I am coming out of an ABCO on one of those torrid days that send shoppers actually scurrying from the store's air-conditioned sanctuary to their cars. I am moving at a good clip when I see the gray-haired man out of the corner of my eye. He is preparing to unlock his car door for a woman struggling with grocery sacks that appear heavy enough to be filled with rocks and sand. Before he finishes, he is distracted by something and wanders away from the car. I am that something.
He is crossing the entire parking lot to reach me, a distance of perhaps thirty yards. He is ambling, his eyes and posture completely casual, the way they would be if we were resuming a conversation. He is a handsome man in his fifties, long and lean and so purposeful that I am trying to place him, am almost certain as he homes in on me that I have met him somewhere and forgotten him.
When he is just a few feet away from me he halts, and crosses his arms, and says wonderingly, "I bet you played a lot of basketball and volleyball in your day."
These are his exact words.
I have heard similar words before, too many times to count in fact, although perhaps no one has ever come the distance to deliver them. Usually the people who think I need them to point out to me that I am 5'10", and that it's an unusual height in a woman, are standing in front of me at a party while introductions are being made, or are behind me in a line. Clearly, this man is truly inspired by my size.
So inspired that he begins to form theories. "Back when you were in school there probably weren't that many tall women," he suggests helpfully. He is smiling broadly at me, as though he is sure I want to discuss this.
I do not.
I move toward him and draw myself up to my full height. (Drawing myself up to my full height on occasions like this is a great satisfaction.) "Did somebody tell you it's okay to comment upon the sizes of total strangers?" I ask him. "Didn't anybody ever mention that it's rude?"
He backs off one step, but it's just a reflex. His face doesn't register any light dawning. "So I guess you don't take kindly to that?" he wants to know, blankly.
"No, I don't."
He steps up to me until we are nearly nose to nose. He pokes his finger toward my face and wags it. He says the thing that causes me to give up, at last, on the possibility that tall women will ever be allowed to own their bodies the way shorter people do--to lose hope that we will become exempt from the quantity of proprietary comment that normally is heaped only upon public buildings.
The man says, "If what I've said bothers you, that's your problem." He stalks away, his back actually quivering with outrage. He and his wife roar out of the car lot, their heads turned straight ahead with a fixed haughtiness that spills through the windshield.
It has happened again, a little more resoundingly than usual. I have been reminded that I am (first and foremost) a Tall Woman, a mere stretch of vertebrae. I have been left standing beside my car with the impression that I am Large, someone whose proportions blot every other consideration from the minds of observers who come across me without warning. I am in my thirties, and I am very accustomed to these accusations and the mooselike sensations that accompany them, and that are at war with my inner identity as a woman who orders from Victoria's Secret catalogues. I am so accustomed that within five minutes I'm no longer thinking up ways to murder this man. When I was a teenager, and my only desire was to be "normal" and regarded as feminine by the boys I believed held my future in their hands, the encounter would have destroyed my stomach lining.
Yes, it's much easier to be tall now that I'm older. I don't care about being normal, except to the considerable extent that I would rather not be, and I reached my own conclusions about my femininity long ago. Plus, I have realized at some point that I'm not as tall as I thought.
Oh, I'm tall by any standards. The average heights of men and women in America are 5'3 3/4" and 5'9", and only 3 to 5 percent of all women in the country are as tall as I am, according to the people who track such things. Nonetheless, people are getting larger. The statistics say the population's height is increasing by only about a half inch a decade, but I don't know whether I believe it. I feel like I'm running across a lot more very tall women than I used to, and Maura McHugh, the women's basketball coach at ASU, tells me that on the team, 6'1" isn't considered all that tall anymore. Only two years ago, it was rare for McHugh to find such a woman. But if I've become more comfortable with my height, a lot of people haven't. I'm amazed by the extent to which it is still often the first thing that's commented upon wherever I go, even by the people who know me very well.