GROW UP!A TESTY MANIFESTO INTENDED FOR SHORT PEOPLE EVERYWHERE | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


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...

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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.

I've got a friend, Kathy, whose husband tells me every time he sees me, "You're the tallest woman I've ever met." He asks me to stand next to Kathy again and again so that he can marvel at the way his wife only comes up to my shoulder. Once he even documented the phenomenon by snapping a picture or two, the instant variety, and then standing around at various points in the evening staring at his homemade study in contrasts.

In particular, my height is still awfully important to most of the men I meet with whom I might like to socialize.

A few months ago, I was standing on the dance floor at my girlfriend's wedding, next to an attractive friend of the bridegroom named Dennis. He was wearing that searching look that overtakes men when they are yearning to make a passionate move, the look that rakes your face for any tremor of acceptance. And I was thinking quickly, trying to figure out if there was any potential to be explored between us. I figured that we faced an extraordinary number of obstacles if we pursued romance.

We lived 1,300 miles apart.
He was a lot younger than I.
He was a Republican in the investment banking business, and my politics are the sort that lend themselves to the full-scale destruction of government buildings.

He was black, and had grown up on welfare in a near-ghetto, where my Waspish parents raised me in a home surrounded by acres of land and fronted by a circular driveway.

I figured there were many, many things to be addressed before we could decide even whether to have dinner together. Real differences, differences that stood to make us miserable if we played it wrong. While I was pondering our chances for harmony, Dennis was involved in analysis of his own. He was standing back from me a little, straining to see the top of my head, which loomed a few inches above his. He was getting ready to let fly with his own concern about our compatibility: "Do you ever date men shorter than you?"

I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was surprised again. I keep dreaming that our society has become civilized, that there has been some progress since we were all grunting members of the animal kingdom and the only thing that mattered was who was larger. I keep thinking that, in the Nineties, while the values of Eighties excess are being rejected in what appears to be a stunning fit of national maturity, something like maturity will also creep into our evaluations of each other.

It has happened a few times, of course. I can cite nearly every instance since my adolescence. There was the day when Jackie married Ari. When Woody Allen starred opposite Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan. When Paul Simon and Shelley Duvall were dating. When Christie Brinkley fell for Billy Joel. When L.A. Law stars Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker not only got hitched, but began starring in a TV series that never raised the difference in their heights as an issue.

People do see past altitude and into the heart. But when they dare to, they are also destined to have their heights discussed publicly for the rest of their lives. While the world's most famous Greek-American alliance was in full swing, how many articles did not mention that Jackie was taller? How many times in the past ten years have you read that Princess Di, who at 5'10" is the same height as Prince Charles, is careful about wearing high heels when out with her husband?

More men and women may be pioneering this trend of true equality, but the hierarchy of height is never truly thought through again, particularly by the media.

Instead, we are offered a recent episode of Geraldo as the symbol of modern thinking. Called "Women Over Six Feet Tall and the Short Men Who Love Them," the show treated the matter of height as an inevitable and righteous factor in romance, in that host Rivera's first and most serious question to the tall women onstage was: "Will you go out with men shorter than you?"

The show also portrayed tall women as either objects or freaks, as when a tiny fellow in the audience who claimed to prefer tall women was urged by Rivera to dance with a towering blonde whom he had never met, and did so for a few moments while laying his head rapturously on her breasts. While the audience tittered at this image, the woman's face struggled with equal parts humiliation and resignation.

There was not a suggestion during the uneasy TV hour that some women are tall (and the short men who love them are short) because of a mere accident of nature. No one in the audience ever stood up to demand, "Why are you doing this show? Why are you treating these men and women as though they're abnormal?" After all these centuries, no one thinks to say it. Despite the doors of opportunity that have creaked open for women since 1970, despite the advent of high-fashion models who are international celebrities and the increasing popularity of female athletes that makes it more acceptable to be as lofty as a basketball player, it can be as painful to be a tall woman as it ever was.


"I am an athlete, that is my identity," says Amy Nelson. "I am doing something with my height. When that is over, I don't know if I will go back to feeling embarrassed about being tall."

She is a pretty woman who plays center on ASU's women's basketball team. She is nearly 6'3" and that thing that's called "big-boned," which means there is some bulk to her, although she isn't overweight. Her blue eyes are especially clear and direct, and she is as open and friendly in conversation as a child who's not been warned to avoid strangers. Despite her attractive qualities, she has never been asked out on a date. She is nearly 21. She says that the other athletes at school, the men who are taller than she is, are interested in "little cheerleaders," the diminutives who resemble pixies when they lean in against their big boyfriends. "I don't think men know how to handle me, whether I am really feminine," she says. "Whenever I'm with men, the conversation pretty much always revolves around, `How tall are you?' Then they say, `It is an unwritten rule that the guy is supposed to be taller.' The ones that I have talked to that have said, `I would date a taller girl,'--they have never asked me out."

Somebody did fix her up once with a blind date, though. The man was her same height, and the first words out of his mouth when she opened the door were, "You are tall. Your friend told me you were this tall, but I didn't believe her." Then for the entire evening, the conversation centered on sports. Instead of wooing Nelson, the guy took her home to his apartment and began to watch a movie. He drank an entire six-pack and fell asleep, and Nelson telephoned a friend to come pick her up.

Another time, a fellow approached her at Bobby McGee's and asked her to dance. He was about 5'8". When she agreed and rose out of her chair, a look crossed her partner's face that she has come to know very well: "It was that look where their whole face goes up with you, and they have this blank look like, `Oh, my God.'"

Having flashed the look, the fellow backed off from his previous attraction completely. "Thanks anyway," he said about his offer to dance.

Nelson says, "I cannot picture myself married and with a family. I don't know if it will ever happen to me, that I will just have a guy I can walk around with and cuddle with and every once in a while feel, `I am just helpless here.'"

Although she is far more at ease with her height than when she was younger, the occasions are still rare when it is not on her mind. "If I am getting ready to go somewhere and I am doing my hair and putting on makeup, I can feel really feminine, like I am not only a tall person. I see just a woman standing there," she says. "But as soon as I see the people I am going out with, I lose that." THE PRESUMPTION THAT there are proper and improper heights for women is not something that's forced on them by men alone. The whole human race is in on it.

I was partnered for some years with a man shorter than I am, and I remember how I began to avoid telling the members of the crowd that knew us both as singles that we had gotten together. It was as though we had forfeited the right to congratulations by teaming up with someone who wasn't the right size. Despite the obvious ways we were enhancing each other's lives--we liked the same things, laughed at the same things, finished each other's sentences, glowed with pride and contentment--the reaction to my announcement by men and women alike was usually the same: "Isn't he shorter than you are?"

end part 1 of 2

Actually, women can be the worst.
A few months ago I was chatting with Bronwyn Lang, the stunning wife of Phoenix Sun Andrew Lang, when we encountered each other at Tall Designs, a clothing store that caters to tall women. Lang is 6'1", and she was trying on fabulous pink stretch pants that day that no one else could have worn as well. Twirling in front of the store mirrors, she was the goddess who can have whatever she wants whom you usually encounter only in TV commercials.

And what she has always wanted, she revealed, is to be around men who are taller than she is. In her dating days, she wouldn't have considered anyone shorter, but not out of the sense of awkwardness and inferiority that causes some tall women to choose only big men who can help them feel more dainty. I got the impression that Bronwyn Lang hasn't been troubled too much by inferiority. No, she just felt she "couldn't respect someone shorter," since her own father was so tall.

This lovely woman is also uneasy about height in women. She knows, she said, that she and Andrew may one day give birth to a daughter who comes to resemble a redwood, but Bronwyn hopes the girl's growth doesn't get out of hand. "I cannot imagine having a daughter who is 6'5"," she said. Referring to her own days as a college basketball player, she added, "I played against a girl who is 6'5" and she was not ladylike at all. If our daughter was 6'3" or 6"4, I think I could handle that." She laughed at the absurdity of this condemnation of a couple of inches, but she meant it.

Among women who make judgments about height, mothers are probably the most emotional offenders. Upon watching my own height mushroom in adolescence, my mother assumed an attitude of panic that has never really died down. Her younger sister was very tall and had never married, and Mother had always spoken of this combination of events as though describing deformity followed by death. She was terrified that history would repeat itself, and she may have thought to thwart history's momentum by confronting me at every turn with the spectacle of my aunt's failure. "You don't want to end up like your Aunt Dottie, do you--living alone with a garden and couple of little dogs?" she asked me often, usually when I had turned down a date with some shorter boy.

She may have actually done me a favor, in that I became so apologetic about my height that I wouldn't have dreamed of discriminating against a boy on the basis of his. I felt completely grateful to anyone who pursued me, including the lilliputians. This attitude was such a habit by the time I reached adulthood that I have remained open, and have found a short fellow or two whom I have really loved.

The world is so generally astonished about tall women, and so tactless in its astonishment, that tallness becomes a trauma women must work through as they age. This characteristic that shouldn't mean anything in particular, that isn't a physical handicap or a disfigurement and that is a blessing to the men who inherit it and are thus perceived as powerful, must be worried about for decades by women as though it is a canker sore inside the lip that demands gnawing. Every tall woman I have ever met has considered herself to be a late bloomer.


Jane Aiken is a law professor at ASU, one of the state's leading authorities on the legal ramifications of AIDS, and six feet tall. She markedly resembles the actress Elizabeth McGovern, except that she is so wholly and courteously Southern in manner and speech that you wonder why her hair isn't bigger.

She grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, across the street from a country club, and was the daughter of a successful man. Her grandfather was a founder of a tony Greenville club that still doesn't admit women. Aiken made her bow to society on her father's arm in order to please her conventional mother, but the activity made her miserable. Once she had gone away to college in 1973 she began, systematically, to transform herself into a radical. She possessed a genuine talent for this.

As a lawyer, for instance, she has helped with the Attica Brothers Legal Defense that represented the perpetrators of the infamous prison riot. She has helped defend the Weathermen (the ultimate Sixties radicals), has represented Puerto Rican nationalists, battered women, and fought for abortion rights. As the original chairperson of the Governor's Task Force on AIDS in Arizona, she was an advocate for AIDS victims, a position that many onlookers would consider to be synonymous with championing gay rights. Her interest in progressive issues and rebellion has enabled Aiken to discover many things about her inner workings and become the flinty woman she is today. It has also enabled her to begin living peacefully with her height, which had been rankling her since an incident at a junior high school dance. Until the day of that dance, when somebody got onto his hands and knees so that Aiken's date could climb onto his back and dance with her at her own level, she had thought that all boys were going to eventually become as tall as her 6'6" father. Afterward, she realized her height was going to be a "real problem."

"What it meant to me was that I was not feminine and that somehow I was making the boys not manly," she says. "I had a terrible body image. I didn't even think I had pretty legs. Here is the one big benefit of being six-feet tall: I have these really long legs. And I just thought they were big legs."

She was so self-conscious about her size that the only thing that mattered to her, when it came to dating, was being shorter. "When friends would fix me up, I always asked, `I'm not going to be taller than he is, am I?' There were so many times when I would have been better off asking, `Is he a drug user? Does he have pimples everywhere?'"

Aiken's perceptions didn't begin to change until she went away to law school at New York University and found herself suddenly surrounded by Women's Movement devotees. "My friends were feminists who were angry at men, and we had a rich intellectual life," she says. "I started thinking of myself as smart and saw that I could make my own living, and I got most of my needs met through my women friends. That made me stop worrying about how I looked. "I started weight-lifting and doing exercise, and I opened myself up to having men pay attention to me. And if I didn't need them, then maybe they were telling me the truth when they said I was pretty."

From there, she began to experience tallness as a boon. "In a world where men are in charge, it really is to my advantage that they have to deal eye-to-eye with me," she says. "And there have been times when I have interviewed jurors right after a verdict, and they say they have respected me because I was commanding. I think that largely can be attributed to my height."

Whatever the pluses, Aiken's experiences as a tall woman have filled her with an uneasy knowledge of the ways that men and women wield power. "One thing I have learned which is really awful is that the only reason tallness is valuable for me is because it is equated with being male," she says. "It is not just that size means power, it's that power is male. If you are really tall, you can tap into that power. I hate that reality, and I hate that I trade on it."

She hates, too, what her size has taught her about what it takes to be safe in a male world. "I used to think, and I sometimes still think, that I would give anything for two weeks of somebody being able to pick me up and throw me around and nuzzle me. But I don't think I would want it for any longer than that," she says. "I have talked to women who are small. Most of them say at a certain point you experience it as being totally vulnerable, and it is not a pleasant feeling that you are with somebody who can do anything to you."

She knows it is not her case. She was assaulted on the streets of Roanoke, Virginia, by a man she believes would have raped her. "He tried to pull me onto the ground, and I hit him with my fist, and hit him into a wall and knocked him out," she remembers. "From that day on, I was less afraid of being alone." TALL WOMEN ARE shameless liars. They will go to any lengths to assure you they've never minded being tall. They are different in this way from short men, who are also cursed with a size problem that cuts against the popular image of their gender, the image that has resulted in greater respect for tall presidents and an adoration of Tom Selleck that is beyond anything his acting abilities could generate. Short men will often admit that they'd rather not be short. Men have always spoken up about things they aren't getting that they feel entitled to.

I had lunch a couple weeks ago with Nancy Collier, who's president of the local chapter of Tall Clubs International, and who, at six feet, has the slightly rigid posture of a woman who keeps reminding herself to throw her shoulders back. For one hour, Collier regaled me with every imaginable positive thought about tallness, and didn't even hear her own contradictions. "The only reason being tall is on my mind is that I am involved with the tall organization," she said airily. The Tall Club has become Collier's entire social life; it hosts many activities per week, and she hasn't dated anyone who isn't tall since she became involved with it. The club has also enabled her to build a circle of tall girlfriends. Collier did not say why she has chosen to arrange for a private life that has only tall people in it, but I am willing to guess it's so that she never has to feel self-conscious.

She said several times, "I feel that being tall is not a problem. I don't let it get me down. You can't." She didn't notice that the last parts of her statement didn't fit with the first.

I know some of the reasons it's hard to admit that being a tall women sometimes means being miserable. When I despised my height, I was never eager to reveal that I feared I wasn't feminine. I didn't want to provide anybody with a road map to the territory where I was most vulnerable. But the reticence of tall women also amounts to more than that. Because the abuse we take is rather subtle, we aren't sure whether we are justified in lashing out against it. There has been nothing outright malicious, after all, in the thousands of times someone has asked if I play basketball, or has inquired about the weather "up there," particularly when these statements have been followed up with such seemingly well-meaning assertions as, "I wish I had your height." (This last is most commonly added when the speaker is a man and has many times left me feeling accused, as though I have robbed him of what's rightfully his.) It is not the equivalent of being told, "You're ugly," or even, "There's something terribly wrong with you," even though there is often insensitivity or a sharp challenge from a threatened ego just beneath the surface of these comments. So if I've hated hearing such things because they make me too aware of myself, and if I've disliked being tall because of the things I've heard, I've not been sure whom to blame.

When I was younger, I also was afraid to blame anyone. If I was already so massive that I approximated most things masculine, I wanted to spare others the verbal onslaught from a girl who was not only tall, but livid. I didn't want to intimidate anyone, in the form of being disagreeable, anymore than I did already. So I became like the retarded kid who is so eager for acceptance that he laughs when he's taunted for being slow. I bobbed my head and assured everyone smilingly that it was perfectly fine to tease me about my height, that I liked their jokes--and how tall I was.

It has taken me a long time to be able to turn on a cloddish stranger in an ABCO parking lot and tell him he's offended me, and then move on. It has taken many years of learning about what's lovable in me and others, about what true womanliness is, and that factors such as height and the willingness to stand up for myself don't have much to do with it.

It has been a journey, but I haven't noticed it if vast crowds of folks have been making the trip with me. What I have noticed is that the American world still focuses on the way you look as an imperative, something to be clubbed into submission with dyes and diets and surgery, and doesn't question the wisdom of trying to achieve physical perfection. With absolute conviction, we expect things from each other in terms of appearance that no one is sure to provide--expect that people will retain their limbs for a lifetime, will keep their hair, that women will be shorter. We never recover from the shock of extraordinary images, like great height, that don't match our fantasies, and never stop railing against them as though they are flaws. We don't see the prejudice in ourselves.

And we miss a lot. I know what I would have missed if I hadn't begun to realize that tallness doesn't have to be a meaningful standard: the two sweetest romances of my life, both of them with men who were shorter, both of them enhanced and imbued with a special power that I believe existed between us in part because of the difference in our heights. In overcoming the biases about size that society had taught us, we became able to relate more freely to each other as people.

There has also been a marvelous payoff with my girlfriends. I've got a couple who are little bitty things. When I put my arms around them, I might as well be holding children. Once I would have minded what their bird-bones meant about me. Now I am constantly feeling impressed with the contrast between their smallness and their strength. I am seeing and appreciating them anew again and again. MDRVTHE TALLEST LIVING WOMAN IN BUCKEYE

Gail Hardesty has got a wedding band shaped like a butterfly because, ever since she met her husband fourteen years ago, it's been like she emerged from a cocoon. She says this, and appears to be an honest woman, but it is nonetheless hard to believe her. Nothing about Hardesty--a redhead with a big laugh and strong stride--is very muffled.

She is 5'10" and 52 years old: She was so tall during the Fifties that she didn't wear makeup in college, figuring that allure was out of the question. "I was self-conscious about trying to look beautiful," she says.

Although she successfully pursued high-fashion modeling in San Francisco and New York, working for the Ford Agency and also making television commercials, her confidence in her appearance never grew. "I really could not believe that it was me, because I didn't look at myself that way," she says of the way she discounted her glamorous image when it appeared in magazines.

She married a man who was 6'6" because "that was the tallest man I could find." When she was widowed early, and returned home to Scottsdale after years in New York, her misery with her height was still the defining factor in her life. "I tried my damnedest to be invisible," she says. When she attended church, she didn't stay to socialize. When she began studying metaphysics, she attended the same class for three years and never spoke aloud.

She says, "I can see now that I wasted the best years of my life feeling inferior."

The wasted years ended because of the metaphysics, which taught her it was "okay to be who I was," and when she met L.D., a Buckeye cotton farmer.

One of the most charming things about L.D. was that he didn't seem to notice he was a full three inches shorter than Hardesty. He always made a point of standing right up next to her, made a point of his pride in being with her instead of pretending they weren't together, which was the behavior she was more accustomed to. "Men would not stand beside me in conversation. I learned to sit down," she says. "But it was like L.D. didn't know he was short."

Or didn't care. Perhaps that enabled Hardesty not to care about some other things. L.D. was a successful farmer but an unsophisticated man; he had never made an airplane reservation or used a credit card. "I had to teach him everything," she says, but she found that she didn't mind. His honesty and his integrity appealed to her, and his strength that allowed him to welcome in the unconventional.

Her life has changed since she married L.D. ten years ago, moved out to Buckeye, and begun commuting to Tall Designs, the boutique on Thomas Road that she co-owns. She can tell you now, with a huge laugh, that she is the tallest woman in her little town. Although she had never heard of a La-Z-Boy before, she can describe with considerable satisfaction the matching set she and L.D. have got.

L.D.'s life has changed, too. He has traveled to Europe and become a fan of the opera. "I have never seen anyone grow like he has," Hardesty says.

She knows that they are happy together against all the odds. "I would notice how his friends would look at us, questioningly, when we got married," she says. "I don't think people thought it would last. To this day, I will put my arm around his shoulder as we walk, and I know that people take second looks. And I think to myself, `Well, you just figure it out.'

"I certainly would not give a second thought now to a man who thought I was too tall. How would he handle it if I got a mastectomy? What kind of man is that?"

"Back when you were in school there probably weren't that many tall women," the stranger suggests helpfully.

I am in my thirties, and I am very accustomed to these accusations and the mooselike sensations that accompany them.

She just felt she "couldn't respect someone shorter," since her own father was so tall.

I became so apologetic about my height that I wouldn't have dreamed of discriminating against a boy on the basis of his.

Every tall woman I have ever met has considered herself to be a late bloomer.

"`I'm not going to be taller than he is, am I?' I would have been better off asking, `Is he a drug user? Does he have pimples everywhere?'"

"The ones that I have talked to that have said, `I would date a taller girl,'--they have never asked me out."

"In a world where men are in charge, it really is to my advantage that they have to deal eye-to-eye with me.

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