The first time Leah Smith saw a little person, she turned to her mother and said, “So that’s what I’m going to look like when I’m an adult?” Her mother said, “Yeah,” to which Smith replied, “I think that’s okay.” Now vice president of public relations for Little People of America, a support group and information center for people of short stature, Smith works to let others know what she intuited in that moment. (Smith is speaking here on her own behalf, not in her public relations role with LPA.) She’s also working toward her Ph.D. in public policy, with a focus on disability policy, including discrimination and employment policy for people with disabilities. Her first love, however, was fashion design, in which she earned an associate degree. We talked about redefining fashion to include little people, the division between feeling beautiful and receiving romantic attention, and pretending to be Julia Roberts. In her own words:
I know that people are looking at me all the time, and you have to find a way to process that somehow. When I was 7, I kind of pretended that I was Julia Roberts. I mean, obviously I don’t do this now, but as a kid I’d read or heard somewhere that every time she would go out, people would stop and stare because she was so pretty. And I was like, “That’s what I face every day, so it must be because I’m pretty.” In my little 7-year-old mind that’s how I processed it. That kind of shaped who I am, and I started dressing to fit the part. I’m not saying I’m any Julia Roberts; it’s just that I wanted to dress in cute or nice-looking clothes, so when people do stare I can be like, Oh, they’re looking because they like my outfit, or they think I’m cute, or whatever. People are going to stare either way, so you’ve got to bring some sort of confidence to it.
Dressing well has been huge in my life. The comments and the stares could have been really easy for me to internalize if I weren’t careful. I feel like my clothes are a way of putting up a shield against that, of saying to the world that the things people might believe about LPs aren't true. That's not who I believe I am—this is who I am. There’s a level of pride in being able to wear a cute outfit, wear my hair cute. It says that I’m proud of this body, and that it’s not something I want to hide or cover up. Because I am proud of my body—I’m not ashamed of it in any way, and I don’t want that to ever be something I portray with how I present myself.
My style is pretty feminine—dresses, cute sandals. There are very few days when I don’t dress up, and people joke that my hair is my biggest priority in my life, which obviously isn’t true, but I do pay a lot of attention to it. I’ve wondered if I would give my appearance as much thought if I were average-sized, or if it’s just a part of who I am. Sometimes I have to remind myself, “Leah, it’s okay if you don’t fix your hair every single day.” I consciously stopped styling my hair on Sundays—I still shower and whatever, but I just don’t fix my hair, to remind myself that I mean more to people than just what I look like. If you’re going to feel beautiful you’ve got to feel beautiful when you’re naked too. It can’t just be all about your clothes or what your hair looks like; it has to start from somewhere else.
On Speed Dating
It can be hard for LP women to navigate male attention. LPA has an annual convention, so you go from having never been hit on by a guy, and then you go to convention and all of a sudden all these guys are thinking you’re really attractive. How do you figure that out? What do you do with that attention once you have it? I almost feel like it’s a bit delayed for us, whereas most people kind of grow up learning those things. As soon as the girls are about 16, suddenly it’s like, “Whoa, these guys think I’m hot—what do I do?” As a part of the leadership at conference, you get to see the ins and outs of what’s going on, and one year there was a guy who was hitting on this girl, and she didn’t really do anything to stop it. He continued and continued, and then all of a sudden she was like, “Wait, I’m not comfortable at all,” and he was like, “Well, you never said no.” She said, “Well, yeah, because I liked it!” Everyone has to learn to deal with those situations, but it happens in a concentrated way at conference. You go from holding hands for the first time to kissing within a week. She had to learn: Okay, I can like this but still have limits here. For me, watching it was like, Oh, man! It was like seeing my own teenhood.
Feeling beautiful and getting male attention were two very separate events for me. Male attention was a once-a-year expedition for me, whereas looking my best was an everyday thing. At convention I’d get dressed up and be thinking about meeting a dude, but that was more of a mind-set shift; I was already dressing in clothes I thought were cute. I started paying attention to my clothes and fixing my hair around seventh grade, so about the same time as most girls, but dating didn’t factor into it like it might have for someone else. Dressing up was just who I was, and it had nothing to do with guys. Maybe if I hadn’t done that and had started being active dating-wise later, the two would have become linked—I don’t know.
There’s this epiphany for some women when they come into LPA, like: “Oh! There’s LP guys who like this body.” There are some women you talk to who have repeatedly been given the message that they are or should be asexual. You hear, “I can’t imagine a guy ever wanting to be with me,” or “I’ve been told my whole life that I’m not what guys want—I don’t have long legs, and an average-size guy would never want to date me.” But then on the flip side of that there are times that LPs have been hypersexualized and some women who take that to its extreme: There are groups of people who have a fetish with little people, specifically LP women. You see some LP women who have internalized this idea and believe that they should take this idea as their role. Sexuality can be very tough for someone who has seen these two extremes. On the one hand, we should be asexual, and on the other hand we are a fetish object. There’s a fine middle line somewhere in there.
On Being Little and Badass
Clothes are such a hard thing for LPs, because so often you have to buy a pair of jeans for $100, and then you have to go get them altered for $150, so that really limits your ability to buy a number of outfits. You’re spending twice as much on one item rather than getting two or three items. I actually do all my own alterations. With achondroplasia, the type of dwarfism I have, our torso is basically the same as an average-size person’s, so I’ll buy clothes that fit my butt and breasts and just alter the arms and legs. For most LPs, I’d say it’s about half and half—some do their own sewing, and the rest get it altered.
I went to fashion design school in Dallas. I really wanted to create a line that allowed LP women to express their inner beauty. At the time a lot of my friends in LPA were dealing with the same thing I was: We were young adults in the world, and asking ourselves what it meant to not be at home anymore, protected by our parents? How do we be adults and be little at the same time? So I started trying to design clothes that expressed the feelings I wanted to express at the time. If I felt badass, I would try to create a badass outfit. Even if nothing about the outfit shouted badass, if I could associate that feeling with the outfit, that’s what mattered—that’s kind of where I was going with my designs.
Going to fashion design school was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was studying fashion design and trying to redefine fashion at the same time, and it really made some people uncomfortable within the school. I experienced a lot of discrimination there that I’d never experienced before. At the time I thought it was because I was little, but looking back I don’t know if it had anything to do with me being little so much as it was I was questioning the paradigm.
For example, we had to create our own line for our final project and do a whole business plan. I wrote that my goal was having a fashion line that would help LPs feel beautiful in their own bodies. My teacher marked that out and wrote on my project that LPs were not beautiful, that they’re not tall, that they don’t have long legs and this is an impossible thing for you to be trying to pursue or to try to make them feel. I was furious. This was after other things had happened—for example, I’d asked for a stool because some of the tables we worked on were really high. They were like, “Well, I guess we have to offer it, but we can’t promise it will be here every day. It’s not our fault if someone steals it.” I was like, “It’s my stool, I’m here all the time, everyone knows I use it, and I can’t imagine why someone would steal a stool.” And every single day it was gone. The other students were the ones who suggested I have a stool to begin with, and I couldn’t imagine any of them would be that vicious. It was that kind of thing that kept going and going, and that comment on my final project broke the camel’s back, I guess. That’s when I started going into policy and the legal side of it. This is a much bigger problem than what we’re wearing, or even what we can legislate. This is a societal problem, that women who are short-statured aren’t seen as beautiful. That’s what we’re up against. When you’re 22 and you’re out to change the world, nobody tells you the world is not an easy place to change. I mean, I’m still out to change the world. Maybe I’m just a bit more realistic with the ways that’s going to get done.