Not Oprah’s Book Club: The Tall Book

Like me, Arianne Cohen is a woman over 6 feet tall who makes her living as a journalist. And dammit, she beat me to writing a book about life in the 99th percentile for height: The Tall Book. (I’ve blogged about some of my tall-lady experiences before, in response to an article Cohen wrote for Nerve.)

Much of the book focuses on the undeniable advantages that come with being tall — I’d venture to call it height supremacist, even. Because height is a product of not just genetics but good childhood nutrition, there’s a strong correlation between height and intelligence, and therefore height and wealth. (Ah, but a gender gap persists: tall women still earn 17% less than tall men.) Tall people are also more likely to attract attention (duh) and be perceived as leaders.

But the picture isn’t quite as rosy for tall women — especially those of us who are extremely tall — as it is for tall men. Cohen describes how, as early as age 8, she was offered the option of taking estrogen to stunt her growth so she would not reach her projected height of 6’5″. This practice developed in response to parents’ fears their daughters would not be able to find a husband if they grew too tall. Cohen said no to the estrogen, and today she’s 6’3″. It was a good choice — growth-stunting estrogen has been linked to fertility problems later in life. Yet some doctors continue to prescribe this “treatment” for tallness. A 2002 survey of 411 endocrinologists found 137 still offered height-reduction treatments. How fucking archaic is that? Cohen writes, “In the United States boys are rarely treated, because height is considered beneficial.”

As I read Cohen’s book and thought about my own
height, the more I came to think my physical self has had a lot to do
with me turning out a feminist despite a very conservative upbringing. It’s the social aspects of tallness — especially when it comes to gender dynamics — where things really get interesting…

“Tall women in particular,” Cohen writes, “at first glance, are perceived as more intelligent, affluent, assertive, and ambitious than short women.” When polled, men say they consider short women to be more “nurturing” than taller women. My sense is that this has a lot to do with the fact that we tall gals are man-sized, so to speak. Stature separates us from the other 99% of women, and consequently separates us from some of the stereotypes associated with them. Luckily, patriarchy is there to attach another set of stereotypes to us. Take it from me, being a tall, assertive, ambitious woman still doesn’t erase the experience of sexism.

While there are definite benefits to being perceived as having more “manly” traits, we also are punished for it. In middle school, as she was nearing 6 feet tall, Cohen recounts her
classmate taunting her: “You’re a tall hideous she-man
and no boy will ever date you.” Women who are tall enough to look men square in the eye (or look down on them) are gender transgressors by their very
stature. Here’s a fact that tall women learn very early in life: Men don’t like being looked down on by a woman. This reaction — men feeling threatened by my height  — seems rooted in the fact that I do
not fit neatly into what they think of as “woman.” This is something I
think about when I read about the harassment of transwomen.

Reading a section in which Cohen interviewed tall women on their feelings about their height, I recalled a post by M. LeBlanc
at Shapely Prose: “although I have made peace with my fat self, I can
not endure the thought of being any fatter than I am.” Just read what
tall women say:

“I’m 6’1″, and I’m at the cut-off height. I don’t know if I would feel as confident if I were 6’5″.”

“I honestly wouldn’t want to be any taller than 6’4″. I’m right at the maximum height of what I’m happy with.

I think my height is the absolute limit,” says a 6’5″ dominatrix. “…I think it would be really difficult to be 6’6″ or more.”

This is very different from fatness — which is something that people
are perceived as being able to change. But the sentiment is the same as M. LeBlanc’s:
I’ve come to terms with how I look now, but I could never learn to love
a bigger body. We’re taught that big women who take up space are grotesque monstrosities!

“Incredibly huge! With incredible desires for love — and vengeance!” is my new personal motto.

It’s fascinating to see these insecurities play out in the dating context — particularly the heterosexual dating context. Cohen admits that she only dates men her height or taller. Much of what she describes as the romantic plight of the tall, hetero woman rests on the assumption that no woman wants to date a man shorter than she is — and no man wants to date a woman who is taller. Cohen writes,

It comes down to a numbers game. Women at below the 50th percentile have the entire male population to choose from for taller mates, while a woman at 6’2″ is looking at 3 percent of the population. And men, by the numbers, rarely date up. A study of 720 American couples… showed that only one couple featured a taller woman.

That’s pretty fucked. I know the conversation always gets messy when talk turns to people’s personal dating habits, and whether those reflect biases or just innocuous preferences, but I think it’s inseparable from the narrative about how tall women are constantly made to feel insecure about their femininity (and short men made to feel insecure about their masculinity). I have heard many a tall ladyfriend say that she doesn’t like feeling “big” around a man she’s dating. And I’m sure many men feel the reverse. Society teaches us men are big and women are small. Says a 5’8″ man,

“I generally do not like being dwarfed by a woman. I like to be powerful, and that’s hard. If I’m talking to a girl who’s, let’s say, 6’2″, I feel dwarfed and a bit awkward looking up. How do I keep myself comfortable and get her to feel comfortable, too?”

Thankfully Cohen turns to Betty Dodson for a big fucking reality check:

“Don’t think what you’re going through is so unique to being tall. It can happen if you’re short. It can happen if you’re disabled. It can happen if you are gorgeous. How many beautiful women say that people never see the real in them?”

Amen. There are many sections of this book, especially pertaining to fitting (into clothes, into planes, into crowds, etc.), where you could just replace the words “tall woman” with “fat woman” or “gender nonconforming person” or “disabled woman.” Cohen is simply describing the experience of navigating a society that does not accept difference very easily. What sets tall women apart is that height is almost always perceived as a good thing. People think they’re paying me a compliment when they stare rudely and say, “You’re so tall!” Really they are annoying the shit out of me.

One pretty blatant omission in Cohen’s book is her lack of examination of relationships between tall women and other women. The section on dating is ridiculously heteronormative. I would have loved to read
about tall lesbians’ dating experiences — since there is likely to be an even greater height gap between them and their desired partners. (Commenters? Help me out?)

And what about tall women’s friendships with other women? The average American woman is 5’3″, and for me, going
out to a bar with a cadre of ladyfriends who are at all close to that
average can make it hard to hear the conversation, which is
happening many inches below my ear level. (It’s taught me to empathize with women in the business
world who wear superhigh heels to hear the conversation between men
that’s taking place above their heads.) See this photo
of the Feministing crew for a visual — and most of my co-editors here
are over 5’3″. My friends come in a range of heights, but if I’m honest there are markedly fewer at the short end of the spectrum.

Reading The Tall Book as a feminist, it really struck me that the over-6-foot world is  dramatically different for men and women. I feel an instant camaraderie with tall ladies — who I know share the experience of being stared at, of shopping for pants, of being intentionally and unintentionally intimidating. Cohen describes Tall Clubs, where tall folks from around the world meet and mingle and hook up. Can we have one of those for women only, please? We can call it Attack of the 50 Foot Women. I’d be there in a hot minute.

Watch Cohen discuss her book here. For more on a variety experiences with height and gender, read the comments section of this post.

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