, I turned toward the subculture. It seemed like the only comfortable place for me, a place where I could hang out with other freaks and social misfits and avoid the condescending normal world.
But the subculture presented its own unique struggles for me, as a dwarf.
During that period I was asked to be in this band's video, to pose for that artist's S&M photographs, and to dance onstage at some group's concert. On the naive assumption that it would lead me to stardom, I sometimes accepted these offers. I quickly discovered that I was a mere novelty, the token dwarf, a motif for rock 'n' roll shtick. I learned firsthand that the hip can be as ignorant as anyone else. The alternative scene left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I felt I was perpetuating the stigma, acting like the more pathetic dwarfs in entertainment, like the Howard Stern regulars Hank the Angry Dwarf and Bridget the Midget.
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In LPA circles there's a term for dwarfs who don't go to meetings and aren't thoroughly accustomed to being around their own kind: denial. It took 13 years for my period of denial to end. At age 26 I decided to reacquaint myself with the dwarfism world, going on every website and reading every book I could find. I joined the dwarfism listserv and decided I would try to make a few friends--maybe even find a boyfriend. Since dwarfs are so few and far between, meeting online is the only viable method for dwarfs who want to date other dwarfs. I never imagined dating or marrying another dwarf but I decided to give it a try.
I was unsuccessful.
Most of the guys I met affected this exaggerated, dorky, macho-cool act. Maybe being a dwarf is more difficult for men because women are allowed to be cute and helpless and men are supposed to be strong and powerful. So after a few failed attempts to initiate myself into dwarf husbandry, I got the impression that maybe dwarf guys aren't my bag.
Because chance meetings with other dwarfs are so rare, it's not unusual for a dwarf to date only APs. For dwarf women, it's hard to know what an attractive, friendly man's intentions are. He could be just out to win a bet with his friends by getting in the sack with a "midget," or he could be for real--though, same as anybody else, a lot of times the honest and sensitive guys are the least desirable.
My friends ask me, "Well, what about a guy like Peter Dinklage?"
Well, he seems cute and smart, but apparently Dinklage is only into dating APs.
I'm thankful, as a dwarf, for The Station Agent and the talk shows that devoted hours to little people after the film's release. I hope it's marked a turning point for us in popular culture. I hope that I'll have fewer encounters with Bart's brother's best friend's cousin, and maybe more people will ask me if they can help when the milk is on too high a shelf for me to reach. And while I've got the mic, I'd also like to thank my mother. Because she didn't subscribe to self-pity; she taught me to embrace being different.
If there's one lesson I'd like to teach, it's that stuff like me exists. Call it a course on common humanity--and it's something I can teach just by walking down the street.