Laurie and Debbie say:
Ariane Cohen is 6’2″. In this article, she writes about her life as a giraffe. She opens the article by theorizing about our connections to exotic animals:
I have a theory that we each have a vague kinship with an exotic animal. Perhaps you have an inexplicable affinity for leopard print. Or your shower curtain is covered in butterflies, similar to the one on your ankle. Or you were a Rubenesque, somersaulting toddler and your family nicknamed you Panda.
Debbie finds this amusing: “If I had an animal affinity based on what I look like, it would be panda, or hippopotamus, or walrus. But lovely as all those animals are, my affinity is to the giraffe. So whether or not Cohen is correct about affinities, she’s wrong–at least for me–about connecting them to our own shapes.”
Cohen is only one tall woman, and she’s also a slender tall woman, which helps. There’s certainly something to admire in someone who can take what many people might call a social liability and translate it into (mostly) an advantage without having to question any underlying cultural assumptions about height, weight, gender, and relationships.
Cohen is from a tall family, and her mother took her early to an endocrinologist, who offered her some choices that he almost certainly couldn’t have provided:
Which is how I found myself facing Dr Kauger, my mother, and the question: “So what height would you like to be?” I had six months to decide, because the pills must be started before puberty.
My thinking had little to do with height and more to do with a general aversion to medication: when in doubt, don’t take chemicals. At the time, it was simply a decision of passivity. I was frozen. Though I wasn’t happy with my body, I didn’t want to change it. I told myself that the fastest swimmers in the world were six-footers. Long limbs were important. So I decided to not do anything. I figured I’d just wait and see what happened.
What happened, she tells us, is that she ended up in therapy, and examined how she felt about her height:
Tallness is, objectively speaking, gorgeous. Tallness, by definition, can only be awkward when there are shorter bodies nearby. You see it at basketball games: the 6ft 5in athlete looks ethereal in her own space, all grace and long angles. And then the 5ft 5in teammate comes into the frame, and suddenly she looks like Hulk. Or the shorter teammate looks like Humpty Dumpty. Ditto on catwalks when the designer appears.
Of course, men are always a factor:
I had never dated anyone shorter than me. I spent my time seeking out the 3% of men taller than me, who by definition made me not tall. I was alerted to the error of my ways while interviewing love and relationship expert Dr Betty Dodson. When I told her I only dated up, she exclaimed, “You’re prejudiced! I mean, come on! Develop a sense of humour! It will help. Look in the mirror and say, ‘God damn, we’re a weird-looking couple.’ And then shut it off.”
Not much new here, right? Some good writing, some excellent metaphors. Good advice. A scary story (not quoted here) about how being tall in Cambodia almost got her diagnosed with a life-threatening illness at 23.
Cohen’s experience is her experience, but we can still disagree with some of her conclusions. Tallness is actually not “objectively speaking” gorgeous. Tallness doesn’t exist without something to compare it to; neither, of course, does shortness.
Similarly, tall athletes don’t look “ethereal.” The dictionary definition of “ethereal” is “extremely delicate or refined.” Tall athletes, say on the basketball court, are frequently graceful. They are also muscled, sweaty, and breathing hard. They aren’t delicate and refined, and neither are they “light, airy or tenuous,” which is another dictionary definition.
The heart of Cohen’s point, however, is:
The true challenge of tall life is not that you’re tall. Who cares about that – legs are legs. The challenge is that everyone can see you, all the time. Eyes follow everywhere you go. You’re public. On display. There is no hiding. Learning to love yourself has nothing to do with the blather you see in women’s magazines about treating your body as a temple – it’s learning to accept the high-wattage spotlight that came packaged with your body, always shining on you. I can tell you what it feels like to resist: like a non-performer pushed on stage, day after day. The giraffe in the room.
Neither of us are tall enough to judge this for ourselves. In the context of the rest of the essay, however, her word “challenge” feels like exactly the correct one: she’s simultaneously loving and minding her tallness. At 13, she chose it, however passively; as an adult, she’s had some troubles with it, but on the whole she sees herself as beautiful, over-visible, and (thanks to Betty Dodson) with a reasonable range of potential male partners. Like her totem giraffe, she’s come to terms with her height: “Giraffes are tall, laid-back creatures of the highest order: polysocial, known for hanging out in any number or gender combination, the cool lunch table. They stand lookout among the zebras and wildebeests and ostriches, and get along with the entire savannah. They are anything but outcasts.”
Whenever people have the opportunity to do so, they will almost always focus on the way they are different from other people, without examining where either they personally or their differences fit into the larger society. Because Cohen fails to question any cultural assumptions (including both the most obvious “tall women must date tall men” and a wide variety of others, such as underlying heterosexism and stereotypes of what tallness is like), in the end this piece is an entertaining and well-written account of what it’s like to be her, without much to offer anyone who isn’t.
Thanks to Arthur D. Hlavaty for being first with the pointer.