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“In the time I most wanted to hide, I felt most exposed”: the social pitfalls of being a tall woman

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In Western society, we are hyper-aware of the impossible beauty standards certain industries place upon the female body: be thin but not too thin, be curvy but don’t be fat. But there’s another unspoken preference for women that is discussed far less: the ideal height – that women be not too small, not too tall, but just right. Here, writer Paulette Perhach, 33 and 5'10'', opens up about the social pitfalls of being big. 

Paulette Perhach

My friend is trying to be nice, so he says, “But, you’re not that big.”

I’m simultaneously glad he’s saying this, glad he doesn’t see the giant I see, and annoyed that he’s denying me the story I don’t feel like I’m making up: that there’s this entire wing of womanhood closed off to me, just beyond this doorway I can’t fit through, like Alice in Wonderland, only Wonderland is my whole life - as a 5'10'' woman.

My dad was 6’6”, the only man, my mom said, who had even bigger knees than hers. I am their tall and freakishly huge-kneed offspring. As I watched MTV as a child, I awaited being that girl in the bikini top sitting on my boyfriend’s shoulders at the concerts. My DNA had other plans.

I joined cheerleading, thinking of being raised in the air atop a human pyramid, my pompoms rustling in the lights. Instead I got my hands in the dirt and some skinny girl’s knee in my back. 

I tried to learn basketball, because people asked me if I played. My brother spent five minutes trying to teach me before I remembered that I’m lazy and clumsy, and retreated back inside to the air conditioning and couch.

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"Wonderland is my whole life - as a 5'10'' woman."

Tall girls are models. So I tried to make my height ok by going to one of those fake we’ll-make-your-kid-a-model seminars in middle school. Luckily my family didn’t have enough money to participate in the scheme.

I found zero purpose to assign my bigness, except when someone needed a jar off the highest shelf.

By middle school I was taller than the girls and the boys. In the time I most wanted to hide, I felt most exposed, the top inches of my head looming over the crowd. All the girls started trading shoes before school, but instead of trading with Amber or Pam, I had to trade with Charles. My pictures with my friends at the 8th grade dance look like forced perspective, as if I’m somehow a metre closer to the camera.

By high school, I was as tall as the average American man, 10 cm taller than the average American woman. My psychology teacher, who should have best understood the mental ramifications, gave me the nickname “Big Blonde Amazon,” which turned out to be quite catchy.

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"I found zero purpose to assign my bigness, except when someone needed a jar off the highest shelf."

My feet had grown to size 42, just beyond the edge of the bell curve stocked by stores, so I couldn’t just shop for shoes like everyone else. I had to enter the store, put my hands up like horse blinders so I wouldn’t fall in love with what I couldn’t have, and head straight back to the counter to ask the salesperson if they had my size. Then I’d wait for the face: the nose crinkle, the air sucked in through teeth, the frown as they looked at my feet. While my friends tried on and purchased heels, the clerk would always come out of the back, shaking his head at me.

Once, at a sports apparel store to which I vow to never return, one of the salesmen yelled after me just as I was leaving, “Wait, I found one!” After I turned around, hopeful, I saw him holding a sneaker over his head with both hands that looked like it belonged to Michael Jordan, at minimum a 49. I retreated to the anonymity of eBay, where I’d learned to customise my search.

Even now, the size 42 rack makes me feel like a second-class citizen. Every other size gets its own shelf. I pass the 36s, see cute summery shoes, 38s, some strappy black pumps, then I round the corner, and it’s just a pile of combat boots and flesh-toned orthopedic sandals labeled 40 & up. I’ll always, always find some ray of hope, a pair I love, only to turn them over and see they’re 38s.

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Paulette with her best friends college

On my senior year trip to Mexico, all my friends bought anklets from a kid on the street. He tried one around my leg and looked up, shook his head solemnly. I bought a “bracelet” instead.

As we were souvenir shopping, a man sweeping in the store saw me, dropped his broom, and, raising two hands up in awe, said, “You so huge!”

You realise, when you’re big, how many female fantasies involve being lifted in the air. Playing chicken in the pool. Being carried over the threshold. The entire plot of Dirty Dancing.

It’s hard to date when you’re so damn tall. Can someone tell me why men evolved to prefer tiny women? I’d be more useful taking down a buffalo. But no man wants to be the little spoon. No guy’s like, “Ooh girl, you got a body like Bea Arthur.”

My friends try to make me feel better. “You’re not big,” my friend Lucy insisted once.

“Lucy,” I said, “put your knee next to mine.” She arranged her leg closer to mine on the bench we were sitting on, and her knee suddenly looked like a tangerine next to mine, like a grapefruit. Even she laughed out loud.

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Paulette at her high school senior prom

Later we were in her car, and she lifted one hand off the steering wheel to shake the bangles toward her elbow.  “Ugh, these keep falling off my hand,” she said.

“Give them to me,” I said. I had another magic trick to show her. I took them and tried to fit them over my hands. They stopped on the cone of my fingers, stuck above my knuckles.

Lucy took them back. She passed them over her own hands, which didn’t even touch the sides. Her face warped in confusion, trying to figure out this reality. She really couldn’t believe I’m bigger, and she’s smaller.

Even though it can feel like I’m cut off from the experience of women who have the proportions I feel like I’m supposed to have, what’s more true is that I’m part of that universal experience: the struggle to accept one’s own body. It helps to remember we’re all facing a battle in here, whatever “here” looks like.

Sometimes you gather evidence, you get to say, “Look! It’s not fair.” When these bodies are such a privilege, I know it’s my duty to put down my dossier, put away exhibits A and B for why I’m not the way I’m supposed to be. The work is not in showing how valid my feelings about my body are, but instead in convincing myself once and for all that these feelings are just a waste of my time. 

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