Story by Ruthe Stein Photography by Russell Yip | November 10, 2016
Jessie Shepherd’s pride in her figure — all 6-feet-4 of it — is reflected in her decision to take up burlesque in her late 20s. She performs at the Elbo Room in the Mission as Lilith De Fee.
Half her stage name derives from the mythical archetype of female independence, and the other half pays homage to a burlesque dancer from the 1940s, who was the same height as Shepherd.
“Her name was Lois De Fee, but they called her Superwoman. She was awesome,” Shepherd said. Strolling through downtown San Francisco in 3-inch heels, she might be described the same way.
Shepherd is part of a generation of women in their 20s and 30s who grew to heights taller than Mom and sometimes even Dad. The Internet has become a conduit for them to bond through blogs like Tall Swag and Height Goddess. Over the past five years or so, online shopping has made it increasingly possible for tall women to find fashionable clothes designed for their particular frames.
Tall Bay Area women, emboldened by their numbers and stylish attire, say they’ve forsaken slouching and revel in soaring over everyone, including boyfriends. When George Clooney dated the 6-foot-plus wrestler Stacy Keibler, he marveled at her confidence. “But then what would she be afraid of? Low-flying planes?” he mused.
Earlier this year, Mattel toy company introduced Tall Barbie, an elongated version of the original. For a living, breathing role model, the women interviewed cited Michelle Obama. At just under 6 feet tall, she doesn’t hesitate to wear high heels, resulting in her appearing taller than the president.
“I used to be really quiet and self-conscious as a high schooler,” Shepherd recalled. “But when I went to college I just stopped giving a s—. It was like, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m tall. If you have a problem with that, whatever.”’ Shepherd has been a makeup artist and now works at a Berkeley bookstore, where she discovered Lois De Fee.
Feeling positive about her height led Shepherd to be comfortable with her physique, which led to her titillating hobby. “I have always been into theatrics. I guess I have a little exhibitionism in me but I didn’t realize it until I tried burlesque,” she said.
Tall women are accustomed to stares and questions about their height. Most common is whether they play basketball. They’re also asked if they model. (The opportunity comes up infrequently because women’s clothes are designed for 5-foot-7 bodies.)
Tourists, especially from countries where the population is generally shorter, often want to take a selfie with Shepherd. “I have what I call ‘tall days,’ when for no reason I can figure out I might get approached 10 times about my height,” she said.
The 6-foot-3 author Arianne Cohen said she wrote “The Tall Book” in 2009 because “there are books about every bodily form you can imagine, but there were no books about height, and it has been such a major part of my life for as long as I can remember.” In it she quotes studies showing tall people do better in the workplace. “It’s because shorter people perceive them as more competent,” Cohen said.
An optimal size for a mate is one of the biggest issues faced by women of a certain height. Cohen used to turn down dates who weren’t at least eye to eye with her while standing. Spotting a very tall man out with a short woman would infuriate her; she believed she would be a better fit.
“I got over it and it has helped my life immensely,” she said. “When you become a little more mature and start dating for the right reasons, you aren’t quite as intensely focused on the packages that people’s bodies come in.”
Alicia Jay, 35, senior manager of Game Experience for the Golden State Warriors who has her own personal style blog (http://www.tallswag.com/) and is the model in the images accompanying this article, recalls traumatic teen years when she was never asked out. “To this day men are still intimidated by my height, but now I know that my height is a very beautiful thing; it doesn’t bother me,” said Jay, who stands 6-foot-6. “I look at it as another way to weed out the men that aren’t the one. If you can’t handle my height, why would I want you anyway? Love me in my entirety or vacate the premises.”
The upside of being tall has revealed itself with passing years: “People are incredibly intrigued, which gives us an advantage in every situation. We are conversation starters,” Jay said. “Who else holds the presence of a room just by walking into it?”
Lynn Janicki and her identical twin sister, Kate Johnson, have been turning heads for most of their 32 years. Janicki, a 6-foot-2 marketing director in San Francisco, recalls growing up in tandem with her sister. During their early teens, they would be asked out by 17- and 18-year-olds fooled by their height into thinking the twins were older.
Janicki’s height is what attracted her husband, who stopped her on the street to ask where she was heading. They’re the same height, and Janicki wears heels no higher than 3 inches in deference to him.
By contrast, Rajahnique Jones, a 34-year-old court reporter from Antioch, goes for 4-inch heels to elevate her to 6-foot-4. She won’t date anyone shorter. “I always want to feel protected like I did walking with my dad,” she said.
While blogging at tallnnatural.com, Jones realized that many tall women still don’t feel comfortable or are hesitant to wear heels. She started posting photos of herself exquisitely put together. “A lot of people send me messages saying I inspire them.”
Jones’ main goal is to impress her 14-year-old daughter, who is already 5-foot-9. “I am just trying to be a good example to her. I want to let her know that tall is beautiful.”
CREDITS: Photography: Russell Yip Styling: Mary Gonsalves Kinney Hair & Makeup:Nicole Notarte Model: Alicia Jay Styling assistant: Elise Filter Von Arx