The power and politics of height

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.

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50 responses to “The power and politics of height

  1. Interesting post. As someone who is short (5’3″), I never realized that height would be the source of so much discomfort for a woman. Glad you’re embracing it now…upsetting the natural order of things is kind of fun.

    • Yeah, it was a lot easier to be comfortable with being tall once I got over the fact that I will never be petite or dainty or cute. I consider my height to be a very good thing but it took a lot of heartache and self-hate before I got there. (Seriously, I could have written an entire post just about the heaps of crap that I’ve gotten for being tall over the years.)

      Everyone’s got their challenges, I suppose. I’m just lucky that my “challenge” is actually a really good thing.

  2. I’m only 5’7″, but I’m wide-shouldered and have always had strong posture. I simply never get street harassed or catcalled. Well I remember once, when I was wearing a thrifted man’s jacket, that some guy made a gender-confused comment about me and my male friend who was long-haired. Once.

    I also don’t get hit on, or asked for my number in public places.

    After a while, I decided that, even given the disadvantages, it was good to weed out the kind of guys who look for a woman’s weakness as a way to approach her.

    • You should read this post that my friend Autumn wrote over at The Beheld: http://www.the-beheld.com/2011/09/open-letter-to-unhappy-swan-and-to-all.html She writes about how that highly-prized form of feminine beauty usually brings advantages (like lots of attention from specific kinds of guys and lots of phone numbers, etc.) that may not actually seem all that much like advantages when you look closer.

      The passes and phone-number requests from random strangers don’t come my way either, even though I know I’m an attractive woman. I can see how this would be sad for some women, but to me, that’s like self-esteem crack. You feel good for a little while, but too much of it can become problematic. Genuine compliments are always nice, of course, but getting hit on…I don’t know. It’s not that big of a deal to me.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post! I found you through Gala Darling’s link, and it’s great to read something from a fellow Tall Girl. Even though I was never really teased for being tall, it was a fact about my body that has been really hard to accept. I remember being shocked in middle school when I was with my friends at the mirror in the girl’s bathroom and realized I was THAT MUCH taller than all of my friends. I’m 25 and still sometimes learning to be comfortable with my height and focus on the positives that come with being tall – like you said, it’s a source of social power and generally seen as an advantage. Just wish that I was good at basketball! 🙂

    • Thanks! Yeah, it’s taken me a surprisingly long time to be okay with being tall, and it’s an ongoing process. I’m sure the fact that I was teased a bunch has made it more difficult than it needs to be. But I still have those moments where I see myself in photos or the mirror and I am like wtf! At least now it’s more out of amusement and less out of utter humiliation. 🙂

  4. I’m so short I’m always surprised women who are 5’3″ feel so-darn-short. (I’m 4’10” and 29 years old [in case there was a wonder].)

    Anyway, I love my height!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I always like to argue for petite girls to wear flats OR just whatever height shoes they TRULY like. Girls who are 5’3″ – and 5 inches taller than I am – say they HAVE to wear heels because of it.

    It’s like they’re telling me I have to as well and I have a real problem with it.

    It’s some given! Like, “oh well this is why I wear heels 16 x 7 x 365.”

    “Ohhhhh, yeah, of course, then.”

    I also see the problem of how these women don’t seem happy with themselves.

    That’s how I see it.

    Anyway…

    Now, am I a helpless child? No! I’ve always “fought back”. I’m tough.

    (Luckily, btw, I haven’t been harassed like you repeatedly mentioned.)

    Yet I also like feeling very feminine and knowing that my size is often curvier in an attractive way (even though I’m a bit too curvy in the “height plus pounds = I look a lot bigger than my dress size” way. Working on that – THAT is totally different). I think we’re super cute.

    One thing I MIGHT tweak: Put more height in my legs (although I would need to always wear petite tops if I reversed my parts; already my waist lies a little too high for some shirts). In skinny jeans, I wear a 26″ inseam (otherwise 28″ but I only wear skinny now). (About as short as they “go” – and rarely do they go.) I like the look of a longer leg, and I like how heels make my legs look, including thinner and curvier. Heels are just plain cute, and make some outfits work better, but I can’t actually stand being upright in them for long.

    Darn those cute, cute heels!

  5. “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. ”

    Absolutely. And what happens when a percentage of those Protectors turn out to be Predators, and you haven’t mentally or physically prepared yourself to protect yourself?

    “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.”

    Ha! Well said.

    I once had roommates who were sisters; one was about 5’10”, the other 4’10”. Same parents, same background, but they were probably treated completely differently by strangers and peers.

    Great post, I read about it through The Beheld.

    • Thanks! Yeah, that’s the other half of the whole Protector/Protected paradigm, which is that we are so much more likely to be hurt by people who are close to us. (This goes for men as well as women.) I understand the whole “fear of strangers” thing, because who wants to think that your boyfriend or your dude friend is going to try to hurt you? But statistically speaking…

    • my wife is 5’7 her sis is 4’11 and yep same Momma and Daddy! my wife typically wears heels where her sis doesn’t so there is almost always a foot difference between them! I say Viva la differance

  6. I’m 5″3 and about 95 pounds. I have a big personality, defined style of dress and am very opinionated, which sharply contrasts people’s expectations based on my height and appearance…. I’m very petite and have small features, and a small frame.

    I’ve had to make peace with being repeatedly called “so cute!”, even by people I hardly know, with people assuming I’m 5 years younger, or speaking condescendingly to me, or acting surprised when meeting me personally after only interacting through emails. It can be frustrating to have people constantly, drastically, blatantly underestimate me. I feel like I always need to be proving myself, proving that I’m just as capable as the next average-sized person.

    I do tend to attract my fair share of unwanted attention from older men, anywhere from 40-60. This always disgusts me and angers me, but it can be exhausting. I’ve had to learn to sense overbearing types or predatory personalities from a distance. In public, friends tell me I generally looked pissed off- that’s my default “train face” expression to ward away people, which is the complete opposite of what I’m like with my friends.

    I’m naturally quite assertive, self-assured and even extroverted at times, but constantly projecting a bigger, more intimidating presence can take its toll, and sometimes I just want to rest and be myself, which is probably why I spend so much time at home.

    Sometimes I wish I were taller and stronger and looked like a warrior walking down the street… it would make my life so much easier. But in retrospect, people have always tended to be kinder to me, and more likely to help me because of my appearance, or more likely to talk to me or open up. So I guess it’s a bit of a tradeoff, though I wouldn’t mind switching with you for a day, just to see what it’s like.

    • Yes, people can be very condescending to shorter women (and shorter people in general), I’ve noticed. It’s like you said, they think that because you have smaller stature, that automatically means you are less intelligent, less thoughtful, less serious, whatever.

      It’s funny that you mention projecting a bigger, more intimidating presence, because I often find myself, almost reflexively, adopting a friendlier, less intimidating presence in an attempt to balance things out a bit. I hadn’t really thought about the way I do that until I read your comment, but it’s true, I definitely do that.

      • “I often find myself, almost reflexively, adopting a friendlier, less intimidating presence in an attempt to balance things out a bit.”

        Wow, Caitlin this is eye-opening for me. Until I read your comment I never realized that I do that, too!

  7. I dearly hope this isn’t a creepy comment, but I would like to throw out there that I am super attracted to tall girls. Most times I see a girl over 5’10” or so, she just takes my breath away.

    So, from a tall-girl fangirl: you guys rock!

  8. It’s like I wrote this post! It’s especially serendipitous that I stumble upon your post because I decided to wear heels to work today. What does this mean? It means unwelcome comments from coworkers. Do my shorter female coworkers get these comments? Nope. When I wear heels it’s like a fucking anomaly. I also hear you on the not getting harassed in the street thing. Although I do get cat calls and snide remarks from gross dudes, physically, I’m probably pretty intimidating. And it makes me feel pretty safe. Thanks for writing this great post!

    • Haha, I get those too. Sometimes it’s “wow, you are really tall,” and other times it’s “why don’t you wear those more often?” Fortunately I work with good people who don’t make shitty comments, but still, it’s weird having my height be a topic of conversation.

    • I hear you Tatiana. I wore a pair of 3″ heels (I normally keep it below 2″) a few months ago and I was walking down the street with my husband. We walked past an outdoor cafe and I heard some girl say,”Holy shit, that is one tall fucking girl”. I had the urge to go back and hit her. Instead, when we got home I put those sandals in the closet and haven’t taken them out since 😦

  9. Wonderful. I’m a large woman (6’0″ and over 200) and my sister is a large woman (6’2″ and over 200) and we’ve always been tall (though not always as large)and we’ve always been athletic and we’ve always been intimidating. But, I didn’t struggle with it as much as some because tall as I was, I had my beautiful, taller older sister to look up to. So, yeah, we were intimidating and mostly dateless through high school, but we were intimidating and dateless together.

    • Okay, so I love your blog! I don’t care what people say about fashion designing for tall women – THEY DON’T. Especially if those tall women have substantial bodies. Definitely bookmarking your site.

      I’m glad you had your older sister! My younger sister is as tall as I am but we didn’t go through adolescence in the same house, so I was kind of on my own. My stepmom tried her best to encourage me to take pride in my height, but it was pretty much her against the rest of the world. The only thing that helped much was finding team sports, where my height was an asset and not a drawback, which is probably a big part of why I threw myself into being a jock as much as I did.

  10. The funny thing to me, about the Tall Lady Scan, other than the fact that I thought only I did that, is how I’m always slightly jealous on the rare occasions the fellow Tall Lady is actually taller than me! It took me a long time, but I love being six feet tall so much. Clothes and shoes being difficult to find, sometimes, is really all I dislike about it anymore.

    Wonderful post!

    • You do it, too? I wondered if I was the only one. And I am pretty sure I understand the slight twinge of jealousy when I see a taller woman, although I’m not really sure why, especially considering how much I used to dislike being tall. I mentioned that to my husband and he was like, “you guys are f-ed up.” Ha.

    • I feel the same way when I do the scan. Not that I neccesarily love being tall but if I’m going to be the token tall girl then I may as well fully embrace the role…and as a result I feel, gosh what’s the right word? threatened? when another girl is taller than me.

      In any case – absolutely adored this post!

  11. This is inspiring. I am a 6’0 woman and I often dwell on the idea of femininity. I also have small breasts and broad shoulders, both of which are not ‘ideal’ female characteristics. Why should I feel less womanly because my curves are a different size and shape? I enjoy confronting these socially contstructed ideas because at the end of the day, none of us are more or less womanly than each other.

    • This is so true. I have to say, I consider words like “feminine” and “masculine” and “womanly” and “manly” to be pretty much worthless as language. Like, whenever I try to define these words I find myself falling back on gender stereotypes that pretty much fall apart when I look at them critically for two seconds.

  12. My first boyfriend visibly relaxed when he looked up into my eyes and asked how tall I was, and I responded “Five-ten” (after carefully gauging his height as five-ten; I’m really five-ten and 3/4″). We were both barefoot, and I realized that pretty as he was, he was dumb. In more ways than one. Nevertheless, I was devasted when he dumped me.

    The man I lived with for 24 years (until he died), height five-seven, also asked me a question on the day we met: “Do you mind going out with a shorter guy?” and when I said, “No,” he said, “Good. I’m glad.”

    So the “tall question” has been a boon to me, in terms of separating sheep from goats. Today, I’m not sure exactly how tall my husband is – he is taller than I am, and our strides match, and the latter is all I care about because it makes it handy for walking.

    My daughter is taller than I am, and she tells me that a guy once told her that, of course, she would be sensitive about her height, and she corrected him to say that no, he would be sensitive about her height, and that was sad.

  13. I’m petite, so I don’t have quite the same problem. But I promise you, short people are also commented on. I think people expect us to wear heels all the time to make up for it, but I’m not going to do that.

    Also, I’ve read “Gift of Fear.” Great book! I think it’s true that would be attackers look for that vulnerability we all feel.

  14. It’s fascinating how people with similarities can have different experiences. I’m 6’1″ and I’ve always loved being tall. You’re absolutely right about the frustrations in clothing not being made for our height, but I always took great pride and enjoyment out of my super long legs and elevated vantage point. However, I know a big part of that was due to coming from a tall family where height was celebrated. I didn’t hunch, but I was encouraged from a young age to stand straight and (very) tall.

    However, I do agree with your observations on strangers (and potential predators) behavior towards tall(er) women. Compared to many of my friends and colleagues I’ve had startlingly few unpleasant or unsafe encounters, and I do believe that is due in part to my appearance. I look like I could kick your ass. I also always got much less unwanted attention in clubs and bars, and at times that like I’m thankful for my assumed intimidation.

  15. Oh, tall ladies, my people. Love hearing from you, and sharing our common experiences; I think because there are always amazons stalking the runways, everyone assumes that tall girls don’t get shit (it’s really the only word for it). But the truth is, our height makes us so OBVIOUSLY different that we actually take a lot of it – and sad to say, the most cruel/vicious attacks in my life have come from petite women. It took me a long time to figure that one out.

    But there are glorious days on the other side of self-acceptance, aren’t there? Because there’s a whole lot of power in donning those heels if and when you want to (there are no rules on who wears heels, world. get the memo already!) and owning a room. I still look back on my teenage self and take serious pride in the day that meek little sophomore me threw a short (5’6″) senior into a wall when he slapped her ass with a towel, or later, when she totally put that lame ex-boyfriend in his place when he was STILL trying to tell her she couldn’t wear heels. I don’t know where those brief flashes of self-respect came from, but I can’t help but think “go, girl.” Good job.

  16. It’s like you read my mind. I do the ‘tall lady scan’ thing and photos of me standing next to a ‘normal’ person are always an unpleasant surprise. When I saw a picture of myself with two colleagues who are both six foot six, making my five ten seem rather petite, I almost didn’t recognise myself.

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  18. I have such an illogical view of my own height. I’m 5’8″, which is somewhat taller than average US height for women but somewhat shorter than average US height for men. (Going by this.) Additionally, my mom (who is basically my same height) and I are the shortest people in our family. My aunt and grandmother are 5’10”, my sister tops 6 feet, and the men in the family range from 6’3″ to 6’6″.

    A lot of people — perhaps especially women — react to me as though I’m tall. And according to their frame of reference, I probably am. But according to my frame of reference, I’ve always perceived myself as — at most — average height and maybe even a little short.

  19. All through school I was always the youngest and the tallest. When I was 12 and couldn’t wear normal girls clothes any longer, I learned to sew, that took care of that problem. Now I’m shorter than y’all, but I’m still the average height for a French guy, even factoring in the taller younger generations. And yeah, I’ve always enjoyed being tall, and known that I got less shit from men because I looked like I could kick their ass (and did when it came to that).
    I was struck by the beginning of Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? when she explains that when you’re 6′ there’s just no way you could ever pass for a dainty little thing, it’s not possible. I think she’s right, and it does mean you have to learn to relate to people differently. In a good difference imho :-).

  20. I’m very short myself (5’2″) and my younger sister is extremely tall (6 feet). I’ve always been aware that she hates her tallness almost as much as I hate my shortness. Physically I’m a tank of a lady and she’s a waif. To me she’s always been the “ideal” shape, thin and impossibly tall, but it’s a reality check for me when she talks about how it makes her as insecure as my body makes me. It’s sad that we all walk around wishing we were anything other than what we are, but knowing that everyone else feels that way all the time is a step toward stopping all the madness and self hatred.

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  22. Thank you! Like so many ladies have said, I could have written this. You did it better, though! 😉

    It took me years to own my own power (still a work in progress), and my height. Two people who have helped me huge amounts with this are my long-time guy (he’s 6′ 5″) & my best friend (5′ 2″).

    My guy LOVES my height, and has really helped me to see it as an asset. (“It’s not your fault the clothes don’t fit! They just don’t know how to make clothes for goddesses!”) He owns his height, & is graceful & careful not to dominate others with it. Unless they need it. (e.g. Street harrassers.) Plus, I get to hang with his dad, who’s 6′ 8″. I have experienced Dainty!

    Then there is my best friend, who’s 5′ 2″, and an irresistable force of nature in a maxi-dress & wiglet. Yeah, people hoot & talk down to her more than to me. Once. Before she flattens them with logic, intelligence, charm, & sheer force of personality.

    When I’m alone, I’m treated as intimidating.

    When I’m with my guy, I’m treated like a delicate follower of his. I haven’t changed, but people direct all of their attention to him. He’s Bigger. One of us usually straightens them out, but it’s funny.

    And when I’m with my friend, they don’t know where to look. The taller, mellower one? Or the joyful, brightly coloured little one? They usually wind up dealing with her; she’s confident, speaks her mind & demands her full measure of respect. At the same time, she makes a huge effort not to “hog the spotlight”, since she knows her big personality draws a lot of the attention. I’m taking notes!

    So power isn’t in height, per se. I think Perception is a lot more powerful.

    • Wow, if I didn’t know better I would think I wrote that 🙂 My husband is 6’5″ and loves my height. My best friend (since we were 2 years old) is 5’2″ and adorable and intelligent and doesn’t take crap from anyone. Without ever complaining about being short she has always told me how beautifully tall I am. People tend to deal with her “the joyful, brightly coloured little one” and then probably later wish they had dealt with me “the taller, mellower one”…hahaha 🙂

  23. Be tall and be proud! I am only 5’8″ but both my girls are going to be taller than me (their dad is 6’4″)

    I keep asking tall girls/women what size shoes they wear just so I know what I am in for in the future!

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    • In the print magazine? Or on the blog? My subscription lapsed, and I re-upped as a supporter but haven’t gotten my first issue yet.

      I know you mean this as a sarcastic response but I’m legitimately interested to see what the writer in Bitch has to say.

    • Ah, you mean this one?

      “On Stereotypes—Why tall is a feminist issue, too” from the Reverb issue.

      Yeah, your statement would be totally valid…if I’d actually read it. But thanks anyway.

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  26. Great post Caitlyn! I’m 5’11” and have had a love/hate relationship with my height for years. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because I have a 5 year old daughter who will probably end up taller than I am (her father is 6’5″). I am going to keep your post so that when she gets older and says,”I hate being tall” I can tell her about the advantages that you talk about. I really have always just taken those things for granted. When I read the bit about the “Tall Lady Scan” I had to laugh because I always do that :)))

  27. That article speaks so loudly to my experience. I reached my full height of 6′ 2″ at 13. I’m very comfortable with who I am now but it took a long time. I have a 10 yr old little girl and she’s already one of the tallest in her class. I sometimes find myself wishing that she’s no taller than 5’10” so that she doesn’t go through the same things that I did. As I think about it she won’t because she has me.

  28. The weirdest part in my life experience was that early puberty meant I’ve been 5’5″ since I was 12. In middle school I was head and shoulders taller than everyone else, but now at 21 I’m quite average, sometimes I even feel short because I have more male friends than female!

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