The Tall Book: A Celebration of Life from on High
By Arianne Cohen
New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009, 243 pps., $20.00, hardcover
By Renée Loth
I had trouble finding The Tall Book in my favorite bookstore; it was on the top shelf.
Billed as a “a celebration of life from on high,’’ this treatise on the joys and sorrows of being female, gifted, and tall limns familiar territory of body image, prejudice, and identity politics—but with a sassy twist. “I am a nice, friendly tall person who obeys laws and pays taxes,’’ writes Arianne Cohen, 6’3’’ (this is how she is identified on her book jacket). “Why can’t I fit into a bus seat?”
As someone who barely breaks five feet, who was always seated in the front row for the class picture, who strains for the subway strap and spends more time on her tip-toes than Anna Pavlova, I was fascinated by this book. I approached it as would a cultural anthropologist, hoping to gain a glimpse into a secret club I could never enter. Cohen and I are like opposite ends of the funhouse mirror. Indeed, she was three inches taller than I am today when she was eight years old.
Sure enough, Cohen—a 28-year-old Harvard graduate and magazine writer—occupies a world of assumptions, experiences, and stereotypes I find quite exotic. Everyone expects her to be good at basketball. She never had any trouble seeing the blackboard. Almost literally, she breathes a rarified air. “Talls are the most powerful people in the world, bar none, and always have been,” she writes. “We are smarter, richer, more educated, longer living, and physically superior.”
Throughout The Tall Book, Cohen veers between schadenfreude and self-pity, noting smugly that tall people lap the field in IQ, lifetime income, influence, and longevity. She cites research estimating that a tall person will earn sixteen percent more than short people over a lifetime—a premium of roughly $789 per year, per inch. For example, 29 percent of the CEOs of the nation’s fifty largest corporations are over 6’3”, compared to just two percent of the general population.
Cohen describes a beneficent cycle in which tall job applicants are judged to be more confident and authoritative simply by the position of their downward gaze—as opposed to the more submissive—she quotes a male communications professor calling it “almost feminine”—upward gaze.
After they get that job, the positive expectations continue. Talls get better assignments, command more respect, and receive more promotions and bonuses. If the glass ceiling is ever finally broken, one might expect tall women to do it with their heads. Unfortunately, a gender gap persists even in the high altitudes: tall men still earn seventeen percent more than tall women.
When she isn’t exulting, Cohen whines that airline seats and bathroom stalls are too cramped, that she has to duck to use the ATM or to see her face in a standard mirror, and that public bathrooms and subways are all warping her frame. And since tall people pay more taxes than short ones (because of their higher incomes), she fumes that taxpayer-supported public accommodations should be so, well, unaccommodating.
She reserves a special circle of hell for tall men who date much shorter women, wasting all those inches on women who would be perfectly satisfied with a mate half a foot shorter. And forget sisterhood; when a short woman she knows wanders in to a bar with a very tall man, she confesses: “I pretended that it didn’t bother me, but my inner monologue was shrieking something like Poacher!!!”
Two can play at this game, of course. When Cohen goes to the theater, she may complain that “my knees are at my chin,” but at least she can see the stage. The dictionary is full of vernacular expressions that draw undesirable associations with the small-statured: short-sighted, short-tempered, short-change, short-shrift, shortcoming. In US presidential elections, the taller candidate is nine times more likely to win. Only two presidents in US history were shorter than the national average: James Madison and Martin van Buren.
Even the Europhiles at National Public Radio recently had fun mocking French President Nicolas Sarkozy (5’ 5”), ending a report on his romantic entanglements with the tune, “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There.” And speaking of tunes, Randy Newman never wrote a song with the lyric “Tall people got no reason to live.”
Although it may be true, as Cohen notes, that “popular media images often define femininity as petiteness”—think of Thumbelina or Little Women—the villainously tall ogres and giants she complains about are not just feared but respected. In childhood fairy tales, the lanky witches have all the magical powers; the delicate flowers of womanhood are usually cast as victims.
Anyway, isn’t feminism supposed to be about overturning those societal definitions of womanhood, celebrating every person’s essential humanity, and not obsessing about physical attributes? I was heartened that Cohen advises other Talls not to slump; for me, refusing to wear high heels is a radical act.
I’m matching Cohen’s breezy tone in this review, but I don’t want to minimize the trauma that any girl can undergo if she is perceived to be different. No doubt being teased as “Amazon Ari” and being picked to play the giraffe part in the school play marked Cohen in enduring ways.
A sobering chapter in The Tall Book involves the brutal, height-stunting treatments administered to prepubescent girls on track to be taller than the 97th percentile. The treatments involve massive doses of estrogen to hasten puberty and truncate the growth cycle. Side effects include headaches, nausea, weight gain, and an increased risk of thrombosis and hypertension.
At age eight, Cohen was taken to an endocrinologist to decide whether to undergo such treatments. Her genetically similar mother had submitted to estrogen therapy as a child and considered herself fortunate that her growth screeched to a halt just shy of the six-foot mark. But until her daughter decided to write this book, that had been a shameful family secret. Happily, the young Arianne was just discovering the joys of swimming, where her long limbs were an advantage, and her body felt graceful and strong; she decided to stick with the fate nature gave her.
The book includes a poignant interview with the world’s tallest woman, Sandy Allen, 7’ 7.25’’, conducted just before she died of the effects of gigantism. Allen spent her entire life in her hometown and in her last years had to use a wheelchair, because her legs could no longer sustain her 400-pound frame. Cohen reviews the sorrowful history of twentieth-century supertalls, who were relegated mostly to circus sideshows and Diane Arbus photographs.
Finally, Cohen attends Europatreffen, a tall person’s convention in Freiberg, Germany. There she experiences the kind of revelation that American blacks often describe on their first trips to Africa: after years of feeling “other,” she is suddenly utterly average. “When everyone is tall, height is negated, and you lose your identity as the Tall Girl,” she writes. “You are judged on your underlying qualities, the ones you never see. This feels both naked and freeing at the same time.”
At Europatreffen, Cohen discovers a cultural context for tallness. She realizes how it helped determine the sport she pursued (swimming), her friends (tall), even the personality she developed (“big enough to fit the tall”).
Reading about Cohen’s discovery of tall culture, I was reminded of a number of deaf activists I interviewed several years ago for a series of stories on the disability rights movement. Deafness, for them, was not a disability at all but a mere language barrier. If everyone communicated in American Sign Language—a rich, nuanced system with its own distinctive grammar—then their “handicap” would disappear. Deaf culture was about preserving deaf identity and not trying to “pass” by reading lips or getting cochlear implants.
At this point in her journey, Cohen revels in her identity as a Tall. The book has led to photo shoots in Vogue and a website that advocates for universal design principles in public conveyances and everyday equipment. Still, tall people need to live among shorts, deaf people among the hearing, blacks among other races, and women among men. Even as I cheered Cohen’s decision to start dating shorter men, I felt spiritually exhausted. Self-esteem is all to the good, but I can’t help thinking we will be better off when we stop focusing on what divides us.
Renée Loth is a columnist and former editorial page editor for the Boston Globe.