By Josh Saunders
A scoliosis teen who was bullied and excluded because of her twisted spine has become a beauty queen to raise awareness of her condition.
Dakota, 14, from Bridgeport in West Virginia, USA, was born with the condition that caused her spine to curve at a 66-degree angle.
Due to the severity of her scoliosis, growing rods were inserted into her spine at the age of four and extended every six months to help straighten her back.
At school, she was left out of activities and bullied by classmates who didn’t understand the seriousness of her condition.
Since entering beauty pageants four years ago, she’s used her platform to talk about the effects of bullying and her condition.
Three months ago, she was announced as Miss Virginia and is now hoping to scoop another sash at the national competitions in June.
Dakota, an aspiring journalist, said: “I remember watching pageants on TV and wanting to do it, I kept competing and now am at the national level.
“I like using pageants as a way of getting my story out there, I like being onstage and knowing that what I’ve done can impact and change people’s lives.
“Most my bullying occurred because I have scoliosis so now I’m using my platform to promote how harmful it can be.
“The main thing I’m trying to highlight is that scoliosis affects one in 40 people, yet is relatively unknown, when I talk to my friends about it half of them don’t know what the condition is.
“Due to my scoliosis, I couldn’t participate in gym class and had to sit out, which was hard for me and led to bullying.
“Because people can’t see my scars as they are beneath my clothes, when I say I can’t do things some people have insulted me or made me feel singled out.
“Whenever I took off time from school for surgeries people didn’t understand and thought it was just an excuse.
“When I get onto the runway and model, I don’t think about who I am, I just go up there and do my stuff.”
Dakota was diagnosed with scoliosis at birth after doctors expressed concern at the curvature of her spine.
At four-months-old, doctors removed one of her ribs and fused the side of her spine to help to straighten it.
Mum Heather, 44, said: “When Dakota was born, she came out very twisted and at first doctors thought he had broken a rib.
“She was leaning to one side as a baby because her spine was at a 66degree curve. Later x-rays revealed she had a curved spine from scoliosis.”
Despite suffering with mobility issues from her scoliosis, parents Heather and David encouraged their daughter to not be held back by her condition.
Heather, who works in adoption, said: “We weren’t the type of parents to shelter her.
“We knew she could get hurt taking part in activities but we tried to encourage her to do as much as she could.
“Since the surgeries, she started running for her school’s cross-country, track and field teams, which made us really proud.”
Dakota was nine-years-old when she entered her first pageant and now uses the stage as a platform to promote her antibullying message.
Heather added: “She talks a lot about her scoliosis to encourage teens not to be afraid to bear their scars and the bullying she faced because of her condition.
“She was picked on for not being able to run as fast as others and was left out events like parties, because people didn’t think she’d be able to skate.
“For me, I’m very proud of her, everything that she’s been through has made her a more determined and passionate girl.”
Since placing in a competition three months ago, she’s qualified for national competition, in June, where she’ll parade in an evening gown and answer questions from a panel of judges.
Dakota has also signed with Models of Diversity (MOD) an organisation who aim to promote models not typically shown in the media.
Mum Heather says that she’s amazed by her daughter’s transformation from reserved teen to empowered model when she hits the runway.
Heather said: “In real life, she can be quite shy but when she’s on the stage she’s a totally different person and becomes a very confident, young lady.
“When the judges ask her questions she never hesitates and it always amazes me to watch Dakota when she hits the stage.
“We’re all so excited for her, she’s working on a national platform and is raising awareness of bullying.
“Naturally Dakota would love to win but she’s happy to be able to promote the platform all over the state is reward enough.”