Monday, 7 September 2009

Standing Tall

The woman in the restroom at Manchester Airport was tall – tall as in well over six feet. She was putting on mascara, standing in that classic applying-make-up stance, the upper half of her body tilted forward, mouth slightly open, one hand braced on the counter, the other carefully brandishing mascara wand, her eyes fixed on her image in the mirror. My daughter and I stood drying our hands, watching her surreptitiously: she was that compelling. I felt a wave of sympathy for her: it’s not easy being the tallest woman in town. Believe me, I know.

When I was studying in Kyushu, I was the tallest woman in the university. I’m barely 5 feet 7 inches tall, but in Japan, this was colossal. My next-runner-up in the tallness department was a graduate student in social studies who stood almost 5 feet 6. Our height was all we had in common, but we bonded over it.

Wherever I went on campus, people stopped talking and turned to stare. Part of this was because I was a foreigner, but my shorter foreign friends hardly ever got the attention I got. “Wow, you’re tall,” was a comment I soon got sick of. My first week there, in a restroom, I was washing my hands at the sink when a woman came out of the cubicle behind me. She froze, falling back against the toilet door and clamping her hand over her mouth as she stared up at me. Another woman entered the restroom just then and I got stereo shock as they both gazed at me in wonder. “God, she’s tall!” one of them breathed to the other. I felt so foolish, so awkward. I dried my hands and stomped out, my face burning.

Every morning, when I took the train to my university, I spotted another woman who must have been at least my height—possibly even taller. She was Asian and spoke fluent Japanese and she never paid me the slightest bit of mind, but looking at her, I always felt a strong bond. I knew that she knew what it felt like. In a country where 165 centimeters – around 5 feet 6 – is considered the upper limit for feminine height, you can’t help but feel your tallness as a mark of your identity. I knew she must struggle to find trousers that went down to her ankles, skirts that covered her knees. I knew that with her long legs, wearing panty hose was not a comfortable option. I never got up the courage to ask her where she found her clothes, but I came close.

I happen to be the product of a short mother and a very tall father. My father was 6 feet 4 inches, and my mother was 5 feet 2. Though she was short, my mother had a certain physical grace that my father, the classic klutz, lacked entirely. My mother stood tall and proud; my father slumped and ducked his head, as though ashamed. So I did not grow up thinking that tallness was an advantage – quite the contrary. In college, my roommate was 4 feet 11 inches and unhappy about it. She refused to accept that I could justifiably be envious of her petite stature, but I was. I longed to be slight and compact. To be dainty and light-footed and short.

Watching this tall woman now, I was filled with sympathy -- but even more with admiration. She did not slump; she stood tall. She was taking pains with her appearance, and she liked what she saw. My daughter is tall too—taller than I am now—and she’s still growing. I want her to be like this, not slumping and skulking about, apologizing to the world for the extra space she’s taking up.

The woman snapped her make-up bag shut. She ran her long fingers through her hair and shook it out, tilting her head from side to side. “Kakko ii ne,” my daughter whispered in Japanese — She looks good. I nodded in agreement: she did.

And do you know what the best part about her was? She was wearing high heels. Not just wimpy little heels, but proper, three-inch ones -- the kind I would never go near. We watched as she click-clicked her way to the door, all willowy, graceful style.

We’d have liked to give her a high five, but neither of us could reach.


Miss Footloose said...

Mary, what a wonderful post. It made me wonder what is worse: feeling different in your home environment, or feeling different in a foreign one.

I'm thinking maybe it is feeling different at home, where you should be comfortable and not odd. In a foreign country we almost always stand out in one way or another.

We had a laugh when we moved from Ghana, West Africa to Armenia. We thought it would be nice not to be so visibly different now that we would be among Caucasians again rather than being white among Africans.

Were we wrong. Armenians are a homogeneous crowd, living in a landlocked, isolated country and we stood out and were different in many ways we hadn't even considered. And staring is a national pastime, so you can imagine . . .

Miss Footloose
Tales of the Globetrotting Life

Kim Ayres said...

While I was never bothered about the idea of being over 6', being only 5' 6" and a bit, an extra 3 inches would have made all the difference

Charles Gramlich said...

My Wife Lana is 4, 11 and wishes most of the time that she was taller. Gotta be weird having people react to you so strongly as they did in Japan though.

Mary Witzl said...

Miss Footloose -- I agree with you: feeling different in your home environment is worse. You expect to feel like a foreigner when you live in a foreign country.

In Japan, I finally got to the point where I spoke the language, but I always stood out a mile and attracted unwelcome attention. Turks are incredibly heterogeneous: some tall, some short, some Asian-looking, some Caucasian, some as dark as Africans -- and they don't really stare. Weirdly enough, when I'm among them, I may not speak the language, but I fit right in.

Kim -- Oh, if only I could have given you my surplus height back when I was 14 -- you'd have been very welcome to it!! Now, I'm okay being this height. And my mother was right: the big advantage has been never having to get a chair when I want something off a high shelf.

Charles -- I'll bet you're tall. You are, aren't you? I've got a cousin who is 6' 6"; his wife was 4' 10". And of course my father went for my short little mother... What is it, I wonder, with tall men and short women? It's as though we're genetically bent on averaging out!

MG Higgins said...

I'm 5' 10" so I guess I'd be considered a monster in Japan. Wow. I've always felt "just right" with my height and I can't imagine feeling too tall at 5' 7"! Another beautiful post, Mary.

Anne Spollen said...

Height seems to be something people comment on freely. When my son reached 6 feet in the eighth grade, not a day went by when someone didn't remind him, "Boy, you're tall!" (Because otherwise he wouldn't have known? he would forget?)

I say go to Norway. I'm 5'4" and took a group of Norwegian students around campus. The next day, I dusted off my heels.

Robin said...

Great post! I'm 5'1", but in my mind I'm 5'10" and willowy.

I'm thinking I should move to Japan. . .

Vijaya said...

Great post. I think we have to be happy with who we are ... my best friend is 6 ft tall and I love that she doesn't try to hide it. She even wears high heels. She's stronger than most men I know.

I am a short and for years was also very small, so I enjoyed curling up in small spaces. Even now, I'm the one who has to fish wires through small holes ...

Marian said...

Heh, for a moment I thought you were going to end with, "We’d have liked to give her a high five, but we couldn't reach that far up."

Being a teeny shrimp person (5'0"), I sometimes wish I was taller. Then again, as you mentioned, people often find my size petite, delicate, dainty, etc.

And things on high shelves are no problem. You just look for the nearest man and glance shyly up at him as you make your polite request. I guarantee he will not only reach for whatever it is, but will enjoy the experience. ;)

I'm a feminist, but hey, I'm pragmatic as well.

Mary Witzl said...

MG -- When I lived in Japan, I had dear friends who were both foreign and tall. They ended up having two daughters who are both even taller than they are, and their girls happily travel around Japan and don't seem intimidated by people's reactions to their height. I admire their attitudes no end and am awed by them. The fact that you feel just right in your height means that you have this ability too. I have only just come into it, but I figure better late than never.

Anne -- I once took a Norwegian woman around Tokyo for a couple of days. She was 6' 2", very well built, and very interested in Japanese men. Taking her into a public bath house was a real scream.

When I visited Sweden, I couldn't get over how quickly I went from Nordic giantess to swarthy pygmy. It was pretty neat.

Robin -- Whoa, 5'1"? You'd be a hit in Japan: short foreign women are in, well, short supply.

Part of me is 5' 2", a dainty little ballerina with perfect coordination and graceful movements. Sadly, this is the part of me that nobody sees...

Vijaya -- My best friend here is as strong as any man -- she used to enjoy challenging them to arm wrestle with her.

When there are wires to be passed through small holes, we used to rely on our youngest girl. Now, she's shot up inches and I don't know what we're going to do. Fancy a trip to Scotland?

Marian -- That would have been a great ending!

5' 0"? I feel a little sick with envy. There is something about being short and small that no one can play down: it is far more efficient. I eat like a horse and my maintenance is costly. I'm sure if I were petite like you, I'd be infinitely more attractive in every respect. And yes, men would come flocking to me at the bat of an eyelid.

Like I said, sick with envy.

Eryl Shields said...

I'd love to be tall. I saw my twelve year old niece (in-law) for the first time in about a year the other day and she is four inches taller than me now! She promised to be taller than my husband (6ft) the next time we meet, and I believe she will live up to that!

Jacqui said...

Mary, this is a great post, esp for this nearly six foot tall person.

I traveled to Japan with my six foot eight father years ago. People pointed and stared and whispered or just spoke aloud, not knowing I could understand. It was a circus wherever we went. Hordes of school children would crowd around him at tourist sites yelling, "ookii gaijin!"

My dad was amazing, gracious and amused, and patiently allowed himself to be photographed by every one of them. I only hope I would have the serenity to be so nice.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My step-daughter Amy is very petite, she would have fit right in when she taught English in Japan were it not for her striking blond hair.

The previous year, when she was in college, her mom visited her for the day. They decided to stop in at a local restaurant for lunch. The waitress handed my wife a regular menu, but handed Amy a children's menu. She was mortified.

adrienne said...

My daughter is just waiting for the day she surpasses my height (she's almost there). She loves to put on heels and sidle up next to me.

I've had tall friends who's still hard for me to imagine being self-conscious about being tall.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Sigh... I'm not really tall, but having met you, I feel so wistful. I'd have been you if I could have -- exactly your body type and height.

How great that your niece is proud of her height! I reached my peak when I was 14. People kept saying, "Ooh, maybe you'll be 6' 6" like your cousins!" When I realized I'd stopped growing, the relief was just staggering.

Jacqui -- 6' 8"? SIX FEET EIGHT? Bloody hell! I'd have said "Ookii gaijin" myself!

I'll tell you right now that although your father was a good sport about all the fuss, after a year in Japan he'd have been jaded. After 10 years, he'd have been bored to tears; after 17, who knows? (But he could never have lasted. Doorways in Japan just aren't designed for people over, maximum, 6' 2".) It's one thing to put up with the whole circus animal thing for a couple of weeks -- quite another to live with it on a daily basis over the course of years. But then I am not a very serene person...

Robert -- Despite my larger frame, what happened to Amy used to happen to me all the time, right up until I was in my 20s. It's not that I look all winsomely young, I just look daft and naive. I'd give a lot to be given the child's menu now. (Nothing to do with wanting to look like a child -- everything to do with being a cheapskate.)

Adrienne -- My kid loves this too! The day she stood next to me and someone said, "Mary, I do believe she's taller than you" was the happiest day in her life. And she just lords it over her slightly shorter sister like nobody's business.

I slouch. But watching a tall proud woman makes me stand up a little straighter.

Charlie said...

I'm 6'0", Martha is 4'11", so we're another Mutt and Jeff combo that averages around 5'6".

Martha has a unique perspective on being "vertically challenged": if she can't see it then it doesn't exist, so therefore it cannot possibly need cleaning.

She also has a coffee mug that says, "I'm not overweight, I'm just undertall."

Danette Haworth said...

Yes, a good post. As I read it, I thought of my SIL, who is six feet tall and always wears the latest in heels, never slumps. I always think, Good for you!

angryparsnip said...

When I travel in Japan I am the tallest person too. I don't mind the height but I wish I was thinner. I always feel like the albino Godzilla stomping my way through Japan. My Blond hair is what gets lots of attention.

It is fun to watch the reaction to my son who speaks Japanese and is tall, hairy, and has dark red/blond hair.

I also get lots of school kids asking for pictures and asking questions to turn in for school work. At my age I don't mind at all and have met tons of lovely people.

Eryl Shields said...

If you were my height you wouldn't be able to see over other people's garden walls, you don't want that!

Ello said...

Oooooh, I missed you! Good to be reading your lovely stories again! And I wish I was tall. That is my hope for my girls. That they are all taller than me and your height would be absolutely perfect.

Angela said...

I admire women like this. Tall myself, I always shied away from high heels. I would worship them from afar, wishing I could wear them but always felt like this was drawing attention to my height in a negative way.

AnneB said...

Lord, Mary, your blog posts generate the most fascinating discussions!

Dana said...

What a lovely blog entry! Isn't it amazing how easy it is to stand out?
When I lived in the UK I was average height with my 5'3". However, my Swedish blonde hair stood out like a sore thumb.

Moving to Sweden I became aware that I was really short. As in REALLY short. I have yet to find a pair of trousers that aren't 10 inches too long.

Visiting China I was - again - fitting in height wise, but all the Chinese girls were amazed with my bra size!

Just goes to show that we all stand out if we focus on things that are different to us. I try not to. :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- Oh thank you very much for giving me another reason to wish I was short: not having to clean things that are out of your visual range. Still, I'll bet Martha sees more crud on the ground than I do: my far-sight is beginning to go.

Danette -- Hooray for your sister-in-law and more power to her! She didn't take a trip to Manchester recently, did she?

AP -- I felt like a great oaf of a woman myself, most of the time I was in Japan. Once in a while I would meet Japanese people who towered over me and it was the most wonderful feeling. You were good not to mind feeling different when you were in Japan: I never really got used to it. I used to catch sight of myself in the station mirrors and be appalled. During the course of the day, I always forgot I was Caucasian.

Eryl -- Hmm, you're right: I love looking over garden walls. Thank you for reminding me of that!

Ello -- I've missed you too! I just went over the great comments you made on my MS the other day (which I haven't looked at for months now). I've used a lot of your suggestions and my MS is better for it.

My mother loved it that my sisters and I were tall. She thought we were so lucky, so much better off than she was. We yearned to be her height.

Angela -- I felt like this myself: like tallness was something to play down, not to draw attention to. Now I feel differently, really: I like to see tall women in heels. But though I love the look of high heels, they just hurt too much to wear. That part of me will never change!

AnneB -- Thank you for that nice compliment! It's because so many interesting people come here to visit. I just spin out the obvious and sit back for everyone else to do all the work.

Dana -- Thank you for commenting! I'm glad I didn't read about your trouser problem when I was in Japan, though: it would have frustrated me no end. I spent 17 years tugging at the cuffs of sleeves and trousers and taking down hems. And things were STILL too short.

I once went from Japan to England, where I took the ferry from Harwich to Hoek van Holland. A group of Norwegian basketball players was on the ferry and I had the eeriest feeling of shrinking, then and there -- going from svelte and Nordic to shrimpy and dark. Their knees were the height of my mid-thighs.

Postman said...

Gosh, I never even stopped to consider what it must be like for tall women to be in a country where their height is considered abnormal. How callous of me. I loved it. My students all called me "giant." (I'm 6'1", and can't wait to get to Japan and see what kind of looks I get.) I know some of the kids probably meant it as a dig, but I didn't take it as such; I said thank you, thank you, and dispensed piggy-back rides as I saw fit. Congratulations to that tall woman for not only taking pride in her height but wearing heels to boot.

日月神教-任我行 said...
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