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.
Anna North recently wrote about the dating challenges, interviewing 28-year-old "Becky."
Some of her female friends have been told by men, "If you weren't little, I would date you," Becky told BuzzFeed. "And if they want to date other little people, they have to navigate dating in a community that's small and spread out -- and have a gender imbalance."
Becky said that more women than men attend those conferences.
Bradley, 21, and Bridgette, 23, stars of the TLC reality show "Big Tiny," are the world's shortest living brother and sister; they also go to conferences sponsored by LPA.
The Sandoval, Ill., siblings -- 38 inches and 27 inches tall, respectively -- depend on their mother, Christy Jordan, to navigate their daily lives.
"Brad has had his eye on and spent a lot of time with one girl at the conference, but nothing serious," said Jordan.
"Bri, just like everyone else, always has her eyes open," said their mother. "She has always said it doesn't matter if they are short or tall. It is finding that special person she is looking for."
Genovese was able to find her own special person, but not until she was able to come to terms with her own negative attitudes, ones that began when she was young.
"Being born with dwarfism was treated as a disadvantage and a handicap, and I took that on early in my life," Genovese said. "I saw it as a done deal -- my body was broken and I had this condition that others were humiliated by. It was very, very daunting as a child."
One of six children, Genovese has an older brother who also has dwarfism.
"Doctors told my parents he was a mutation," she said. "They actually called him a mutation."
Both siblings had spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, an inherited disorder that, in addition to short stature, can cause skeletal abnormalities, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Arthritis and Surgeries Were Debilitating
Genovese also had degenerative arthritis, which eventually required hip and knee replacements.
"By the time I was 10, I was like a 70- or 80-year-old," she said. "My hips were already on the way out."
Though her family was warm and loving, she says they were unable to address the challenges of raising two children with the disorder.
"They believed at the time that reaching out to a psychologist or a group would be a stigma on the children," said Genovese. "They didn't believe that support was helpful."
They also never talked about her dwarfism, and as a result, "the silence" was the most traumatizing. There were "questions and staring and laughing, but no talking at home," she said. "It was tougher than dealing with my physical condition."
"There was joy and love in my early childhood. I just wanted to belong to an outside world that said I didn't belong," she said.
At the age of 9 or 10, her parents took her to the Center for Birth Defects in Boston, a traumatic experience. "They took naked pictures of me for a journal and thought I wouldn't understand," said Genovese. "The main surgeon bent over me and talked about everything that was wrong. I was furious at my mom for not coming to my defense."
In college she pushed interested boys away. "I was too scared to open up my heart," she said. "I would do the rejecting first."
Love came unexpectedly. Her future husband had been through a divorce and lost a child at birth.
"We got to talking and he didn't seem at all turned off by my differences," she said. "He didn't even seem to notice. I could feel his realness, and he was open and warm."
"We hit it off, but my doubt was still playing havoc with me," she said. Bill told her later, "There was such joy in your voice."
Life threw more curve balls at Genovese. A right shoulder injury derailed her career as a calligrapher and robbed her of her identity as an artist.
Her father bought her a computer so that Genovese could do computer graphics with her left hand, but she never opened the program. She began to write, and her past poured out.
"Nothing stopped me from talking about what had haunted me in my childhood," she said. "I wrote and cried and grieved and edited -- and realized I was a writer."
Genovese said that writing to help others heal "gave me purpose to my pain."
She turned to self-help books by Wayne Dyer, whose voice resonated with her: "It's not our circumstances, but our reaction to them."
"I realized how much power I had to transform things that were so ugly about my condition and myself -- I would be the one choosing."
What she had been teaching herself ultimately "rubbed off" on her children.
One day she ran out of the house to hand a forgotten item to her 8-year-old son who was chatting with a new boy who had moved into the neighborhood.
"My radar immediately knew that he was a rascal," said Genovese. "I could see the boy's shock as he gave me the once over. Then he sharply asked my son, 'Is that your mother?'"
Prepared for the worst, she was delighted to hear her son casually say, "Oh yeah, she's a dwarf."
"He said it as if it was just information like, 'She's blond.' It wasn't bad or strange -- it was fact," said Genovese. "The whole interaction reinforced my belief that the positive changes we make within ourselves ripple out to our families, our neighborhoods and beyond."