Tallest Woman in the Zoo

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.”

Ariane Cohen

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.

9 thoughts on “Tallest Woman in the Zoo

  1. I’m really glad she had enough self-acceptance (and enough familial support!) to choose not to have her growth attentuated. I can’t tell how old she is, but (I think) a generation ago, it was fairly common for tall girls from families with the means to pay for it to have their growth stopped, so that they wouldn’t be too tall to be considered feminine.

    Also, while her animal theory is cute, I also doubt that most people who have a favorite, “totem” animal choose it because of physical resemblance. More likely, each person has their own personal reasons stemming from happy experiences with that animal, or metaphorical and folkloric associations that animal has.

    There was a post on Feministing a while back from a tall woman that corroborated what she says about tall women being particularly subject to public ogling and judgment, though. I am a mere 5’8″, so I can’t attest to that personally, but I have definitely seen that from other tall women with more feminist awareness than Cohen seems to have.

  2. I’m 6’2″, so while she’s much taller, I can certainly appreciate the freak treatment. Especially since I’m 6’2″ and both fat and muscular. I even tried not dating anyone shorter than me, but thankfully gave it up when I met my SO. As a kid and teenager I felt like an ogre who would somehow accidentally hurt or crush everyone around me, and got into the bad habit of doing everything with slow deliberation. That’s probably why I fell so in love with horses. There’s no way a 2,000 pound horse can make me feel “too big” to be around :-)

    Most of the time I don’t think about it, but there are definitely moments (especially on camera) where I feel like something from a side-show. Part of my FA journey has also been embracing my “unfeminine” height.

  3. Wow, I had no idea one could opt out of being tall. I come from a family of very tall people, on both sides. My brother is 6′ 9″, and I’m 6′ 0″. We’ve definitely had challenges because of our height, even more so because we’re also fat (I’m more proportionally fat than my brother, however).

    I’ve long struggled with the comments about my boyfriends — when I tease that the tallest man I’ve ever dated is 5′ 9″, I get all these weird looks and frequently comments about how I must “like short men” (???) or something. No, it was just a freaking coincidence. I’ve also dated men of various weights, ethnicities, religions (I wonder, were people also secretly thinking that was weird, too?).

    I’ve always been made to feel as if I were more masculine because of my height and weight. At one point, when I was at my thinnest and tallest, a relieved “friend” claimed that when I had been larger I was sooo “beastly” but only somewhat “beastly” now. Indeed. I’ve also had shorter boyfriends wish I were not so tall, and thinner boyfriends wish I were not so fat (and non-American boyfriends wish I weren’t so American, and religious boyfriend that I wasn’t so agnostic, etc).

    But height and weight are very visible qualities, and it does make those qualities of yourself public property, and therefore, according to some people, up for public discussion. My brother has very low self-esteem, because all his life he’s been dehumanized because of his height (his nickname during school was “Beast” — it was a nickname his *friends* gave him). It’s nearly always the first thing people say when he walks into the room. “Boy, you sure are tall!” or some variation. So it’s not necessarily easier when you’re a tall man, as opposed to a tall woman.

    Thanks for this post.

  4. JoGeek, BigLiberty:

    I can relate somewhat to what you say about feeling too big, masculine or ogrish, though I am not as tall as you. But I also can’t relate to where you didn’t *WANT* to be that way.

    I was skinny as a child and preteen, and always wanted to grow up to be big — as big as my 6’3″ dad. I’d buy cool T-shirts in men’s large, confident I’d grow big enough to wear them one day. In high school and college I threw myself into weightlifting, and finally did get really big and muscular; I am 5’8″ and just under 200 pounds, and can outlift a lot of men my size.

    But even though I don’t look anything like the current ideal of feminine beauty, I do look exactly the way I want to. I can’t imagine wishing I were smaller.

    (But, JoGeek, I can totally relate to being afraid I’ll crush everything and everyone around me! Weirdly, I had that even as I child, when I was too small to realistically have to worry about that. In fact, one reason I never got very good at horseback riding was because I wouldn’t pull on the reins — I was terrified that I’d hurt the horse if I did that).

    I think my totem would be either a wolf or a hyena. Something big, fierce and hairy. :)

  5. Lindsay, thanks for the support regarding animal affinities not being about looks.

    Jo, I think you and she are the same height! Tall and fat is very culturally different from tall and slim. Even though I’m a diminutive 5’4″ or so, I completely get what you say about accepting your height being part of the fat acceptance journey.

    BigLiberty, great comment. I wish we had said something about tallness being a masculinity indicator; it’s close to some of the things we talked about when we were planning the post, but it didn’t make it into the posted version.

    Piffle, I think you get to choose your own animal. “Totem” has a lot of Native American history and richness, and I can’t speak to it, but by me if you want a mountain lion as a companion and special affinity, then you have it.

    Lindsay again, thanks!

  6. 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.

    I appreciated the article– I don’t need the author to question the idea that women shouldn’t date men who are shorter than they are– it’s a data point that there are still women who have to work to get past the idea.

    And since I’m 4′ 11″, it’s worth finding out something about how the other tail of the bell curve lives.

  7. Nancy,

    I’m taller than you but definitely on the shorter side. Her story was interesting to me, in part because from an early age I worked to talk up lots of space, regardless of my size.
    It’s all pretty natural to me now but it’s interesting to read about someone for whom it was automatic and effortless..

  8. I’m tall, 6′, and would beg to differ about “tall is, objectively, gorgeous.” People in my family viewed my tallness as something to be concerned about – “We’re going to have to put a brick on her head!” My mom pointed out women like Julie Newmar because “she’s attractive and she’s tall” but it was clear that she and my father considered a pocket Venus the standard for women. Being short was no liability, it was the most desirable.

    To this day, my idea of an attractive woman isn’t a leggy model, it’s a tiny little woman like the Olsen twins.

    She got the part about always being on display right, though. Being an unwilling performer, the “giraffe in the room”. I always wanted attention, but I wanted it for something I’d done, not for sticking out.

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