Julia Child's Height Was Not a Handicap

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
June 30 2009 4:38 PM

Julia Child's Height Was Not a Handicap

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At every public appearance I make, someone raises his hand and says something like, "It’s much harder to be a tall woman than a tall man, right?" This point of view was echoed in the current issue of The New Yorker : A story about the director Nora Ephron opens with a quote about being tall from Meryl Streep, who is playing 6-foot-2 Julia Child in the forthcoming movie Julie & Julia . "I mean, it's like having club foot ... it was a handicap of sorts, certainly in the world where she was born," Streep says.

Yes, being tall has its challenges. I know, I'm 6-foot-3. But at its heart, the constant struggle of height is that to be tall is to be public, the constant sense of walking around with a spotlight on you. There's no place to hide, and that's genderless. Tall men are every bit as self-conscious as tall women.

Tall women’s struggles are more subtle. You’re not aware of this unless you’re tall, but there’s a vortex of silence around tall female public figures, and a total dearth of tall female role models. Sure, there are lots of very successful tall women out there. But you probably don’t know who they are. Because they don't talk about it.

No one really knew how tall Julia Child was until Meryl Streep started talking about it.

Tall girls look around and have two role model choices: Sarah, Plain and Tall (note that she’s plain and tall, not tall and awesome), and Janet Reno, being portrayed by a man on Saturday Night Live . It’s not inspirational.

There are few tall women saying, "I’m tall, I love it, this is beautiful," because tall public figures, including more than a few top WNBA and tennis stars, steer away from their height during interviews because they-understandably-want to be seen for more than their bodies. (Note: Yes, I know that models are tall. But there's a pivotal issue of mass here that changes the experience.)

What messages do slip through are incredibly negative. In the last few weeks, beyond Streep comparing it to a disability: 6-foot Brooke Shields told Health that she’s sad that she waited to lose her virginity until age 22 because she was uncomfortable in her body, and 5-foot-10 Blake Lively told Allure that she, "feels like a tranny a lot of the time. I just feel really big a lot of the time, and I’m surrounded by a lot of tiny people. I feel like a man sometimes."

Really, height has nothing to do with manliness. Nothing. That’s like associating overweight women with manliness because men tend to weigh more. The trouble is that by not talking about it, us tall women have left space for others to define it. And in our silence, tall women have been very sexualized by popular culture, often portrayed as manly and aggressive (see the amazing poster for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman , or any of Perez Hilton’s commentary on tall lady celebs-whom he calls manly she-men).

I think it’s important for us tall women to speak up and portray ourselves as we’d like to be portrayed as gorgeous and lovely and wonderful, and set culture’s idea of tall women by defining it ourselves by talking about it as much as possible, wherever relevant, very loudly. Like right here.

Photograph of Julia Child at her 90th birthday celebration by Thomas J. Gibbons/Getty Images.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.