National / Social Issues

From envy to epiphany: Japanese woman with dwarfism follows fashion dreams

Kyodo

Life for Hitomi Goto had always been about trying to blend in and the envy she felt as a person dealing with dwarfism from an early age, especially when it came to the fashion of her peers.

But the 27-year-old now sees herself in a different light: a standout in the crowd as she has successfully pursued her dreams of fashion modeling and marriage. Motherhood, she says, is just around the corner.

In October 2013, Goto was a member of the “Real Seven Dwarfs,” dressed in colorful outfits and rainbow-colored hats for a Halloween event at Tokyo Disneyland, delighting the theme park crowd.

Like the other six members, Goto, who at nearly 115 cm is about the average height of a first-grader, has a genetic condition called achondroplasia, which stunts physical growth especially in the arms and legs.

“People look at me curiously even when I walk normally,” Goto said, recalling her experience at Disneyland. “So I changed my mindset and took the opportunity to stand out, believing the (dwarf) attire was the best way to take advantage of my short size.”

In elementary school, Goto, who now works for an apparel makeover company and is a freelance illustrator, was not much different from the other children. But this changed in middle school, when she would sometimes feel dejected for looking “like a child in a junior high school uniform.”

“I was not bullied to my face but was teased occasionally behind my back,” she said.

Goto was envious of classmates who would flip through fashion magazines, looking for the latest trends. Clothing did not fit her the same way it fit her friends when they would go shopping together. This led to her give up on fashion and she became more frustrated about her stature.

But a turning point came when she began playing the drums in a high school band.

“Audiences were amused when they came to see our concerts because my body was hidden behind the drums and it looked like they were playing on their own,” Goto said. She finally understood that being different was a way to discover her unique character.

Goto entered a fashion institute to study apparel design, hoping to make clothes that fit her. But she found that she was unable to keep up with assignments, as it took her longer than other students to stitch because of her physical limitations.

As anxiety about her future was building up, her father suddenly died of a brain hemorrhage. It was always thanks to her family that she kept a strong will through various hardships. “My parents raised me in a carefree way and my older brother was always there, kindly supporting me,” she said.

Goto dropped out of university after two years and took time off to re-evaluate her situation. She began attending meetings with others who have the same genetic condition and their families — gatherings she had not been to since her teens.

Goto was able to meet with peers after many years and discuss similar physical concerns about the limitations of clothing and how to be more fashionable. Communicating with peers motivated her to return to school, this time a vocational art school to study drawing and design. She started a blog and introduced a solo exhibition of illustrations and fashion items. She also uploaded photos of herself dressed in clothing she designed as an example for people like herself, illustrating that they too can enjoy various fashion styles.

Goto was encouraged by more and more fans as well as their compliments. “I realized I don’t have to give up on being fashionable even though I am small,” she said.

Goto has also shown her prowess on the catwalk. Last October, she strutted in a blue dress — along with other participants at the International Dwarf Fashion Show, held for the first time in Japan — to the applause of a crowd of about 200 spectators at a venue in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

Two years ago, Goto was recruited by an apparel design firm that aims to help the disabled and elderly enjoy fashion without worry. The approach is known as “universal fashion” — fashionable clothes that are beneficial and functional for everyone, including those who need assistance or nursing care.

“I hope my public appearances will help promote Japanese society’s understanding” about people with disabilities, Goto said.

She has gradually gained a following among those concerned about the disabled and even done interviews with magazines and a variety of media, but she also understands that not all disabled people are willing to step into the spotlight.

As a matter of principle, Goto is unwilling to accept jobs that call on her to appear as a curiosity because she is small.

“There are many people who have suffered (with their disabilities), so I can’t impose myself on them. I do what I want based on my own will,” she said.

Goto recently married a colleague, and she plans to design and sew her wedding dress with her husband for their ceremony next year.

As for her dream of one day becoming a mother, she is determined to give birth, despite a 50 percent chance of having a child with the same genetic condition.

“I will tell my child, ‘Do not worry, everyone will support you’ if the baby has the same features as mine,” Goto said. “I will continue to speak out to make society a better place for my child.”