I have had a short email conversation with a writer, Arianne Cohen, who is writing a book on being a tall woman. I have been meaning to write about this myself, so I’m posting most of my responses here, in lieu of a more thoughtful blog entry.
I’d written her to say that I would be happy to contribute to her research and that I’d say that, except when I try to buy clothes, height is much less a factor in my life now than it was when I was younger.
Arianne: Why do you say that height is less of a defining force now?
I would say I’m more comfortable with myself now that I’m in my mid-thirties. I am less interested in how others view me, and more happy with who I am.
Arianne: When was it a defining force? And how?
I’d say in my gawky adolescence. I was so tall and so shy that I really resented standing out in any way. Complete strangers would start conversations with me asking if I played basketball. (I didn’t, wasn’t really into sports until college).
I spent a long time wishing I was something different–less noticeable. To be honest, I suspect that I spent a while blaming my discomfort with myself by projecting disapproval of my difference on others. If I weren’t tall, I probably would have found something else to blame (my intelligence–I felt awkward about being one of the smart kids, too).
Arianne: How has height effected your life positively?
- I get noticed. People remember me.
- I think I have more authority than I would if I were smaller and had a higher voice.
- I don’t get claustrophobic in crowds.
- I can reach things. I am physically strong. I don’t fear walking alone at night.
- My height got me picked to be on sports teams in college (crew, rugby)
Arianne: How has height effected your life negatively?
I can’t shop like more average-sized women. I can’t go into a store in the mall and find shoes or clothes that fit. I have to go to a “special” store never conveniently located, often with a disproportionate amount of ugly and synthetic fabrics and styles. I do a lot of online shopping.
I read in a book (The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls) that girls’ body images really changed when clothing became mass-produced. Previously, clothes were custom made, so the different body shapes and sizes didn’t matter so much. But, when mass-production came about, it became necessary to standardize on the more common sizes. That book suggests that the pressure on girls to be all the same size was at least strengthened by that production trend.
I felt that pressure and for a long time was very aware that I didn’t meet societal norms for attractive. Everyone counters this argument by saying that supermodels are all tall. That’s true, but supermodels don’t exist in our everyday lives. They set the standard for beauty because they photograph well, not because of their height per se.
Arianne: Do you find that your friends and romantic interests tend to be tall, or no?
My parents were divorced. I lived in a house of all women (mom, sister, female cats) and I was very shy and awkward around guys. I thought that only a small proportion of the pool of guys was actually available to me, and I formed major crushes on a few of the tall guys in my high school classes, in my acquaintance. Invariably, these tall guys went out with tiny girls, or else girls who were more popular socially…For a while I really resented this trend, where the tall guys were the most in demand and there was seemingly no demand for me.
Later on, I heard from a few friends that I’d been the object of a crush of theirs. I was oblivious to them, not sure if it had anything to do with these friends being shorter than me, or just me being clueless. Recently my husband mentioned that a former neighbor had said to him. “Your wife, she is so beautiful, so tall…” in a way that weirded him out. I don’t expect that sort of admiration, especially for being tall. It doesn’t compute.
I will say that my mom is very glamorous. She is beautiful, she modeled before she had kids, and has always dressed very dramatically. She dyes her hair a deep rust color, and wears high heels and huge hats. She makes a statement. When she was young and living in rural Ohio, she didn’t have access to the grim tall-girl shoe stores I had, so she wore men’s shoes. She’s never recovered from the indignity of that and has a closet full of extravagantly beautiful high-heeled shoes and designer clothes. Both of her husbands were taller and bigger than she is. Both had/have the domineering personality that is associated with big men.
I’ve done the opposite. In my two serious relationships, the guy was near my height but not as tall as me. I’ve never been with anyone taller than me, though I really longed for that for a long time. I feel sad when I think of that now. I really wanted something external to make me feel more normal. I wanted to feel small. What a waste of time!
My husband is several inches shorter than me. When I wear my Danskos, which I resisted for a long time because they made me even taller, I have maybe 6 inches on him.
He and I became friends 13 years ago, and I noticed an attraction, but thought he was too short for me. It took us several months to start to date, and even then we agreed that it wasn’t a long term thing. He was going to graduate and move to another city (maybe St. Louis, maybe the west coast) for a job. He didn’t want to be tied down. I was just coming off of the breakup of my serious college relationship and I wasn’t looking for anything serious either. If I had been looking for “something serious”, I would not have dated someone shorter than me who smoked. But, perhaps because we didn’t have the pressures of any grand expectations from “something serious”, our relationship got deeper. He turned down that job in St. Louis. Instead, we moved in together, I followed him when he was transferred to England, and eventually we married.
I also credit him with a lot of self confidence. He simply didn’t care about being shorter than me, about looking small next to me. It didn’t affect his self-image one whit. And, that quiet self confidence of his is one of the qualities I most admire in him, the one I am hoping will rub off on me if I stick around long enough.
I have a huge affection for other tall women. I admire them from afar and feel a connection with them before we become friends. Some of my best women friends are also tall, but it isn’t an exclusive or intentional thing.
I feel a similar, special affection for couples, like me and my husband, where the woman is taller than the man. I find myself thinking “wow, they must really like each other.” I realize this is deeply silly, because “really liking each other” begins most romances.
Arianne: Do you have any funny height-related anecdotes? (Anything. Being recognized, dating, knocking things over, etc.)
In adolescence, I was constantly walking into things. So much so that my mom enrolled me into dance class just so I could learn how to hold and move my limbs.
I’ll share a quote that I liked so well I put it up on my wall years ago and haven’t taken it down. It’s from a short story called “Costume Drama” by an author named Helen Simpson that I read years ago in the New Yorker.
Hard to imagine how a very tall, strong woman comports herself here. Shrinking and passivity would look ridiculous, like a mountain trying to be a mouse. You’d have to live up to your stature, be splendid, remote, brave, ungirlish. To be big and tall and spritless would be worse than being little and short and spiritless; somehow more of a waste, like an uninhabited tenement building. I reflected on the spite tall women endure, as though they were not entitled to that extra length of bone, as though there were something risible about it, and frequently, their woundedness in the face of this–the huddled quality that makes them the diametrical opposite of so many short men who go round causing trouble, demanding more space and attention than they were born with. Than their mothers could give them.