The gender height binary is omnipresent in society whether we like it or not. Films, advertisements and the media continue to reinforce the stereotypical assumption that men are tall, taking on the somewhat misogynistic role of ‘protector’, whereas women are shorter and thus need to be protected.
Female empowerment or not, I have grown up being accustomed to these stereotypes. From a young age it became clear that the natural order of things was for women to look up to men. Dating is where these binaries most obviously come into play: ‘tall, dark and handsome’ and ‘small, cute and blond’? We all know the drill. The stock image heterosexual couple are pictured as the taller male, with a strong arm around his shorter companion, her head resting on his shoulder.
what is it like to live life against the conventional grain, as a taller woman or a shorter man?
Like most parts of our bodies, we’ve all most likely at one point or another wished we could change our height. Unlike simply buying hair straighteners or a gym membership though, height is a pretty tricky one to do anything about. With these unavoidable binaries in place therefore, what is it like to live life against the conventional grain, as a taller woman or a shorter man?
The internet is full of horror stories, clickbait headlines and personal accounts from both sides. People often send me the links to them; ‘taller women earn higher salaries’ followed the next day by ‘height linked to increased risk of cancer.’ The same goes for men. They suffer on the dating front, especially online; when a 5’4’’ blogger added five inches to his height on his OkCupid profile, his response rate jumped from 16 to 29 per cent. But, on the other hand, shorter men apparently make better boyfriends and husbands, with lower rates of divorce and a longer life expectancy to boot.
However much you buy into these benefits and disadvantages, there’s no doubt that attitudes towards appearance in relation to gender binaries are beginning to change. Conceit Wurst won Eurovision and androgynous models have never been more highly acclaimed. The more this happens, the further we move from a conventional understanding of the power dynamics behind gender, including expectations about height.
While attitudes towards beauty ideals may be slowly changing however, ultimately the fact is that height still matters. No matter what we might like to think, first impressions count, and height definitely accompanies that. To be at odds with the height stereotype for your gender however can have a significant fallout.
Most people are surprised when I say that I often forget that I’m tall. As a 6’3’’ 19 year old, I imagine they assume I’m constantly aware of my towering over female (and male) friends – but it’s the honest truth. I forget that other people can try on clothes in the 99.9% of shops that aren’t Long Tall Sally; I forget that I look, frankly, a little ridiculous standing next to my 5’1’’ housemate; I forget that not everyone has custom heightened kitchen worktops at home to accommodate a household of 6-footers.
But, just because I can go days without sparing a second thought for my height doesn’t mean I’m not often reminded.
Noticing the side-eyed second glances is just a part of daily life, as passer-bys try to ascertain whether my converse have hidden heels. I don’t particularly blame them for double-taking, but there are those who are less subtle. The whispered giggles of a couple standing next to me in line; the creepy guy who stood inches behind me sizing himself up to me on a train platform; the lady in Boots who bizarrely assumed said-5’1’’ housemate was my daughter; the grossly transphobic insults thrown out of car windows by people who assume that as I’m tall, I must have been born biologically male.
Noticing the side-eyed second glances is just a part of daily life
Being a tall woman in our society is by no means the worst lot you can have, and I’m well aware of that. With increasing pressure on girls to aspire for the Victoria Secret’s body and young girls looking up to 5’11’’ T-Swift and her incredible legs, combined with the (slowly) growing number of clothing outlets for taller women, some might say now is a better time than ever. But I would argue there’s a big difference between being ‘model tall’ i.e. 5’8’’-5’10’’ and tipping the six-foot mark. Coming from personal experience, reaching ‘unfeminine’ levels of height certainly comes with its own grievances.
I remember when I started secondary school we were assigned a Year 11 Buddy to befriend and look out for us. On meeting my ‘Buddy’ she looked somewhat crestfallen, and immediately turned to her friend and said, “I wish I’d gotten a cute one.” It was an offhand comment but it stuck with me, and I went through secondary school assuming that as I was far too tall to be ‘cute’, I was never going to be ‘pretty’ either, and by way of that ‘attractive’. At a size 14-16 I was too broad to pull the ‘model’ card either. Some shorter women I’m sure will bemoan being labelled ‘cutesy’, but for me the realisation that despite any amount of make-up or style choices I was never going to be able to be conventionally feminine, delicate or petite was a hard truth to swallow.
Aged 12, I was offered an alternative. My GP suggested starting on the pill in order to stunt my growth so I might avoid being ‘abnormally’ tall. At the time I panicked; fears of being dwarfed at family gatherings and being labelled the ‘chemically modified’ relative meant I turned it down. Now I’m grateful I did, and I’m sure my basketball team are too, but throughout adolescence I often returned to considering ‘what if’. If I’d taken the pill perhaps I wouldn’t have been catcalled before I hit puberty, perhaps people wouldn’t have stared at me in the street at a time when I was already acutely self-conscious, or maybe boys wouldn’t have refused to stand next to me when I wore heels.
In reality though, even with the possible impacts of the pill, it likely would have changed little. Growing up as an unusually tall girl however, also taught me life lessons as to how staggeringly rude people can be. I used to cringe when my Mum jumped on the defensive when people commented, trying to plead with her that they meant it as a compliment, or were just innocently curious – but as I’ve gotten older, the less forgiving I’ve become.
Complete strangers interrupting my conversations and asking for the facts and figures (or one time, mortifyingly, for a selfie) are the worst. You might be curious, might mean it to be flattering, but you would never ask the same of a shorter person, or ask someone their weight, and these conversations usually end being painfully awkward. No matter your reasoning or innocent intentions, people who abruptly approach me will always remind me of the creeps with a height fetish who ask how long my legs are (10/10 would not recommend as a chat up line).
people who abruptly approach me remind me of creeps with a height fetish
This being said, adapting to navigate these daily bizarre confrontations has been much easier than I imagine it is for some, as I haven’t done it alone. There was little hope for me to be ‘average’, with a 6’8’’ father and a 6’2’’ mother, and a little brother who is already destined to make our Dad look positively short. In our household, tall is the norm, and as much as it inconveniences us, and gets us stared at or whispered about, we’ve also learnt to embrace it- partly because there’s little else we can do.
So I’ve gotten used to embroiling my height as just another element of my self-deprecating sense of humour, and I’ve learnt the comebacks to the inane questions from strangers (my personal favourite being an overly cheery “well observed mate!” to the drunk dude who approached me in Freshers’). I store up stories about my height to entertain friends; that one time I was stuck next to a 6’10’’ rugby player in the extra leg-room seat of a long-haul flight, or the time my Mum sent me a link to a pair of silver size 10 heels from a transvestite clothing site called “Viva la Diva.”
At the end of the day, my height is certainly a big part of who I am, but it is ultimately just another aspect of my appearance. If you come up in the street to pass comment on how ‘on earth I cope with being so tall’ you might find out my shoe size, but you certainly won’t know my story.
Find out what is it’s like to live life on the shorter side of the height scale in part two of the Heightism series.