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Sunday, 7 June 2015 - 6:30am | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna | From the print edition

Roshni Nair, Averil Nunes, Rama Sreekant

Too short or too tall, they don't fit society's definition of 'normal' and often find themselves on the margins of mainstream life. But they have taken on the challenge imposed by their height to forge their own identities. Roshni Nair, Averil Nunes and Rama Sreekant get an insight into the the struggles of those who give us valuable life lessons in how to make the most of adversity

Gender games

"One of my clients, a schoolgirl, lost all self-confidence as she had a tough time due to her height," says Chhabria. "She'd slouch and shun socialising because she perennially feared she'd be made fun of. As it is, every girl is body-conscious at a point. When kids make fun of you at this juncture, it can scar."

Goregaon resident Vijaya Pawar has been witness to this. She stands 5'10" tall and is hardly what one would insensitively call a 'giant'. But she grew up at a time when the average Indian height was less than what it is today. "In my village, people would say things like 'Tu bahut jaldi budhdhi ho jayegi', or 'You're so big now, why aren't you married yet?' This was when I was still in school," she says, and admits the pressure to fit in led to the drooping of the shoulders and consequently, a slight but lifelong hunch.

"I've seen mothers of girls who are 5'9"-5'10" encouraging them to stoop because they 'won't get boys who'll marry them'," shares orthopaedist Dr Neeraj Bijlani. Public infrastructure is also not adjusted for tall Indians, leave alone 'abnormally tall' ones, he adds. So having to constantly bend or sit uncomfortably in seats that are ergonomic only for the majority can predispose one to joint problems.

Then there's Scheuermann's Disease, a classic example of a socio-cultural phenomenon leading to a medical issue. Bijlani explains: "This condition is caused due to constant slouching, which affects the growth of the vertebrae and creates a hunchback. In my practice, the male-female prevalence is 1:10."

There's more. "If those affected are still growing, belts, braces and posture correction can be undertaken. The condition can't be reversed for adults. Their only option is corrective surgery," he says.

Citing numerous studies, The Atlantic's Joe Pinsker said in a May 2015 article titled 'The Financial Perks of Being Tall', "...an extra inch is worth almost $800 a year in elevated earnings." Meaning the taller you are, the more you'll earn – if you're in a 'Western' country.

Former I Am She Miss Universe India runner-up Reha Sukheja is yet to have a level playing field, leave alone get a fatter paycheck than peers. At 6'1", this 24-year-old is often rejected at auditions for commercials due to her height. "People say, 'Sorry, you're too tall'. If I'm auditioning for 10 ads, I'll go beyond step one in maybe two-three. Mostly since those will be 'solo girl' ads with no men," she says.

When she was in school, her PT teacher pushed her into the basketball queue even though she wanted to play volleyball. And having to cock her ear to hear what people around are saying is routine. "It's awkward posing for pictures. And yes, people look me up and down – first to see my height, then at my feet to check if I'm wearing heels and then back up again for confirmation," she laughs. But all this, she adds, isn't a bugbear like
the professional constraints she faces.

In an atmosphere where significantly tall women condition themselves to bending, slouching and feeling overtly conscious of their heights, Sukheja is an exception. It helps that her father and mother – former model Renu Sukheja, herself 5'10" – never made her feel small about her height. Reha always maintained a straight posture, basically flipping the bird to all those who encourage 'lambus' to do otherwise or say things like tall girls don't 'need' to wear heels. She also has no qualms dating shorter men – her current boyfriend is a few inches shorter. "If both of us are okay with it, I don't see why anyone else should care," she underlines.

This is the attitude parents, teachers and guardians should foster in the considerably tall instead of alienating them further, says Anjali Chhabria. Society will keep projecting its anxieties on anyone with a different body. The antidote is to be accept and be comfortable in your own skin.

How long, then, before those like Sukheja – and others of varying body types – get to play in a level field? One can only hope it won't be a wait for eternity.

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