I AM A TALL BLACK WOMAN! And yes, being ‘Black’ is a very important dimension to my ‘Being Tall’ story. Unlike many tall White women who are portrayed as ‘elegant’, ‘sexy’ and hence extremely desirable; tall Black women are usually portrayed as ‘aggressive’, ‘weird’, ‘intimidating’ and just plain tall (with the exception of models of course). Needless to say, I am grossly overgeneralising here, but what stereotype in existence doesn’t…?! All I know is that as a lost, insecure and depressed teen in the 90s, I watched a lot of those Hollywood ‘teencoms’ on television and never once saw a positive image of a tall Black woman. I also remember being in high school (also during the 90s) and having many of the boys not only ostracise me because of my height, but also actively treat me as though I was a boy just because I was taller than most of them; something they never dared do to the tall White girls at school. It is no wonder that at age 30, I am still easily wounded whenever the ignorant of humankind decide to entertain themselves at the expense of my height. I was actually very recently approached by an extremely short man who wanted to take a photo with me and from the way this guy and his friend were laughing whilst requesting this photo, I knew that its use was purely for ridicule. For the first time in my life, I got a tiny sense of what poor Saartjie Baartman must have gone through whilst on ‘display’ in London.
So one of the first questions that I get asked by the more ignorant of the ignorant of our humankind is ‘Why are you so tall?!’ In many respects, this is actually a pretty dumb question. I always want to say, ‘Where were you when your biology teacher was teaching genetics in class?!’ But living in South Africa and with the history and legacy of apartheid strongly visible in South Africa’s education system, it would be very unkind of me to say this to any South African – South Africans generally don’t handle difference very well. The reason that I am tall is however not as straightforward as the basic principles of genetics would have it. My Mum and one of my sisters are taller than average at 1.8m, whilst my one sisters is about 1.74m (but always in heels) and the other one is about 1.68m but no-one is nearly as tall as I am. I was born with a rare connective tissue disorder called Marfan Syndrome which had me hitting 1.8m by age 10, 1.84m by my 20s, and 1.88m by age 28 where it seems to have stabilized for now.
But my height was not the only bodily structure to be affected by this genetic disorder. I have an ever-expanding aortic valve (the main valve in the heart) and I am 95% blind as well (more about this in another guest blog post). So how does me having Marfan Syndrome fit into my ‘Being Tall’ story? The second most common question that people ask me is ‘Do you play netball or basketball?’ When I very simply say ‘No’, they usually continue with…’But why not?” Over the years, I have experimented with a variety of responses to this question. Telling people most of the truth, that is, I have a heart condition which prevents me from playing any sport (I quite frankly don’t have an early death wish), makes them extremely uncomfortable and as a result makes them say even stranger things just to get out of the conversation that they had initiated. My new favourite response is, ‘I was always more of a bookworm and a sports spectator’ which by the way is entirely true. This usually leaves people speechless and/or makes them (again) say strange things to regain their composure. I remember one guy in an elevator who after all of this said to me ‘But you must have fun, hey!’ to which I responded, ‘But I do, without playing netball or basketball!’ Needless to say, this shut him up for the rest of the short elevator ride.
And if people I have just met don’t take the sports angle, they usually take the ‘You are so lucky to be tall!’ angle. The stories that usually follow this statement vary but they are usually centred on ‘reaching things on top shelves’ or ‘seeing over people heads’ – because these are areas where one should really count one’s lucky stars, right?! I particularly hate the latter statement because I am 95% blind and cannot see further than in front of my noise. I must put a little disclaimer here and say that for someone who is 95% blind, I have managed through life without people realising that I do not have most of my vision until they ask me to do something which requires me to use my eyes. Whilst attending Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington D.C on 20 January 2009, I had a group of African-American women come-up to me and ask me to help them locate their friend who was having trouble finding them. Did they get the shock of their lives and huddled-off very quickly when I told them that I was 95% blind! I believe they still used me as a ‘land-mark’ whilst their lost friend tried to locate them, something I found rather offensive. In this context, no-one would ever dare say out loud, ‘we are standing near the short, black woman who is slightly overweight’ because that would be just plain rude.
It still fascinates me that height as a physical attribute has not yet been encapsulated into the group of physical attributes that we are socially taught not to place any emphasis on in public. It is considered socially inappropriate and rude to walk-up to someone who is overweight to ask them why they are overweight or walk-up to an albino to ask them why they look the way they do. And interestingly, it would also be considered socially inappropriate to do the same to someone who is a dwarf…so why is someone who is tall not treated with the same social dignity? And let’s face it; it is tall women (irrespective of race) who suffer the most from this sort of intrusive inquiry because it is considered ‘normal’ for men to be tall. Whenever I try to explain this thinking to people, I am usually told that I am being unnecessarily defensive and am subsequently written-off as the aggressive tall Black woman.
I will admit my mostly negative experience of being tall and Black during my formative years has significantly impacted the way I think about my height as an adult. But just for a minute, think what it must feel like to have people constantly staring at you, pointing at you, and sometimes even snickering at you, because of the colour of your eyes or your hair or the shape of your nose or mouth…? This is what I have to go through almost every day of my life. My height, much like your eyes, hair, nose, mouth, was predefined by my DNA albeit faulty. And what’s interesting is that if most people knew that I was tall because of a rare genetic condition, I suspect that I would be afforded far more social dignity than I currently am.
As most of us know, being any kind of different in this world is hard, so the next time you see me or any other tall woman, Black or White, take a moment to think about how your reaction towards her difference will impact her. I always appreciate people (mostly women) who come up to me just to tell me that my height is beautiful; tall women are not incapable of accepting compliments. I recently had a rather lovely African-American Professor say to me that ‘you don’t have a genetic disorder, you have a genetic beauty’. I was extremely humbled. I know not everyone is this nice, so if you need to look at all 1.88m of me, make it quick and move on instead of standing and staring with your mouth open (and dear parents, some of you need to do a better job of teaching your children to not stare at anyone who is different). And if you have nothing nice to say to me about my height, don’t say anything; just smile and again move on.
Whilst holidaying in Asia a couple of years ago, one of my sisters saw an Aborigine man, living in the other side of the world, one does not encounter one everyday right?! She was excited. But in spite of her awe, she simply walked past him and smiled. Social dignity.