by Melissa Bean Sterzick
My daughters’ Lego days have long since passed by, so I didn’t hear about the company’s new amputee figure until someone mentioned it an online amputee group. Autumn, the character with a limb difference, is included in the 2023 Lego Friends Advent Calendar. I got mine a few days ago and tore it apart looking for Autumn. She is perfect. I’m not embarrassed to say she made me a little teary.
Before Nemo found his courage swimming with a foreshortened fin in 2003, there were little kids living with amputations—acquired and congenital—without knowing anyone else with any kind of limb difference. The first person I ever saw with an arm like mine was Carol Johnston, a gymnast featured in a 1979 Disney film called Lefty. I was eight years old. I never saw a congenital amputee in person until I was nine, when I spotted a girl standing on the sidewalk outside my mom’s chiropractor’s office. Having a body that doesn’t seem to look like anyone else’s body is incredibly difficult—physically and emotionally.
My coping strategy was summed up in my childhood motto: “I can do anything you can do, and I can do it better.” I decided other people needed to manage their doubts and questions about my arm on their own—I wasn’t going to spend time explaining myself. I knew if others saw my self-sufficiency and self-assurance, they would eventually forget I was different. I wasn’t going to undermine myself by carrying a doll without an arm.
But today, as an adult, this tiny Lego toy puts a huge smile on my face. I wish my little-girl self had an Autumn, though I know I would not have felt comfortable loving Autumn back then. I wanted to be seen for who I was, not the length of my arm, and I had to prove that was possible. But there were times when I was forced to reconcile my sense of self—I’m not different—with the reality of my physical appearance.
For example, at Sunday school we used to sing a song called “I Have Two Little Hands.” Singing those words and doing my version of the accompanying hand motions felt like a mind-bending act of self-negation to me. I was only seven, so I wouldn’t have expressed myself in those words, but that’s how I felt. One day I decided I would not play along. I didn’t make a statement about it; I just sat quietly and refused to participate. Opting out was my way of saying “I am who I am and I’m good with myself.”
When I was about ten, my rowdy older brother knocked over the soccer trophies I displayed on my bedroom dresser, and one of them lost her left arm at the elbow. I was mad for a minute until I realized my trophy’s newfound asymmetry made her look just like me. She was still shining, golden, and forever poised to score the most beautiful goal, but now she really represented me. My other trophies soon met a similar fate. Had I broken them—or made them right?
There were times when I let others focus on my limb difference, but mostly I just wanted to be an ordinary kid. I struggled to find balance between accepting my limb difference and denying its existence. And many tricky moments occurred as I sought that balance: asking for help when needed, but not asking for too much help; adapting as much as possible, but still feeling comfortable asking for accommodations; choosing a label—handicapped, disabled, different—to describe myself.
When I was in middle school, I had to make a life-sized body chart for a science class. The instructions called for us to lie down on a giant piece of butcher paper, ask a family member to outline our body, and fill in the outline with three of the major biological systems. I worried I would get a lower grade if I presented my body’s true outline, so I thought about adding a left arm to it. I agonized over this decision, until I finally realized it would feel like a self-betrayal if I modified my form. When my project hung on the classroom wall alongside everyone else’s, I felt self-conscious but proud. I was happy that my body chart was so obviously me.
My experiences throughout my life have led me to understand and accept my amputation as part of me—neither the whole of who I am, nor a subtraction from who I am. But that didn’t happen until I was well into adulthood. Seeing other children who looked like me would have helped me reach this insight sooner. Fortunately, today’s amputees don’t live in the same isolation that existed before the rise of social media.
Looking for external validation is dangerous for a person with a limb difference. True identity is something we form inside ourselves, independent of other people’s judgment. Every person I meet experiences my missing limb in their own way, so I can’t rely on them to help me define myself. Even so, there is something beautiful about seeing your image represented in a mass-market toy that’s designed and manufactured by an iconic corporation like Lego. It feels like being seen, being supported, being welcome.
Whether I realized it or not, I was a little kid who wanted to see my likeness in the world around me. Every person wants that kind of validation—we all want to be known in our entirety. To be observed is an affirmation. I wanted to see my form in other places besides the mirror. But many of us walk through life and don’t encounter anyone who looks like us, anywhere. For an amputee, seeing our extraordinary physical selves represented in an ordinary context is empowering.
I’m happy that I’m not too old, even at 50, to experience and enjoy this new Lego. I’m happy children and other adults with amputations can find their images in play. And I hope seeing ourselves represented in a toy like Autumn will give us all a deeper sense of security and heighten our self-love as we negotiate life with an exceptional body.