Disability rights activist, Leah Smith, learned a lot about her body while growing up as the only little person in a family of average-sized people. Now, as a parent to two average-sized children herself, Smith is doing her part to teach her little girl and boy about loving their bodies no matter what, and using her own experiences to do so.
“I grew up in an average-sized family and I was the only little person, so I do understand that aspect of being different,” Smith shared at the 2019 MAKERS conference on Thursday. “But I think when I first had Hazel [her daughter], I wasn’t sure how it was gonna play out. I didn’t know if well, maybe we don’t understand each other or whatever.”
She and her husband, Joe, faced challenges being first time parents after their daughter was born two and a half years ago. But raising a child who would need to understand both of her parents’ disabilities came with additional pressure — and ultimately led to Smith’s decision that Hazel needed to learn about the importance of body positivity from a very early age in order to embrace difference.
“I have this radical notion that I need to teach her how to completely love her body. And I’ve been amazed that even at 2 how many times she overhears other women talking about how they don’t like their bodies,” she shared, “‘Oh I don’t like my legs, I don’t like my whatever.’ And really trying to send a different message to her.”
That message is one that Smith had to learn the hard way, after coming face-to-face with what made her different. During her first job in retail as a 16-year-old, Smith explained that she encountered blatant discrimination for the first time, and decided that she needed to do something about it.
“People just started thinking that I was in a space that they could just comment on my body openly, and it was the first time that I had ever really faced that,” she explained. “It was the moment that I realized how am I gonna deal with this, how am I gonna move forward? This is obviously a reality, and so how do I not internalize this? How do I not make sure that this doesn’t effect me and what I want to do with the world?”
For Smith, the answer seemed to be within the fashion industry and discovering the ways that she could change it herself. Until she realized that clothing is not the underlying issue.
“I didn’t really understand what I was tackling,” she said of her goal to illustrate that bodies of all types were just as beautiful as the 6-foot standard. “And so, I was determined the finish the degree but then after that I said we’ve got bigger fish to fry. We have got to create a space for us first before we can worry about our clothes.”
Now, Smith is tackling those bigger issues as an activist. But she refuses to neglect the important details, like accessible clothes.
“I mean, which comes first the chicken or the egg?” she asked. “But either way, we need clothes and we need to be present.”
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