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What I Wish 'The Witches' Producers Knew About Growing Up With Ectrodactyly

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My favorite costume I ever wore was not something purchased at a local party store or CVS. In fact, I was tens of thousands of miles away from access to one. I was a student at the International School of Islamabad and our second-grade class was given the honor of leading the elementary school’s special Halloween parade. At a loss for a costume, I huddled with my best friend Kirsten who bragged that she was going as Holly Hobbie courtesy of a costume her grandmother gave her before they left the U.S. Watching me struggle to come up with something, Kirsten offered me her mother’s pointy black hat. Like me, Kirsten was an American living in Pakistan with her family. Despite our closeness, she was completely oblivious to the emotional pain her suggestion had caused. I informed her that I would prefer to wear my mother’s white nightgown and be an angel.

The last thing I wanted was to be associated with something wicked. In fact, I’d spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about how I could be the most beautiful version of myself. An extreme lover of fashion as an adult, I often wonder if my passion for wearing pretty clothes stemmed from something deeper. I yearned for strangers to become distracted by something attractive on my body rather than my body itself.

I was born with ectrodactyly, a condition that I passed to two of my three children. It’s a genetic condition that literally means “missing digits.” In other words, born with one finger on each hand, shortened forearms and one toe on each foot, learning my condition’s name told me nothing I didn’t already know.

In the current remake of the Roald Dahl movie “Witches,” a young orphaned boy goes to live with his grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer. To their horror and unfortunate timing, they encounter at a seaside resort the world’s Grand High Witch, played by Anne Hathaway and her fellow wicked companions from around the globe. Hathaway’s character is deceptively glamorous. She appears elegant in public, but in private with the other sorcerers, she discards her wig to reveal her baldness and displays hands with only three, long spindly fingers. The witches are presented not only as evil, but as enemies of children; ghouls to be feared.

My first reaction to seeing the Grand High Witch’s hands was a memory of my encounter with the accomplished, now-retired American journalist Bree Walker. Bree, like me, has ectrodactyly and also passed it to her children. When I was a child, my cousin gave me Bree’s address so I could connect with someone successful that shared my condition. Like my parents, she understood that the ego of a child born different can be extremely fragile and may need constant emotional support. Just that summer, I had attended a party where the parent had pre-warned the child a girl would be coming who only had one finger on each hand. When I stepped through the door, birthday present in hand, the birthday boy yelled, “Monster! Monster!” and ran to his room. It took my parents a long time to help me overcome it.

In a November 1980 letter to Bree, I shared my hope of becoming a lawyer or journalist one day, wondering if she had any advice for me. The following month she wrote back.

“Dear Meg. Thank you for your letter. It was nice to hear from you. Yes, I was born looking different like you, but it has never held me back. In fact, my life has been as normal as I imagine yours has been as well….one thing is certain. I wouldn’t be here without the unconditional support of my parents.”

Recently, “Witches” generated a swift and passionate backlash by many parents of the limb different community. I suspect parents of kids with alopecia (an autoimmune condition causing hair loss) will feel similarly impacted. It is no wonder. As a parent of children who are physically different, I felt the demonic imagery from the film was at best deeply insensitive and at worst destructive to impressionable kids learning to accept their bodies. It sends just the wrong cues, making children who are different objects of fear just as they are desperate to fit into their social world. In response, both Warner Brothers and Hathaway have issued public regret. Hathaway’s apology felt particularly sincere. “I owe a special apology to everyone who loves you as fiercely as I love my own kids: I am sorry I let your family down.”

Thinking back to the parade in Pakistan, as I walked in front of the crowd of onlookers, other students and their families, the angel costume was indeed my favorite — but not for obvious reasons. It allowed me to hide my difference in its long, flowing white sleeves that draped well past my short arms and one-fingered hands. Covered up, I felt I looked on the outside how I longed to feel on the inside — beautiful.

Whether kids are missing fingers, hair or anything else, they are struggling to discover the power of unconditional self-acceptance. While all kids are wrestling with their own issues, those who cannot hide a physical difference are forced to share their daily struggle with an often unsympathetic world. For movie studios, and those who tell stories for kids, more thought and understanding needs to go into the messages they are sending. I don’t expect that every screenwriter or studio exec can immediately understand what it is like to walk in my shoes or those of my family and those like us, but when considering the carefulness those same creative people are no doubt practicing with regard to body image, diverse representation and many other sensitive issues in our society, it would seem reasonable for them to consider their impact on vulnerable communities.

In a recent interview in Inside Edition, Bree’s daughter Andrea (who shares her mother’s condition) was asked whether this portrayal set us back. Andrea put it best. “It may be that it has set us back a bit. However, if we are having this conversation, maybe it’s a silver lining.”

Learn more at Don’t Hide It, Flaunt It.

Originally published: December 3, 2020
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