This week, the Cut explores women's complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.
When I was 12 my mom took me shopping for pantyhose at Younkers department store in my Iowa hometown. I had a piano recital coming up, and a recent growth spurt meant the tights in the children’s section no longer fit. On the back of the hosiery packaging there was a matrix chart: height on one side and weight on the other. You were supposed to find the box where your height and weight intersected, and the color code would tell you which size to purchase. As I dragged my finger along the package to find my size, I felt a wave of panic. At 6’2”, I was off the matrix. A total freak.
It was an objective confirmation of how I already felt. I was the tallest person in my junior high school — bigger than all the other girls, all the pre-growth-spurt boys, even all the teachers. And there was nothing I wouldn’t have given to be just an inch or two shorter. I try to remember that feeling now, when women I don’t know approach me and say things like “What I wouldn’t give to be your height.” I’ve spent my entire life hovering almost a foot taller than most women. And while it’s often been a source of insecurity, the older I get, the more comfortable I am with myself. I’m far less comfortable with the feelings my body seems to bring out in other women.
Being a very tall woman means being very visible. You know that feeling you had during your most awkward adolescent years — that everyone was staring at you? That feeling is my life. People are staring. And, often, they’re not just staring. They want to talk about it. My height is something I discuss every day. Strangers ask about it when I’m browsing the nail polish at Target. Children point and stare. Women sitting outside cafés remark on it loudly as I walk past them. A pack of frat boys in a bar once chanted “six-footer!” at me. If I wear heels or if I’m in a small town, the comments increase fivefold. The questions are always the same: How tall are you? Are your parents tall? Do you ever wear heels? How tall is your boyfriend? Or, sometimes it’s just a statement: You’re really tall.
Thanks. I wasn’t aware.
All women’s bodies are regularly judged and measured by strangers who, with shocking regularity, feel empowered to share their opinions out loud. But some bodies invite more direct comment than others — just ask a black woman with natural hair or a pregnant woman, for starters. But I don’t know too many other women who get the same pointed comment about their body every single time they’re in public — not only from catcalling men, but from old ladies and young kids and grocery-store cashiers and middle-aged women alike.
As a teenager, the fact that so many strangers felt compelled to talk to me about my body provoked mostly embarrassment and anger. Depending on my mood, I still snap at people sometimes (if I’m hungry when you approach me with a height comment, you will feel my wrath), but mostly I’ve come to accept that strangers are so insistent on talking to me about my height because they think they’re giving a compliment or pointing out a positive attribute. The easiest thing is to answer their inane question and move on with my day: 6’2”. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Have a nice day. Sometimes I cannot resist adding a sarcastic “You’re very observant!” or “How tall are you?” although this invariably results in confusion, not contrition.
I know many tall men — my dad is 6’7” — and while strangers sometimes remark on it, men don’t get the sort of reaction I do. This is because we associate height with masculinity. Women are supposed to be dainty things who are, if not exactly tiny, at least smaller than men. This was tough for me as a teenager who was still trying to figure out the whole womanhood thing. But in a work context, I admit, sexist sizing-up has mostly been a positive for me; I do think I command more respect because I can look men in the eye or even look down at them.
There is also a noticeable gender divide to the height questions I get from strangers. When men comment on it, they usually follow up with “Do you play basketball?” I say no, or make a joke about how clumsy I am, and move on with my day. If I’m talking to another woman, it’s way more complicated. Before I know it, she’s pivoted from pointing out my body to saying something bad about her own. She’s encouraging me to look at her stubby legs, just look at them. Or she’s saying, “If I had your height …” Or she’s expressing the opposite of my teenage desires: “I’d love just a few more inches.” Every once in a while, a woman will say something along the lines of “Are you a model?” I know this sounds like an obnoxious humblebrag, but I don’t think this question has anything to with my looks. It is because I have this one notable physical characteristic that is associated with one very particular profession — a profession that sets a standard that all women are pressured to measure themselves against. And measure they do.
When I reply honestly — “No, I’m a journalist,” or “No, I love carbs” — women think I am negging myself. Selling myself short, as it were. They offer heartfelt replies like “You totally could” or “You’re not too fat!” It is true that I am not fat. But I also think that it’s perfectly fine to be fat. I have to try to accept these strangers’ well-meant compliments while, at the same time, conveying that they are not compliments at all. It becomes a confusing who’s-on-first dialogue about body image. And it’s surprisingly difficult to shut down. I can’t cheerfully reply, “Well, I love your body!” without feeling creepy. And “Why are you comparing your body to mine at all?” sounds insulting and condescending, not sisterhood-is-powerful. I would never argue that I have it worse than women who face outright hostility because of how their bodies look. But it kills me when women use me to express what they dislike about themselves.
One of my close friends is very thin. Sometimes women tell her they’re jealous, and they don’t even shut up when she tells them the truth: that she is so skinny because she is sick. They still want tips. Women perceive weight to be under their control, even when it isn’t. Height is different. These conversations about it rest on the fact that we both know there’s nothing that will make either of us any shorter or taller. Well, at least for now. Last week I noticed Goop was promoting a workout regimen that claims to lengthen your legs.
This week a woman stopped me in the grocery store. She made direct eye contact and had such a big smile on her face that I was sure we’d met before but I didn’t remember it. Turns out she just wanted to tell me that her daughter, who was standing by her side, wishes she were as tall as I am. The girl was maybe 10 or 11 years old. I told her that, as with just about anything, being really tall has its upsides but also its downsides. To illustrate the latter point, I showed her that my jacket sleeves stopped several inches above my wrist. Then I shrugged and moved on to the next aisle. I regret it. I should have told her she was beautiful.