Standing Tall Through High And Low Moments
by Elaine Soloway
An edited version appeared in the Chicago Tribune WomanNews, August 16, 2000
Reprinted with Permission, September 2006

She was trying to be friendly - I know she didn't mean anything by it.

"You're so cute!" she said to me. "How tall are you?"

We were in the women's locker room at my health club. I was at the mirror, putting on makeup, nude except for a towel around my torso. She was to my right, smiling down at me. A tall woman, five nine, I'd guess.

I shifted to the left, afraid she might pat my head next, as if I were a puppy or toddler.

"I used to be four eleven and a half, but now I'm four nine," I answered. "You shrink as you get older."

We continued to chat; the tone was cordial. But when the woman left, I sighed, shaking my head at yet another silly, and annoying reaction to my height.

I suppose I should be used to it by now. After all, I'm 61, and have always been the shortest in a group. Early class photos are evidence: first row, first seat, feet barely touching the floor.

"You were so cute," that's how my best friend Ruth remembers me in sixth grade when we first met. "Just like a doll."

We have been close friends for more than 50 years. Ruth says she's shrinking, too, but she's still at least five nine.

I don't remember it bothering me in grade school, but I think by high school the words started to chafe, and the older I got, the more irritating "cute" and "doll" became. If it were up to me, I'd select smart, funny, or clever as adjectives. Comments about my mind, not my appearance. My wit may not be as immediately apparent as my shortness, but who says instantaneous reaction is required?

Why don't I speak up? Tell those tall people I don't like their comments about my size? It's not worth making a fuss.

After all, I have never felt handicapped as a short woman. I do my best work sitting or lying down, where size is irrelevant. Yes, I have to sit on a phone book to get my hair shampooed, and I have a hard time at the movies if someone tall fills the seat in front. And at the Jewel, I must call on taller customers to pick Fiber One off the top shelf. But compared to other flaws, my lack of height is nothing.

It must have disturbed my mother, though. She herself was just five one, and my dad five four, but it was my shortness that upset her.

"Just to be sure there's nothing wrong," she told my dad after making an appointment with an endocrinologist. I was about ten at the time.

The doctor confirmed the obvious: "She has two short parents; what do you expect? She's small, but not abnormal."

Now Mother loved being thought of as "cute". Although she had a brain, back then in the '40s, women were more admired for their looks, and Mom had plenty of those. She relished the attention as she worked behind the counter of our family grocery store.

My height has been an advantage in one area: romance. Never had a problem attracting males, especially the short ones. Any high school lad who had not attained full height by freshman year, sought me out. Relieved there was a maiden he could look down on, he would pursue me for Saturday night dates and proms.

While my teenage swains were sweet, I never returned their ardor. I hated that my allure was size, not sizzle. I suppose if you asked them, they'd swear the attraction included my sense of humor - something in that vein - but I know it was second on the list.

One reason I fell for my first husband, who at six feet proposed despite my size, was because he thought me smart. Smart, clever, and funny. As for me, I loved his tallness - believing I had gained stature, just by hanging on his arm.

But from the beginning there were problems with our differences in altitudes. "Can't hear you," I would shout up to him as we held hands walking down the street. And when we danced, his arm around my shoulder, my nose at his navel, we were a sight.

Thirty years later, when I was single again, my height once more became a magnet for dates. Instead of teenagers, my barely five feet won me all blind dates under five eight.

"I've got the perfect guy for you," a friend would say. I knew what she meant.

And when I ran ads in the personals and noted my height along with my religion (Jewish), love of dogs, jazz, and National Public Radio, you can guess what pulled them in.

My sweetheart of a second husband is a perfect five seven. No communication or waltz problems. While he does throw in a few "you're so cute" endearments, I know its my accomplishments he brags about to friends. "She's being published," he'll phone them with the news.

In the world of work, which began for me at age 14 and ended when I retired at 60, I can recall only two instances when my height caused a problem.

The first was in 1980, I was a press aide for the mayor of the City of Chicago, Jane M. Byrne. I was stationed at a ceremonial event, some ribbon cutting or unveiling. Along with distributing press kits, my job was to fend off reporters poised to attack Mayor Byrne with questions the moment she stepped from her limo. Her car pulled up, I extended both arms out to my sides trying to push back the crowd of reporters. But it was as hopeless as stopping a wall of rushing water.

Television cameramen, photographers, reporters with their microphones thrust before them, easily pushed me aside and descended on the diminutive Mayor.

Back at City Hall, I overheard Mayor Byrne tell my boss: "Don't sent Elaine to events anymore. She can't handle it."

I was disappointed and embarrassed, but also relieved. She was right - I couldn't control that part of the job.

It took 20 more years before my height once again affected job performance. Retired from my public relations career, I took a seasonal job at the Gap -- for a kick, for the discount. Denims there were stacked to the ceiling: classic, boot cut, wide leg. Size two all the way up to fourteen. Thousands of blue jeans piled one on top of another. If my customer was a tiny two, no problem, but anything heftier, and I had to turn to another salesclerk or customer.

"Could you please, would you mind?" I would gesture helplessly. And with a chuckle, they would comply.

I know I'm not the only one to wrestle with height.

I just read an article in the newspaper that said physicians in Japan are concerned because teenage girls, having embraced the latest fashion fad -- six-inch platform shoes - are tumbling down stairs and twisting ankles or breaking legs. But the girls refuse to give up the shoes.

"I like being tall, looking down on my boyfriend," a 14-year-old is quoted as saying. "It makes me feel superior."

I know how the young woman feels; but it's not worth risking life or limb. I want to tell these high-heeled teens what people always told me: "Good things come in small packages." Good things: smart, funny, clever, witty, and yes, even cute things.