Let me ask you this: what is the first thing — factual, not opinion-based — you notice about me? In one word, I am freakin’ tall. The average American woman is around 5’4. I am 5’10. With heels, I am usually around 6’2, which makes me 10 inches taller than the average Jane. I constantly get questions from strangers about it. In line at the grocery store: “How tall are you with those shoes on?” In a Barnes and Noble: “Are you a supermodel?” This never comes from a super sexy, chiseled-abs model type; just a vaguely homeless person. And then there’s the evergreen assumption: “You must be an athlete.”
In grade school, teachers and coaches all assumed that I’d grow up to be a competitive athlete. In elementary, I joined a recreational soccer team and was terrible. But soccer doesn’t require height. Once middle school rolled around and organized school sports were offered to me, all my friends were trying out for our school’s prominent and successful basketball team. Being a woman of the people, I followed suit. Bear in mind that due to a childhood game of softball during which the ball punched me in the face, I developed a habitual flinch whenever anything was tossed my way.
Every day for a week, I arrived at the school’s gym at 5:45am for tryouts. I knew nothing. Do layups require right arm and right leg, or right arm and left leg? Why can’t I just receive the ball and throw it immediately toward the general hoop area? I was a runner, so I could keep up with any sprints, but even during passing drills I’d (literally) drop the ball. It was shocking how uncoordinated I was. After a decade of comments on how tall I was, how I must be a natural athlete, you better believe I was knocked off that horse quickly.
That Friday, the tryout results were posted to the middle school bulletin board. I didn’t even check them. Soon, friends started coming to me saying, “Congrats…!” I had made the JV team. I began hearing comments from some friends who hadn’t made the cut: “She only made it because she’s tall.” So I believed them.
Basketball was a struggle for me, starting out. I showed up for the first day of practice, so incredibly honored to be a part of the team at all. It was my mission to show them they hadn’t made a mistake adding the tall girl. It became clear to me that they might have. I did eventually master the catching of the ball, but then I’d proceed to do pony feet, which the referees would call out as a travel, and my team would lose the ball. With all my mistakes, I grew timid around my coaches. Finally, one of them pulled me aside.
“Amanda, do you know why we gave you a spot on this team?” I did know. “Because I’m tall.”
“Sure, you are. That certainly doesn’t hurt. But that’s not why. We’d have given you a spot on the team even if you were 5’2, because of your attitude.”
Now, I’d always had a vague understanding that I was a fairly respectful and overall happy human being. I wasn’t one of those landmine types who could explode at any time; I don’t give a lot of flack. I reflected on my behavior during tryouts. On the second morning, I had run out of the gymnasium and thrown up in a trash can before immediately returning to run shooting drills. On the fourth day, we were dribbling the ball up and down the court backwards — and I barely remember it, but I fell right on my ass, and I picked myself up without blinking and kept running backwards. I had perseverance, and it shone just a bit brighter than my absolute lack of inherent ability.
I still catch myself assuming that my height overshadows me. I catch myself politely slouching especially near men who aren’t quite my height — but then the joke’s on me, because I look like a frumpy, hunch-backed idiot. Yes, people notice my height more immediately than, say, my sense of humor. But my height doesn’t hold greater value than I do. Head up, shoulders back, my height is just a bonus to who I am. Plus, it gives me an excuse to buy fabulous shoes, because everyone’s going to be checking them out to see if my height is natural.