How I Put Bullying Behind Me and Embraced My Height and Sexuality
After being teased as a kid, one writer learns to love her body and embrace her sexuality in adulthood.
"Duh, it might stunt my growth. I wanna be 5'10" like Cindy Crawford."
As a kid (and a preteen, and a teenager, and a young adult, and OK, also now, as a late-twenty-something), I used to watch Clueless in awe of the luminous Cher Horowitz. She was blonde and rich and popular, things I would never be, but she was also clever and gregarious and she wanted to be tall. While I was neither blonde, nor rich, nor popular, I was tall. Tallness was equated with wealth and luxury and fame, and as a girl who towered over seemingly everyone from as early as I can remember, I wanted that connection, however tenuous and improbable it felt, to the gleaming, movie star assertion that tallness was goal-worthy.
"Did I mention that my leg is 44 inches from hip to toe, so basically we're talking about 88 inches of therapy wrapped around you for the bargain price of three thousand dollars."
Pretty Woman is another film wrapped up in fantasies, and I watched it slack-jawed whenever the redacted version appeared on TBS (which meant I never saw the scene where Jason Alexander's character confirms what an epic slimebag he is until I was like, 22). These movies and these tall women in their red dresses, surrounded by money and malls and men, who were not merely aware of their height but had a personal stake in it-this woman is who I want to emulate, this is precisely how tall she is. This is precisely how long my legs are. The length of my legs is directly correlated to my worth. These are pronounceable statements, irrefutable facts. Tallness had value, it was a ruler you could measure your worth with.
Height was where the similarities between me and Julia Roberts started and stopped. When I was a little kid, all bangs and baby teeth and gangly limbs, relatives and friends' parents said I should be a model, or maybe a basketball player. It was the good kind of attention so it felt good. It felt like what romantic comedies had prepared me for, but it wasn't coming from my peers. It was coming from adults with bank accounts and grocery lists, bags under their eyes, cars, jobs, and bills. There was nothing impressive about them. They weren't luxury, they were reality. When you're a kid and you're different from other kids, reality bites.
As I got older, I just got taller and more awkward. I had brushed-out curls in a mushroom bob, large-framed glasses on my too-big head, clothes that never seemed to fit right. The good kind of attention stopped and was replaced with teasing and bullying and cruel words.
"That girl is uglier than my butt!" yelled an eighth grader as I walked into middle school one day. I wanted to shrink, but couldn't if I tried. I had a bottom locker and as I bent down to grab my books, a teacher I didn't know angrily yanked down my shirt. "You need to get new clothes. This is inappropriate." The vice principal, a small-statured woman with a small heart to match, joined in on the clothing-related vendetta, and she entered into a yearlong battle about my wardrobe with my mother. I was forced to wear gigantic, stained sweatshirts the VP kept in her office on days when my outfit was again deemed "inappropriate." I couldn't shop where any of my friends shopped anymore; everything was too small for me. Every day, I was subjected to outfit analyses by the VP. Even the compliments ("That's a pretty color on you") felt like veiled insults, a kernel of kindness meant to placate the too-tall girl who couldn't get anything right.
I tried basketball and I was miserable at it, never in the right place at the right time, fouling people left and right, missing every single shot. I wasn't fast and I also wasn't thin anymore; my gangly limbs were replaced by thick thighs and a protruding belly, and all those basketball-player-model visions faded into the background. They felt silly and dreamlike, an impossibility, a scoff, and a fable.
I also felt the beginnings of something else in my bones. Another kind of difference, a new kind, an intangible something that I had felt and known since I was very little-but it had been easier to brush off then. I was bisexual, or gay, or something that didn't have a label yet. It didn't need a label. But it lived inside me like another burden. I swallowed that feeling for a long time.
I got older and started to figure myself out, somewhat. And other kids grew, which helped ease the height difference between everyone else and me. I figured out that low-rise jeans, in addition to being a societal abomination, weren't right for my body. I figured out which clothes were right, or at least felt okay. The teasing didn't quite go away-it was more like a slowly dripping faucet that followed me throughout high school. I began to embrace fashion as a means to carve out some individuality, to try to feel less sad and less different, or maybe just a better kind of different. It led to some interesting and bizarre stylistic decisions: white-and-blue moccasin boots from the local hippie emporium, turquoise tights, and my personal favorite: skirts worn over pants.
I didn't quite realize it at the time, but I was slowly starting to carve out my queer identity, my femme identity. I was always girly, but a femme identity takes girliness and reroutes it, imbues it with something deeper, something that's visible to the public but has a hidden underlayer, largely unseen. My fashion sense became the primary target for bullies, but I think I would've been a target regardless. It was me at my core who was teased: tall, awkward, uncomfortable me. The hidden me, inner queer me. My tallness was a landmark, a talking point, a recognition, a point of reference. I couldn't have hidden if I'd wanted to.
Developing my funky (read: weird) and feminine fashion sense was a turning point in embracing my height, even if I didn't realize it back in middle school. While I continued to be teased in school, the burden of it felt less heavy, a more manageable load. I was developing a sense of self, no longer defining myself based on how others viewed me-as the tall, awkward girl.
This sense of who I am has continued to grow as I've entered adulthood, despite the fact that being tall, much like being queer, hasn't necessarily become easier as I've gotten older. It's just become...different. I sometimes feel too visible, or not visible at all, but I no longer feel an urge to hide my height or my queerness. I still seek comfort in wearing clothes that make me feel the good kind of different. I wear crop tops and brightly colored lipsticks and torn tights and boots with a heel. (Why not emphasize my height if I can't make it go away?)
And I truly can't make it go away. While attending a standing-room-only queer burlesque show once, I was immediately tapped on the shoulder by a smaller person before the show even began. "You're not going to stand there the whole night, are you?" she asked. It was technically a question, but let's face it, she wasn't asking. My response was built-in, inherent, we both knew it. "Of course not," I answered. I walked to the back of the bar, literally pressed my back against the wall so I wouldn't be in anyone's way. I am still seen in all the wrong ways sometimes. It doesn't get easier. It's just different.
In Clueless, Cher tries to seduce a beautiful man who she discovers is gay, but during their one-sided flirtation, he still comments on her body. "Nice stems," he remarks, as he retrieves the fluffy pink pencil that Cher accidentally-on-purpose dropped. "Thanks," she purrs. I know that's a cliché, but she does. She purrs, she coos, she smirks. He doesn't even call them legs, they are stems, they are so long that they are inhuman, they are a part of nature, they give flowers their height, their structure. This line says: How can you even quantify the value of something so essential, so necessary? Nice stems. Stem: the main body or stalk of a plant or shrub, typically rising above ground; a long and thin supportive or main section of something; originate in or be caused by. Tallness is the main body, the main section, the root of the root and the bud of the bud, the origination of something. Other things are caused by tallness. Its worth is immeasurable.
In Pretty Woman, Vivian doesn't just state the length of her legs and let it speak for itself. No, her legs are valuable. Three thousand dollars of value, to be exact. Not only are they pricey, they're therapeutic. They're healing. In Blink, in the chapter "Why Do We Love Tall Men?" Malcolm Gladwell discusses how tall men (especially white men) are more financially and professionally successful than their shorter counterparts. Why? Because "we see a tall person, and we swoon." Three thousand dollars worth of swooning. A small price to pay for something as valuable as tallness.
It is hard to feel like people see me and swoon (and you could argue tallness means something different for women than men), but this magical thing has happened as I've entered my late twenties: I care so much less about what other people think of me. I love being the tallest person in the room because it makes me feel powerful. I wear heels, roll my shoulders back. I laugh loudly and wear my hair in a bun on top of my head. When people say "You're so tall!" as they always have, as they always will, I try to stop myself from feeling like a bashful preteen again, ashamed of my body and the space it consumes, requires, devours. Instead, I devour willingly. "Thank you," I say. I take it as a compliment, because it is. I swoon for myself.