By Helen Redding, Freelance writer
Thursday 5 Sep 2019 8:00 am
I have a distinct memory at junior school of being four foot eight inches tall. I remember this because I was the only one whose head reached beyond the top of the height chart. It’s highly unlikely that this moment was significant for anyone but me – I certainly don’t remember a collective gasp of amazement from my classmates. Nonetheless, I was, without doubt, the tall girl, the unwanted focus of the ‘my, isn’t your daughter tall’ comment when we met people in the street. It’s not acceptable to comment to someone that they’re short or wide or large-nosed. But when you’re tall, you’re fair game. Friends, family and strangers are all very quick to apply the ‘tall’ label. Because being tall must be amazing. You can reach the top shelf in supermarkets! You must be great at basketball! You can see over crowds at events! Being head and shoulders above everyone else must make you literally feel that you are. Or does it?
Imagine you’re very shy. You’ve not been blessed with beauty, have probably eaten too many Penguin bars and not got enough exercise. You’re slightly pigeon-toed, wear NHS glasses and were once summoned to the school nurse’s office because your bum stuck out too much. Imagine all those things. Do you want to stand out from the crowd or do you want to shrink back into the shadows? That was me aged eight-ish. It is also me now, as at six foot I’m still tall. Funny how the insecurities of childhood linger way into adulthood, especially when your defining feature doesn’t – can’t – go away. If you don’t like the shape of your nose you can change it; you can’t stop being tall no matter how much you slouch. I still carry with me that label of being the freakishly tall girl who has to stand at the back in group photos; a disembodied head floating above the ‘normal’ people.
I’m the person in front of you in the cinema who slips down into their seat, paranoid your family will have to rejig itself so that your child doesn’t have to struggle to see the screen through the ‘tall lady’s head’. There is no doubt that being tall has benefits but is it the same for men versus women? For men, being tall is positive and is (wrongly in my opinion) associated with masculinity. It’s that association that proves particularly difficult for a tall woman. A man once said to me: ‘You’re a big girl, aren’t you?’. I felt exceedingly unfeminine, large, an oaf, like Shrek’s Princess Fiona might feel next to Elsa. (And try having short hair too – oh, the number of times in my life I’ve been mistaken for a man.) They weren’t commenting on my weight as having just survived anorexia I was waifish. (Writing this now has made me think whether my eating disorder was partly a desire to literally shrink away …) There’s something about tall women that some men find intimidating. Not all, perhaps just those with their own insecurities.
In social situations, this has at times left me feeling deeply unattractive. Couple this with shyness and awkwardness and you start to curl up like a hedgehog. No longer just ‘tall’, you’re now labelled as ‘unapproachable’, ‘rude’ or ‘stand-offish’. To be fair, being tall can be a great way to bond with other tall women. First question: ‘Where do you buy your trousers from?’ As a six-footer (with a 36-inch inside leg in my case), your choice of shopping outlets is limited if you want the hemline to reach anywhere near your feet. Perhaps the solidarity comes from meeting someone who sees beyond the label and knows how it feels to always stand out, no matter how much you don’t want to.
As I get older, I’m less bothered about being tall but the long-held perception of myself and how I think others see me lingers. It takes a lot of confidence, self-esteem and a dash of bloody-mindedness to rise above a label, no matter how self-imposed it is. I still wish I was a couple of inches shorter, but that doesn’t stop me instilling in my daughter a pride in her inherited height. When she’s older and asks to borrow a pair of my (flat) shoes, I’ll refuse and instead give her the money to buy some kickass heels that shout ‘I’M TALL AND I’M PROUD! WATCH ME STRIDE!’