BRADENTON — Emily Rowley slipped into the Mazda SUV, grabbed the seat belt with her left foot and buckled it across her lap. Her toes turned the ignition. Her right foot held the brake while her left pressed the gear selector.
She looked in the mirror and backed up from a gap outside her family’s home, steering with her toes on the steering wheel at 10 a.m. Driving through sunny suburban streets to a nearby Walmart, the 21-year-old slid her toes off the wheel to flash the turn signal.
“Someone asked me how I text while driving,” she later said, laughing. It’s one of the few things Rowley, who was born without arms, can’t do. “Which probably makes me a safer driver than most people.”
A guy in a pickup craned his head as Rowley drove by looking for a parking spot. She didn’t notice.
She came to shoot a video showing her shopping. Like her clips of opening a can of olives or applying false eyelashes, she would share them with her combined 140,000 followers on TikTok and Instagram. Unpaid for the time being, she hoped to make social media her career.
The occasional viral post with millions of views brought thousands of new followers, but most still lagged far behind. She had started posting every day. She had to keep building.
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She knows you wonder how she does things, that you’re too polite to watch her at the supermarket or ask her face to face.
She knows when a curious child announces, “The girl has no arms,” the parents are just trying to be respectful in dragging the child away, when she’d rather come over and say hello.
And she knows that when you give people the anonymity of the internet, their inhibitions go down, for better or for worse.
She first went viral for re-enacting the time a restaurant worker asked her to take her feet off the table while she was eating. The commenters seemed really curious about how she did other things, so she showed them.
On TikTok, she has assembled furniture, cooked scrambled eggs, and removed and replaced her nose ring. She left a swimming pool, ate with chopsticks and painted her nails. Her posts often end with an enthusiastic “thumbs up” with her big toe, Rowley’s cheering smile and sparkling blue eyes.
“With Emily,” her mother recently said, “it’s like the energy that would have gone to her arms has gone to her face” — an effect enhanced by her stylishly shaved head.
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Rowley keeps a notebook with page after page of neatly written ideas for future posts, which she jotted down with her dominant right foot. Half comes from followers.
Reactions to her posts have been mostly positive, but it’s still social media.
“People comment and say, ‘Oh, you make me uncomfortable,'” she said. “Well, what should I do?”
The perverts just block them. Others write to say that feet are gross or dirty.
“If they knew how germaphobic I am and how much I infect them with Germ-X. … I’m very high maintenance in that regard.
“And by the way, I don’t like other people’s feet. I won’t touch her,” she said, nodding to her mother. “I can hardly paint her nails.”
By far, Rowley’s most popular and controversial posts are videos of her driving. People say there’s no way it’s legal, or complain that it shouldn’t be. How dare she endanger her children like that, someone once asked. (Rowley has no children.) She responded with a post showing her driver’s license.
She’s dealt with similar frustrations as other YouTubers in the age of automated moderation. Her account was once banned for breaking “sexual content” rules in an instructional video that showed her getting dressed using hooks on her bedroom wall. That still annoys her. Your driving videos have been tagged with a dangerous activity warning. Another platform, she said, restricted its nail painting videos to users over the age of 18 because they felt it was mistaken for fetish content.
But for the most part, social media has allowed Rowley to be watched and satisfy people’s curiosity on her own terms.
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Nobody taught Rowley to use her feet. She just learned.
Born with microgastria, a disorder that has fewer than 60 documented cases, according to the National Institutes of Health, Rowley’s mother said some milestones came later, but her daughter did everything other children did just after her own Time schedule.
Neither Rowley nor her mother recall a single discussion of her lack of arms growing up.
“I never questioned it,” Rowley recalled in an interview. “I didn’t feel any different. In kindergarten, the other children paint and I paint too.”
“She never came home crying,” Patty Rowley said. “She never asked why. We didn’t operate with ‘Woe is me,’ and we didn’t project that onto her.”
She fell violently, wore a helmet, rode a scooter and swam on her back in the sea. She survived other medical problems, including annual surgeries for scoliosis from the ages of 6 to 15. Just before the family moved to Manatee County from Southern California this year — after Rowley’s father retired from the military — they achieved the goal of swimming 100 miles in four months at a pool at Camp Pendleton. She wants to be independent. Take business courses. Maybe open an Etsy shop for the custom shirts and crafts she makes. But the influencer thing, that’s the target that makes them shine.
However, one aspect she wants to reflect more on in these videos is the mistakes and struggles, like dropping a bowl of blueberries or getting your foot burned on the waffle maker. She posts more bloopers. To shave her head, she “borrowed a hand” from her father.
“I could work on that because we all need help sometimes,” she said. “It’s okay to ask for help, too.”
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In the cosmetics department at Walmart, Rowley slipped out of a white Croc to free her toes. She stood with crane-like balance on her right foot and reached up with her left to grab an eyeshadow palette. She dropped it into a reusable shopping bag, which she held with the single finger sticking out of her right bicep.
She added face masks, razors, some glittery iron-on transfers and a bag of goldfish. At the self-service checkout, she paid with a debit card she picked up on foot from a Florida Gators lanyard around her neck. Her mother recorded with a phone.
“That was great,” said an employee who oversaw the tills. Rowley hoped so. Her last 10 videos only averaged about 12,000 views apiece.
She went home to edit them and layered the searching instrumental theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. She posted it the next morning. By the time the numbers went up — it was a hit and drew more than 620,000 viewers — she was already back on her list, recording a new video and scraping off the next idea.