Life as a tall woman: Someone shouted at us on Grafton Street – ‘Yer girlfriend’s bigger than ye’
In my 20s I was often approached by men who were challenged by my height
As a child I went to sleep dreaming I was small
New research from the Netherlands reports that women who are taller than 5ft 9in are more likely to live into their 90s than women who are shorter than 5ft 3in.
In The Tall Book: A Celebration of Life from on High, Arianne Cohen claims that tall women are perceived to be more dominant, more confident and more intelligent. Tall women also tend to earn more money than their shorter counterparts, she writes.
I wish I’d known all this when I was a tall child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Height was part of my identity and part of family lore when I was young.
My ancestors were tall, my brothers were tall, my cousins were tall. Everyone was tall. My great-grandfather used to say “my great stature manifests itself sporadically in my descendants.”
He was 6ft 7in. I was terrified I would take after him.
Being tall never failed to raise comment everywhere I went. Like a lot of tall children, I felt more was expected of me. I got away with less than my friends. How often did I hear “And you? You should know better.” I was always either the leader (good) or the ring leader (bad) of my three best friends.
As a gangly seven-year-old I burned with embarrassment when my ballet teacher shouted “au pointe you clumsy elephant!”
I went to sleep dreaming I was as small as a Fisher Price person with an invisible suit.
From junior school into senior, I embarked on another involuntary growth spurt while my trio of tiny friends stayed tiny. They were all the same. I was different.
They followed me around as if I was their leader. They seemed to have stopped growing while I couldn’t stop. I was all legs and arms and my hands seemed huge and stuck out of everything. The teeny trio were still playing hopscotch and skipping while I was getting taller than the teachers and tripping over the rope.
Stricken with self-consciousness, my shoulders fought a daily downward battle against an ever extending spine. I slouched myself smaller. I slouched to school and I slouched into classrooms and I slouched around hockey pitches and netball courts and I slouched back home again.
Well-meaning relatives made me walk across rooms with books on my head – promising that good posture would be rewarded with a career as an air hostess with Aer Lingus!
I walked tall for a while and in private hurled the books against the wall and re-arranged my shoulders.
Old men said “You’re lovely when you smile. SMILE!” Older men put their arms around my waist and said “aren’t you a fine strapping girl?” A man at a céilí said “There’s some breedin’ in them hips.” I was about 13.
As I grew, my back started to hurt so a sheet of chipboard was found for my bed. A gruelling regime of swimming began. I was given too-short Speedos and told to get on with it.
My tall brothers sat at home on dark winter nights watching Top of the Pops while I slouched through the rain to the pool and slouched through the rain back home again. I was missing MASH. Tall was getting personal.
Despite the lack of sleep (turns out the chipboard should have been under the mattress) and the shame of the skin-tight Speedos, I made it through the awkward years and emerged as a relatively upright six-footer on the other side.
The well-meaning family friends upgraded my prospects from air-hostess to model. A promotion! I grimaced in response – flattered but also insulted. “She’ll have to change her attitude,” they said.
I went from an all-girls school to a (nearly) all-boys school. The teeny trio were left behind, and I fell in with a new trinity of very tall boys. We fancied ourselves and walked around town and hung out at the Bailey and pretended we were in a band. At 6ft 1in, I was the smallest. I began to un-slouch.
In my 20s I was often approached by men who were challenged by my height. Sometimes that meant they had something to prove. Other times they wanted to know who the hell I thought I was – taking up so much space in the world and acting as if I counted.
But with age and experience came a fragile confidence and eventually the ability to give as good as I got. But as the years passed, the family friends and relatives fretted on the side-lines when there was no husband in the offing.
They’d heard that the most recent boyfriend had dumped me after someone shouted after us on Grafton Street – “Yer girlfriend’s bigger than ye!”
“She’ll have to go abroad to find a husband!” cried the friends. Their tall sons were offered for dates. I declined. Their lips turned into tight lines. “She’ll have to change her attitude,” they said.
And as I edged into my late 20s, my modelling prospects were downgraded: “Have you thought about becoming a guard?”
My daughter is tall and getting taller (my great grandfather’s stature manifesting itself sporadically in his descendants), and I’ll probably have to witness the shoulder-slouch phase with her very soon.
My heart will go out to her but then I’ll remind myself I was lucky then and I’m lucky now, and then I will remind her that she is lucky too.