BRADENTON — Emily Rowley slipped into the Mazda SUV, gripped the seatbelt with her left foot and buckled it over her lap. Her toes twisted the ignition. Her right foot held the brake as her left worked the gear selector.
She checked her mirror and backed out from a space in front of her family’s apartment, steering with her toes on the wheel at 10 o’clock. Cruising sunny suburban streets toward a nearby Walmart, the 21-year-old slid her toes off the wheel to nudge the turn signal.
“Someone asked me how I text while driving,” she said later, chuckling. It’s one of the few things Rowley, who was born without arms, can’t do. “Which probably actually makes me a safer driver than most people.”
A guy in a pickup craned his head when Rowley drove by in search of a parking space. She didn’t notice.
She’d come to shoot a video showing how she shops. Like her clips on how she opens a can of olives, or applies false eyelashes, she would share it with her 140,000 combined followers on TikTok and Instagram. Unpaid for now, she hoped to turn social media into her career.
The occasional viral post with millions of views had brought thousands of new followers, but most still fell far short of that. She’d started posting every day. She needed to keep building.
She knows you’re wondering about how she does things, that you’re too polite to watch her in the supermarket or ask her face to face.
She knows when a curious kid announces, “That girl’s got no arms,” that the parent is only trying to be respectful when they tug the child away, even though she’d rather they came over and said hello.
And she knows that when you give people the anonymity of the internet, their inhibitions come down, for better or worse.
She first went viral for reenacting the time a restaurant employee asked her to take her feet off a table while she was eating. Commenters seemed genuinely curious how she did other stuff, so she showed them.
On TikTok, she has assembled furniture, cooked scrambled eggs and removed and replaced her nose ring. She has exited a swimming pool, eaten with chopsticks and painted her nails. Her posts often end with an enthusiastic “thumbs up” with her big toe, Rowley’s jubilant smile and blue eyes shining.
“With Emily,” her mother said recently, “it’s like whatever energy would have gone to her arms all went into 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, jotted down with her dominant right foot. Half have come from followers.
Mostly, the response to her posts is positive, but it’s still social media.
“People comment saying, ‘Oh you’re making me uncomfortable,’” she said. “Well, what would you like me to do?”
The perverts, she simply blocks. Others write in to say feet are gross or dirty.
“If they knew how, like, germaphobic I am and how much I’m Germ-X-ing them. … I’m very high maintenance in that aspect.
“And by the way, I don’t like other people’s feet. I won’t touch them,” she said, nodding toward her mom. “I can barely paint her nails.”
Rowley’s most popular and controversial posts, by far, are videos of her driving. People say there’s no way that’s legal, or complain that it shouldn’t be. How dare she endanger her children like that, someone once asked. (Rowley does not have kids.) She responded with a post showing off her driver’s license.
She has dealt with similar frustrations as other creators in the era of automated moderation. Her account was once suspended for breaking “sexual content” rules over an educational video showing how she gets dressed with the help of hooks on her bedroom wall. That still bugs her. Her driving videos have been tagged with a warning label for dangerous activity. Another platform, she said, restricted her nail-painting videos to users 18 and older, she thinks because they were mistaken for fetish content.
But for the most part, social media has allowed Rowley to be watched and to satisfy people’s curiosity on her own terms.
No one taught Rowley to use her feet. She simply learned.
Born with microgastria, a disorder that according to the National Institutes of Health has less than 60 documented cases, Rowley’s mother said some milestones came later, but her daughter did everything other kids did, only on her own schedule.
Neither Rowley or her mom remember a single discussion about her lack of arms when she was growing up.
“I never questioned it,” Rowley recalled in an interview. “I didn’t feel different. In kindergarten, the other kids are painting and I’m painting 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 on her.”
She took some rough falls, wore a helmet, rode a scooter and swam on her back in the ocean. She survived other medical issues, including annual surgeries for scoliosis from ages 6 to 15. Shortly before the family moved to Manatee County this year from southern California — after Rowley’s father retired from the military — she hit a goal of swimming 100 miles in four months in a pool at Camp Pendleton. She wants to be independent. Take business classes. Maybe open an Etsy store for the custom shirts and crafts she makes. But the influencer thing, that’s the goal that makes her light up.
An aspect she wants to reflect more in those videos, though, are the screw-ups and struggles, like dropping a bowl of blueberries or burning her foot on the waffle maker. She is posting more bloopers. To shave her head, she “borrowed a hand” from her dad.
“That’s something I think I could work on, because we all need help sometimes,” she said. “It’s OK to ask for help too.”
In the cosmetics aisle at Walmart, Rowley slipped off a white Croc to free her toes. She stood on her right foot with crane-like balance and reached up with her left to grab an eyeshadow palette. She dropped it into a reusable shopping bag she held with the single finger extending from her right bicep.
She added face masks, razors, some glittery iron-ons and a bag of Goldfish. At the self checkout, she paid with a debit card retrieved by foot from a Florida Gators lanyard around her neck. Her mom recorded with a phone.
“That was awesome,” said an employee monitoring the registers. Rowley hoped so. Her last 10 videos had averaged only around 12,000 views apiece.
She went home to edit, overlaying the questing instrumental theme from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The next morning, she posted it. As the numbers ticked up — it was a hit, drawing more than 620,000 viewers — she was already back at her list, recording a new video, scratching off the next idea.