How I Learned to Love Being Different

Henrietta plane

“Why is one shoe so much bigger than the other?”

As a kid, I got this question a lot and I hated it. I was born with a leg length discrepancy. By the time I was ten years old, the difference was close to four inches and I had to wear a raised sole on one shoe to compensate.

“It’s not a big deal, I’d tell the other kids. “One day I’m going to have an operation and the doctors are going to fix me. After that, no one will ever know I was like this.”

Kids usually accepted this. My leg condition was temporary, like crooked teeth or a pimple. Soon I’d be fixed and be like everyone else.  Soon I’d be the beautiful, normal girl I always wanted to be.

When I turned 13, I had the first operation to stretch my leg. I had no idea that when I entered that hospital it would take three years and more surgeries than I can count to even my legs.  I spent months in a hospital ward exclusively for handicapped children and years in a wheelchair.

Although I had nearly even legs when I left and only the slightest limp, I didn’t look normal. My leg was terribly misshapen and scarred and it wasn’t something that could never be fixed.

I’d always imagined when I left the hospital, I’d take dance classes and become a beautiful ballerina, but there was no such thing as a dancer with a battered leg. Instead of being sad about it, I wore long pants and ignored it.

I didn’t want to be different and so I pretended I wasn’t. If people didn’t see me in shorts or a bathing suit, no one would ever suspect what I had gone through. On the outside, I was putting on an amazing game face, but internally things couldn’t be going worse. I would have regular nightmares about the hospital and about being disfigured.

The only thing that that stopped the dreams was art-making it. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do specifically, I just knew whatever it was, it needed to start out undesirable so that I could find a way to make it beautiful. I worked for years on various projects. I even went to art school for college.

People would always ask me what was my inspiration and I’d reply, “I want to help people.” I never mentioned my leg.

The first film that I was really proud of was my second animated short, “The Toll Collector.” It was about a ballerina with abnormally long legs who dreams of being a dancer but can’t because of her deformity.

It’s obvious to anyone reading this that I was writing my own story, but when I wrote the short, I had absolutely no idea it was in any way personal.

Ballerina

I remember finishing the film and watching it in its entirety for the first time. No one in the studio knew about my leg and neither did my new friends. As the film wrapped, I realized I had spent two years building and filming the most intimate secret I had: my own shame.

If I hadn’t involved so many people in the making of the film, I would have hid it, but that wasn’t an option so I choose to deny that the story had anything to do with me.

Showing the film at festivals was unbelievably gratifying. People used one word to describe it: beautiful. Sadly, it didn’t change how I felt about my own body image and I continued to hide and pretend my short leg didn’t bother me or even exist for that matter.

A few years ago, my husband and I started taking about children and I told him before we had any I wanted to try and have my scars removed. The thought of my own children asking what the red lines all down my legs were — or worse, calling them ugly — was too painful to imagine.

We saw several doctors who all told us the same thing: they were permanent. I know the power a mother has over her children. I knew if I carried shame, I could pass that on to my kids and that kind of pain isn’t good for anyone. I knew I had to change; I just wasn’t sure how.

And then I saw a friend’s play that deeply moved me. It was about a hunchback young woman who was ashamed all her life, only to discover her hated curved spine back was exactly what she needed. (I can’t give the ending away but I’ll tell you this, the story resonated with me.)

I decided to adapt it into a stop motion short, which is now “Henrietta Bulkowski.” When I started preproduction, I made a promise to myself: once the film was completed I needed to accept that my own crooked leg was exactly what I needed.

It’s been two years since then — the hardest and most exciting time of my life — but I’m fueled and I have been since the day I’ve started.

If this film can help a stick-in-the-mud like me, maybe it has the power to help others. The story of Henrietta Bulkowski is for the outsider in all of us.

I truly believe that it might change the way we see disabilities and that’s about the most important thing to me right now.

To learn more and support Henrietta Bulkowski, please check out the Kickstarter Campaign. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/henriettabulkowski/henrietta-bulkowski

About the Author

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Rachel Johnson fell in love with stop-motion as a photography student at RISD and upon graduating, decided to move to Europe to learn all she could about it. During the course of two years, she apprenticed and worked with master stop-motion animation studios in the UK and the Czech Republic to create her award-winning debut film, The Toll Collector (2002). Since then, she has never looked back, continuing to experiment, write and teach the art form at various schools and universities around the country. She founded Lift Animation in 2011 so she could tell the stories that move her in the medium that she loves.

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