Sarah Jane Capper
Talitha Baxter was walking a dog with her friend. A group of men drove past, yelling insults. She didn’t know what they had shouted, but she knew why they had screamed.
They stopped and looked at each other, and simultaneously said “Seriously?”
Baxter, a 29-year-old resident of Syracuse, stands at 4 feet 4 inches tall. She has achondroplasia, the most common of 200 conditions that can lead to dwarfism. Achondroplasia accounts for approximately 70 percent of dwarfism cases, according to the National Institute of Health, which also defines dwarfism as any condition that causes a person to stay below 4 feet 10 inches in height his or her entire life.
Hearing the insults brought Baxter back to her childhood, when she was often teased for her short stature, big head, and butt that stuck out.
“It made me feel like a little kid again,” she said.
The worst teasing Baxter endured was in ninth-grade when a group of boys began throwing things on the top shelf of her locker, where she couldn’t reach. She cried and yelled. Eventually, a teacher came out to stop them.
Dwarfs have often been treated disrespectfully. Recently, more attention has been brought to the harassment, stereotyping, and discrimination of little people through a surprising medium: reality TV – a genre typically known for exploiting people.
In the past five years, many reality television shows have sprung up that star little people. Most of these shows portray little people as they really are: ordinary people living ordinary lives. The programs offer a contrast to the roles dwarfs have played in the past, such as Oompa-Loompas, munchkins, or sideshow attractions. The shows are a step toward making the public more accepting of little people, but the stereotypes haven’t yet disappeared.
“The more shows that are out there, the more people will be used to seeing little people, and the less they will stare,” said Patti Olesik, the president of the Finger Lakes Chapter of Little People of America, a national non-profit organization that provides support and information to little people and their families.
In 2006, the cable channel TLC premiered “Little People, Big World,” a series that documents the life of the Roloff family as they “face the pressure of being little in an average-sized world,” according to the show’s website. The show has been successful, averaging two million viewers during primetime.
The success of “Little People, Big World” led to the creation of the “The Little Couple,” a show that follows a newly married doctor and lawyer. It averages 1.3 million viewers in primetime. TLC also debuted “The Little Chocolatiers, ” a show about a couple who owns a chocolate-making business, and “Our Little Life,” a show about two little people raising an average-sized child.
Olesik said she has seen how the shows can change the way people think, especially kids. She knows a 4-year-old who has never questioned why there are little people, and she credits it to his watching “Little People, Big World.”
“They know that there are little people and big people, and that they’re the same people and do the same things,” Olesik said. “They’re just different sizes.”
About 30,000 people in the United States and more than a half million people around the world have some type of dwarfism, according to Little People of America.
Still, many stereotypes about dwarfs persist. People often think that they can’t do anything, and act amazed when they do. People also believe dwarfs are deaf, according to Olesik. Many treat dwarfs disrespectfully, offer help when it isn’t needed, or ignore that dwarfs exist.
“I still get perceived as young,” Baxter said. “People are like, ‘Oh honey, that’s so cute.”
Baxter is often offered help when she doesn’t need it. For example, at her information technology job, Baxter often lifts heavy computers. But when she volunteered at a fundraising event for a local science museum, people seemed surprised as she unloaded ice from trucks.
“There are some things that I can’t do, but I’ll certainly ask for help, and you don’t necessarily have to jump to the conclusion that, ‘Oh no honey, you can’t do that,” Baxter said.
Then, there are the people who either ignore the existence of dwarfs, or can’t handle it.
“Take for instance bars,” Baxter said. “You walk into a bar and you get ID’d. All of my friends, whether they’re older or younger, most of the time get ID’d. I do not get ID’d,” she said, and she thinks people are afraid they might offend her, so they just ignore her short height.
Regardless of how reality television portrays little people, or how others treat her, Baxter said she has reached a point in her life in which she is genuinely glad to be little. She feels beautiful, and thinks her experience of being little has made her more compassionate and assertive.
“You’re okay, whether you’re short, fat, or skinny,” Baxter said. “I have a co-worker, Tara, who is tall, and gets made fun of for that. There will always be something that someone doesn’t like.”
On a Sunday night, Baxter drives to Target to pick up a few things. When she reaches the pet section, she asks for help to get a box of cat litter on the fourth shelf, and then hauls the 25-pound box through the store, without a cart.
She walks toward the juice aisle. A young girl stares as Baxter walks past a display of mouthwash. A young boy turns to watch. When she reaches the juice, a woman glances quickly, and then looks away. Baxter heads to the checkout, then loads her car. She begins to drive home.
“Did people stare?” she said. “I didn’t even really notice it.”