(NEW YORK) — Julie Genovese is a little person in a large world that some say can look down on people with dwarfism.
Growing up in New Jersey, Genovese said she endured bullies and stares, and was even submitted to humiliating medical exams that made her feel insignificant and devalued.
And forget about dating.
“In high school, I was pretty much afraid of boys,” said Genovese, now 49. “I had this deep-seated belief that I couldn’t be lovable.”
She was terrified she would never find happiness. But Genovese, who is 4-feet 3-inches tall, now enjoys a long and happy marriage with Bill, who is 5-foot-6. The couple has two average-sized children.
The world of little people has historically held a deep-rooted distrust for taller people — and rightly so. Society has relegated dwarfs to circus side-shows and comedy, treating them as if they were subhuman.
But the bias worked both ways. In the past, many little people frowned on dating averaged-sized people, sometimes fearing that those with sexual fetishes would exploit them.
But now, “attitudes have changed,” according to the Little People of America (LPA), an organization that provides support for those with more than 200 forms of dwarfism.
“I’d say about 50-50 are in relationships with average-sized people,” said LPA’s Leah Smith, vice president of public relations. “The organization’s executive director is married to a taller man.”
Just recently, the organization launched a PSA in advance of October’s Dwarfism Awareness Month with this message: “We are professionals, we are students, we are advocates,” said Smith. “We are pumping the same blood as everyone else.”
In her 2010 memoir, Nothing Short of Joy, Genovese writes about her struggle with crushingly low self-esteem and depression.
“For the first 20 years I felt so cursed and just looked at my dwarfism as an albatross around my neck and had no idea I could change that with my choices and attitude,” said Genovese.
But after two pivotal life events — finding self-help books and a injury that led her to writing a memoir — she was able to overcome the self-loathing and embrace her life with joy.
And after meeting her husband Bill at a holistic fair where they were both volunteers, Genovese realized she was “worth loving.”
“My dwarfism, which I had perceived as a lifelong loss, became the most empowering teacher of my life,” she said. “What a great awakening.”
With only 1 in 30,000 Americans born with dwarfism, teens are often isolated when it comes to affairs of the heart. Genovese said there is a “protective” impulse to date others with dwarfism, whom they meet at conferences.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Kevin Conlon, Euan McKirdy and Johanzynn Gatewood, CNN
Heather Simonsen, KSL.com
Susan Scutti, CNN