Over the years, I’ve gotten a fair number of letters and emails from tall teens and preteens wrestling with issues of body image and self esteem. These notes are some of my favorites to respond to, in that I get to reply with the kind of encouragement I wished for when I was young. They are also some of the most difficult to respond to—certainly without veering into platitudes, or making promises that end up ringing hollow.
For most of us, growing up is hard. It is more so in bodies that look—and behave—far differently than those of other kids; other girls. I remember being fed multiple versions of the “struggle makes you stronger” pep talk throughout my teenage years. I also remember that the story was much more complicated as I was living it.
I’m ready to admit that my relationship with my tall frame has not always been easy—in fact, for the first two decades of my life, it was really not. So for the first time in my Internet history, I am unveiling the sequence—and photographic evidence—that got me to the age of 30, the height of 6’4”, and body acceptance.
My hope is that for any present and future young readers, it will exist as proof positive that it can—and will—get better.
From Tall “Sir” to Fashion Editor: A Story for Young Women
Why, thank you, sir.
-April 1994, Mr. Hubbard, to me, at the hallway and double doors between the girl’s bathroom and the music room
Bethel Elementary School, Bethel, Vermont
Being mistaken for a boy at age 10 was nowhere near the last time that I’d be mistaken for a boy (to this day, I can’t tell whether it was a compliment or a blow to my femininity to be mistaken for an ugly boy, which happened several times too). In any case, here I am, over 20 years later, reliving the anniversary of my first “sir”. Comfortingly, that event is one I can finally laugh about today—only because most wouldn’t misperceive me as male, even if my neck is covered (formerly, I caught people examining it on lookout for an Adam’s apple. Not kidding.)
Still, whenever I read the wrong kind of appraising glance, or someone slips and calls me “broad shouldered”, “strong”, or “big”—I feel an uncomfortable churn below the surface. I’m reminded that that first “sir” marked the beginning of a body struggle—and dysmorphia—that far outlasted my teens.
By 1994, I was already a cerebral kid. Philosophically, I believed—as I still do—that physical bodies become trivial when racked against their inner contents. But as precocious as I was, my philosophy didn’t protect me from feeling disenfranchised when I looked in the mirror. How I looked at 10 was virtually how I looked at 13 and how I looked at 15, with a few minor updates: moon-faced with a bowl cut and a large-boned frame that stretched upward over 6’0” tall, paired with a high body weight that flip-flopped between baby fat and muscle. At times, one set of limbs would grow too quickly, leaving me looking and feeling distended, trying to navigate in a shell that was neither reliable nor recognizably female. In classic chicken-or-egg scenario, I picked boy’s clothes that only emphasized my spot in liminal body land. The lack of sartorial options for tall teenage girls in the 90s was only in part to blame.
My physical uncertainty was palpable to kids with noses for vulnerability. With an imposing stature matched to reserve and a gallant streak more gentlemanly than ladylike, I was an easy target. I thought I was thriving while throwing my attentions into activity, whether schoolwork or sports. But I soaked up the whispers, the taunts, the threats, the trips, the traps, the punches, the pinches, and replayed them to myself as confirmation of my unworthiness. I avoided boys—even though I was interested in them—because attacks against my sexuality made me wonder if I was transgender or homosexual and just didn’t know it yet.
I survived my adolescent years by compartmentalizing and internalizing—thinking I could hide my body issues in a composed box that otherwise looked confident, acted confidently, and performed as well on the court and on the field as in the classroom.
The strangest bit to me at the time was this: even when the bullying subsided in my late teens, I kept nicking away at my own self-esteem as a compulsive habit.
Body loathing was, and would continue to be, an inhibitor—presenting itself in myriad, insidious ways.
Until the day I decided it wouldn’t be…
Please stay tuned for Part II of the story.
And comment below: what’s your story of growing up tall and female?