Tall inside, but not short of opinions

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

BODY LANGUAGE

The other day someone called me a midget. Not to my face, but the comment was relayed to me. Sticks and stones, right? Yet I find I’m still thinking about it, emotions swirling around in my mind.

I turn to the Collins English Dictionary for succour.
“People who are very short are sometimes referred to as midgets [offensive],” it says. Phew, it’s not just me being some sort of miniature snowflake.

It’s a fine line, as any vertically challenged person who has had a friend helpfully tag them on one of those “10 reasons why short people have no sense of humour” posts knows. Grimace, and they think you’re proving their point. Laugh, and you’ve internalised their heightism.

The thing is, I don’t have an issue with being short. There are daily accommodations that all of us have to make to varying degrees — in our different bodies, in our different ways — to function in the world.

For me, this means standing on a chair to reach the high cupboards in the kitchen; factoring in the cost of alterations when I buy a pair of trousers; changing seats if there’s a super-tall person sitting in front of me at the theatre; asking random strangers to hand me products from the top shelf when I’m grocery shopping.

There are probably many other little accommodations I make without thinking. It’s difficult to enumerate them, even when I’m making a list, because they are so much a part of my quotidian experience. This is just how my world is. It’s not a big deal.

I’m not exactly sure how tall I am, although I recall being measured at between 148cm and 150cm at various points in my adult life. That puts me out of the official dwarf zone (147cm), but still shorter than Oscar Pistorius without his prosthetics (152cm). For those of you who measure height in the imperial system, I am comfortably less than five feet.

But “midget”? That stings. And it triggers memories of all the times I’ve been judged for my short stature. You may be surprised at how many people think: “Wow, you’re so short!” is an acceptable comment to make to someone they’ve just met.

And the solicitude from friends and family is, somehow, even worse: so many silver linings for a cloud I wasn’t even aware existed. I remember an older, male cousin telling me when I was a teenager that I “mustn’t worry about being short, because guys like short girls”. As if my worth were to be judged by guys who like me. If he said that to me now, my cousin would get a swift klap.

When I was in primary school, a beloved aunt (and fellow shorty) gave me a book called Tall Inside by Jean Richardson. I dug it out at my folks’ house earlier this week. The book is about a little girl who can’t join her classmates’ (I hesitate to call them friends’) club because she can’t swing from the high branch. She meets a clown who is very tall, but turns out to be short himself when he takes off his stilts. Then he imparts some life lessons, or whatever.

I remember feeling rather confused reading this book as a child. I didn’t know before then that you had to make a special effort to be tall inside if your body didn’t match up.

When I was in standard four, our neighbour and family friend told me a story from her own school days. Ros was tall and willowy. “At the beginning of standard four, I was the shortest girl in the class,” she said. “And by the end of standard four, I was the tallest girl in the class.” She had had one of those mythical (to me) growth spurts characteristic of puberty.

Even as a preteen, I was sceptical. But I noted, at the end of the year, that I was still the shortest girl in the class. It didn’t matter. All I ever wanted was to be tall inside.

Dynamite comes in small packages, as the cliché goes, but I’ve never had much time for that aphorism. I don’t want to wreak destruction and devastation — I just want to be me, in my own body, without people trying to make me feel better about some presumed “lack” I don’t even feel.

And I find, reflecting on my adolescence — that time of life when words do hurt — that I have had the answer all along. In high school we went on one of those torture, I mean adventure, outward-bound camps. Everyone had to scale a tall pole, in full safety harness, and then jump into the unknown and catch hold of a swing. I scaled, I jumped: I didn’t reach the swing.

There were a few of us girls who didn’t achieve this goal. One of my fellow non-swing-reachers was particularly distraught. Tears may have ensued.

But I was doing my calculations, and I realised that everyone who didn’t catch the swing was shorter than average. That particular physical challenge wasn’t designed for us, but I was proud that I had made the leap at all.

That day, I was tall inside. It’s a work in progress — and it’s what I still aspire to.

Theresa Mallinson

Theresa Mallinson

Theresa Mallinson is a subeditor at the Mail & Guardian. She has previously worked at Daily Maverick, Free African Media, The Daily Vox and Business Day. She loves books, cats and books about cats. Theresa has been in an intimate relationship with the Oxford comma for much of her adult life but they are currently on a break.  Read more from Theresa Mallinson

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