I’m tall. There is no way around it. I’m really tall. I’m so tall that my height is often one of the first things people comment on when they see me. When people describe me to others, they say, “She’s the really tall girl.” Always have. Probably always will.
I’m mostly okay with this now, but this wasn’t always the case. I mean, I reached my full height when I was fourteen years old. That’s a hard age for everyone, but when you are a girl and you are as tall as an NBA point guard? My entire life was like one long exercise in body-related mortification.
I only finally became comfortable with myself as a Tall Woman when I was well into my twenties. That’s a long time to feel ill at ease over one’s most prominent feature. And sometimes it still catches me off guard, like when I see a photo of myself standing in a group and I am the tallest woman – and often the tallest person, period – by at least a full head. And then I find myself thinking, holy fuck, you are so fucking tall.
I even do the Tall Lady Scan a lot. Fellow tall ladies, you know what I’m talking about. You know, you walk into a room and you look around to see if there are other tall women, and if there are, you see whether she’s wearing heels or not, and if she’s taller than you. If you see another tall woman, it’s kind of a relief, like, “Phew, I’m not the only one!”
That’s a lot of thought to give one’s height, I know, but then, it’s hard not to be a tiny bit neurotic about your height when you are a tall woman. It’s hard not to be a tiny bit neurotic about anything you’ve been teased about for most of your life.
Right away I hated being tall. I hated that most clothing manufacturers did not make girls clothes in my size so I was always wearing floods. I hated that long skirts were too short on me and that short skirts were obscene. I hated that all of the other boys in junior high were several inches shorter than me. I hated that I once came back from riding a banana boat at a church group, only to be asked if my feet dragged on the bottom of the lake. I hated that some of them called me Sasquatch.
I tried that time-tested (and time-failed) method of dealing with my height – slouching. As if by hunching over I could make myself look shorter instead of just making myself look sad. I never really knew what to do with my body, which was this mess of unwieldy limbs that just kind of flailed about. I knew that models were tall and people thought they were beautiful, but I also knew I had about as much to do with models as a fisherman’s hovel has to do with Trump Towers.
The worst part about it was that I felt so damn unfeminine. I felt scary and huge and intimidating, and if boys liked that, they were really good at hiding it. I’ve heard it doesn’t get much better when you are adult, and that really the only difference is that the grown-ups usually have the decency to wait until you are gone to call you Sasquatch.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I realized I had been made to feel ashamed of something that was actually a source of power. I think it happened during a conversation about street harassment. I had my stories, because what woman doesn’t? But I realized that almost all of them involved guys in groups or guys in cars. I didn’t have stories about single guys who followed me down the street or solitary men hassling me on public transit, even though a lot of other women and girls did.
And it occurred to me that the reason this probably doesn’t happen is because I look like I could probably kick someone’s ass. Whether or not I actually can is debatable. What matters is that I look like I can.
All of the pieces started sliding into place. I realized that there is nothing inherently wrong with being physically intimidating, and that the only reason I was ever made to feel that it was wrong is because I am a woman.
Women aren’t supposed to be intimidating. We are supposed to be welcoming and friendly and open, warm and nurturing, mamas and lovers to everyone who wants it from us. We are supposed to be vulnerable and in need of protection. But it’s kind of hard to be perceived as vulnerable and in need of protection when you are bigger than the majority of people you meet.
The ironic (and scary) thing about this is that this vulnerability and this socialization to be friendly and open to everyone is exactly what is often used against us as women. If you have ever read “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker – and if I had my way, every girl would be given a copy along with her first box of pads in her sixth-grade maturation class – you know that this is exactly what would-be assaulters and abusers search for in potential victims. It’s been my experience that guys who harass and assault women are cowards at heart; they don’t want a woman who looks like she’ll fight back.
It’s funny – height, like physical strength, is one of those things we don’t really care much for in women because we say it upsets the “natural order of things,” which is that men are the Protectors and women the Protected. It’s all well and good to be the Protected, as long as you don’t consider the fact that the only way to perform your role well is to be physically vulnerable. After all, if you are not vulnerable, what’s the point of having a Protector?
I am not trying to make the argument that my height has somehow made me impervious to harm. On the contrary, my height did nothing to protect me when I was involved in an abusive relationship.
Yet it’s difficult not to notice that my height has given me very real advantages, and I don’t mean advantages like “success in the business world” or whatever the social scientists say. I’m talking about advantages like not having to deal with cowardly men harassing me as I walk down the street, or being able to push my way past predatory fraternity boys who tried to corner me in college, or standing my ground in large crowds, or taking up space in public, or a whole mess of other things that I take for granted that other women don’t get to experience.
This is why I will always encourage women to develop their physical and mental strength. There is no reason why physical power should be meted out simply by luck of birth. A woman who is 5’2″ has just as much right to be here in this world as I do. She has as much right to take up space and to walk down streets as I do. It’s a damn shame that we live in a world that demands we fight for such basic human experiences, and I hope that someday in the future it’s no longer necessary, but until then, let’s not make it easy for those who want to take these rights away from us.