Author, anti-bullying activist with rare form of dwarfism spreads message of self-love
Carmel Valley resident Brandon Farbstein, 22, has written two books about overcoming adversity and learning empathy
For many of his 22 years, Brandon Farbstein says he didn’t love the person he saw when he looked in the mirror.
Born with a rare form of dwarfism that capped his height at 3 feet, 9 inches, and affected his physical mobility, the San Diego resident says he once considered suicide. And during his junior year at a Virginia high school, he endured such extreme cyberbullying from classmates that he stopped attending classes on campus.
But today, Farbstein has the confidence and positive outlook of a man who has built a successful career as an activist, author and motivational speaker who travels the country promoting self-love to young people facing adversity, as well as empathy training for youths who bully their peers.
By testifying about his school experiences seven times before the Virginia state Legislature in recent years, Farbstein was a driving force in the passage of two new anti-bullying laws. One requires schools to notify parents about bullying incidents involving their child. The other requires that all Virginia K-12 public school students be taught empathy and emotional intelligence.
He has presented more than 200 speeches throughout North America, racked up more than 300,000 combined followers on social media and has written two books for children about self-love.
“I had life experience with self-love and how it was not something in my head. As a kid I had such a horrible image of myself,” he said. “But we can equip kids at a very young age with mantras like ‘I am enough,’ ‘I am worthy’ and ‘I’m worth loving.’ ”
Last fall, Farbstein moved to San Diego to live in his dream city and be closer to the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. Besides serving as a communications ambassador for Landing, a flexible apartment rental company, and enjoying frequent visits to Del Mar’s Dog Beach, Farbstein said he’s now exploring ways to amplify his message through new media, and he hopes to integrate himself more into San Diego’s activist, disability and LGBTQ communities.
Farbstein said he has found San Diegans so welcoming and friendly that he finally felt comfortable coming out as queer last September in an Instagram post on his 22nd birthday.
“I feel so confident about standing in my truth here, so I came out,” he said of the Insta-post. “I don’t think I could have gotten to that place as quickly if it weren’t for the people of San Diego. I feel so accepted here that I can be myself.”
Long road to happiness
Raised in Richmond, Va., Farbstein was born with the genetic disorder metatropic dysplasia, a form of dwarfism so rare that just 84 cases of his type have been recorded. The disorder causes bones to curl as they grow, which can be fatal in extreme cases. Farbstein’s case is more mild, but he still endured many bone and joint surgeries as a boy, as well as years of excruciating pain.
At age 8, when he missed much of third grade due to surgery on both legs, Farbstein said he started resenting how different he was from everyone else. And when he was 11, he came home from school one day and told his mother he no longer wanted to live.
“I felt my existence had no meaning due to its limitations. It was a cry for help. I went upstairs, grabbed a belt, put it around my neck and was 30 seconds away from dying, when my mother came and stopped me,” he said. “I got therapy and realized I had to reach the lowest point to gain the perspective that allowed me to know I could choose my own thoughts.”
But the worst was yet to come after he started his freshman year at a top-rated public high school in Richmond.
Because his disorder made it hard to walk long distances, Farbstein raised money to buy a miniature Segway mobility scooter to get to classes, which made him the butt of cruel jokes posted anonymously by fellow students on social media. In his first week of freshman year, someone tweeted a picture of Farbstein rolling down the school hallway with the words “First person to punt the midget off the Segway gets $5.”
Rather than fight back, Farbstein decided the best way to end the bullying was to share his story as a way of building empathy. Using the public speaking skills he’d honed in youth theater, the 15-year-old gave a 6-minute speech about his disability, his Segway and his life at a Tedx Talk event in Richmond in 2015. The speech went viral, racked up more than 85,000 views and generated an unexpected landslide of press attention.
But the presence of TV crews following Farbstein around campus and his frequent absences for paid speaking engagements made the bullies even more aggressive. People created fake social media profiles for Farbstein to post nasty comments in his name, and every other week he received an online death threat or encouragement to kill himself.
After switching to remote learning in his junior year, Farbstein began filling his spare time building his own brand and traveling for more speeches.
At 18, he self-published his first book on Amazon, “Ten Feet Tall: Step Into Your Truth and Change Your Freaking World,” which offers tools and tactics children can use to avoid being defined by their disability or anyone else. The book was so well received that a national book publisher signed Farbstein for a second book, “A Kid’s Book About Self-Love,” which came out last October.
Over the years, Farbstein said he’s received incredible feedback from young people who have been impacted by his speeches and books. One of Farbstein’s own high school bullies also reached out recently to apologize, saying he was being abused at home at the time and had no other outlet for his anger than to become a bully.
“People have come up after speeches and told me they were in such a dark place that I gave them hope,” Farbstein said. “There is no magic pill or potion to eliminate hate. But if we can equip young people with the knowledge of what it means to support someone else through what they’re going through, they will understand the power that empathy holds.”
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.