Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 | 9 minutes (2,497 words)
Okay, I’m not even that short, but I just watched Reese Witherspoon get called “untrustworthy” on Big Little Lies for being 5-foot-1 so I have to talk about it. I’m actually 2.5 inches taller than she is — I’m aware that insisting on that half inch makes me sound like a pedantic asshole — but that’s still short enough that when I lost half an inch it felt like a betrayal. I don’t know where that half inch went; all I know is that one day I was 5-foot-4, and the next I was 5-foot-3-and-a-half. Who cares, right? Terry Gross is 4-foot-11 and recently interviewed Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is 5-foot-9 and asked the Fresh Air host if being short affected her. I could basically hear Gross’s shrug through the microphone. And same. But now that I think about it, that’s a heavy shrug.
Witherspoon was disparaged by Meryl Streep, who was playing the mother of a man who abused his wife. In a sense, the former was representing feminism; the latter internalized misogyny — that unpleasant habit we have of acting out sexism despite ourselves. What’s interesting is that most of us don’t actually need a Streep to do it. We’re pretty good at hacking away at our own self confidence, conjuring imaginary competitions with other women, isolating ourselves from them, all of which has the self-sabotaging effect of perpetuating the behavior that keeps us down. It’s not really about height, but height is as good a marker as any for how the world sees us and how we see the world (and ourselves in it) — in other words, for how trustworthy 5-foot-3-and-a-half becomes.
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In the Big Little Lies scene in question, Madeline (Witherspoon) is at a coffee shop and notices Mary Louise (Streep), the mother of the guy she saw getting pushed to his death last season (it’s a soap). The way Madeline’s holding her muffin, that blush-pink blouse with the bow and the matching makeup and the black cardigan — she looks like such a lady who lunches. A small lady. While she is phonily consoling the older woman, Mary Louise suddenly exclaims, “You’re very short.” The face Witherspoon makes is perfect. She says, “Excuse me?” but with her head a little down so it looks like her entire face is puckered and she’s time traveled back to eighth grade when she was a 13-year-old girl saying, “What did you say, bitch?” to some bitch. Mary Louise kind of backtracks but not really: “I find” — somehow Streep manages here to look down at Witherspoon while looking up at her — “little people to be” — at this Streep ever so slightly toggles her head back and forth like she’s not tossing off a total insult — “untrustworthy.”
There’s a lot going on here, chiefly the clashing of present and past: Madeline is now, Mary Louise is then. You’ve got this younger woman who watched as her best friend’s abusive husband was killed, then covered it up without losing much sleep because he was a piece of shit and the (fictional) world is better off without him. Then you’ve got this older woman, the mother of the abuser, who believes her son was done wrong, not realizing that he was the one doing all the wrong. So, really, if you want to be Feminism 101 about it, this is the patriarchy confronting feminist progress and trying to subvert it. But it’s a lot easier to fight that when you’ve got Streep right in front of you than when she’s in your head.
I don’t think I’ve ever been reduced to my height like this, but it often defines how I think of myself. As a child I was often one of the smallest in my class, and while I would’ve preferred to be one of the tallest, at least I wasn’t one of the kids you don’t even mention. Like being short meant being original. Like at least I owned one superlative — if not the smartest or prettiest — and it wasn’t one that was obviously bad, like being the dumbest or the meanest (although the latter I kind of liked too). I think that all came less from my actual stature and more from wherever my shoddy self-esteem did. I saw my shortness as a stand-in for the interesting personality I was pretty sure I didn’t have. It was like a flipped Napoleon complex, which isn’t about his height — he was 5-foot-7! — but about being compelled by what you perceive as a disadvantage to overcompensate by being outsize in some other way. My perceived disability was that I was invisible, so I outsized the meaning of my shortness. (By the time I grew out of my height defining my originality, I was memorable for other things. Like my sparkling personality.)
We aren’t a very tall family, but it’s always made sense to me that the men are bigger than the women, like that’s how it’s supposed to be, Darwin-style. The women are dainty and elegant and the men can be whatever the fuck they want — they’re taller, just like they’re smarter. So from the start, height was a moral issue, and if there was a discrepancy between mine and any other girl’s, there was a problem with one of us. Every time I’d see a much taller girl I’d think, Jesus Christ, thank God I’m doing one thing right. As if it were a conscious decision I’d made, as if I had anything to do with how I looked. It’s gone the opposite way in adulthood; whenever I’m in a room with a taller woman, I feel way less visible. Actually, that’s a nice way of saying I feel like shit. I feel like a farmhand from the Middle Ages or like some dumpy nursemaid from *waves absently* that same era — an uneducated unsophisticated plebe. The best women — richer, smarter, prettier‚ are all tall and thin and long-limbed and I’m a runt.
Knowing that all of this has to do with historic myths about gender and health and beauty — not to mention that I literally cannot find a pair of pants I don’t have to hem — creates the shoe paradox, which is a thing I just made up but which is also very real. It’s the feeling of being very riot grrrl when you wear any sort of flat “unfeminine” shoe like a Converse or a Doc, like you are embracing your deficiency of not performing femininity appropriately (come to think of it, this is kind of an addendum to that short-being-original thing). The paradox comes in when you suddenly decide to wear heels, which don’t make you feel like a traitor but, on the contrary, imbue you with even more power because you are no longer suffering from that nonexistent deficiency. It makes no sense to me either, but then neither do the rules of a patriarchal society.
I’m not sure how much my outspokenness has to do with how I look as opposed to how I feel, but my size appears to affect how people react to it and, sort of, how I do too. Basically, I have this idea of myself as a bulldog-chihuahua, some small, pugnacious cartoon animal — growing up, my aunt called me chooha, or mouse, because I squeaked — like a fightercock with no real power. Scrappy. It seems like a lot of guys see me that way too, as endearingly mouthy but ultimately unthreatening. It has the dual effect of being simultaneously flattering and demeaning. That extends to my perceived helplessness, too. On planes I’ll be reaching for my bag in the overhead compartment and some dude will stretch over me and grab it, then smile like I’m an adorable idiot in a losing battle that he would’ve just as happily laughed at but decided on chivalry instead. I know that’s what some of them think, because it’s sometimes what I think when I’m helping someone smaller than me. When I have to ask for some item in a store that’s on an unreachable shelf, I hear myself invariably flirting with the clerk and it feels triumphant that there’s a reason to allow a (preferably hotter) person to help me. And I hate myself for it.
When I’m alone with a guy who’s bigger than me, regardless of how he looks or even how stupid he might be, I’m instinctually deferential. I thought this was weird until my editor just noted that it’s “a pretty understandable safety mechanism, no?” YES (although now I am actually questioning how stupid I am). (Ed. note: not remotely stupid.) But I think it also has to do with my even more problematic ingrained belief that most men are smarter than me (I know, I know) as well as being stronger than me (generally true). So height, regardless of the other person’s agency, becomes this zone of self-reflection where ultimately the shorter I am the less substantial I am. But then there’s the boyfriend paradox, which is not unlike the shoe paradox. I’m dating a guy right now who’s 5-foot-10, which means that when we hold hands, I can only really comfortably grab his last two fingers — yeah, it’s cute — but that also means that hugging him, because he can envelope me, feels more secure. The paradox here is finding comfort in belittling myself, which, magically, works no matter the height. I dated a guy who was 5-foot-6 and thinner than me — “I’m indie thin!” — and while hugging him felt more equal, the fact that he was thinner than me was more noticeable because we were basically the same size, which was like facing a constant living reminder that I’m unable to not be fat. The point being that internalized misogyny ensures that YOU WILL NEVER WIN.
Being a short woman in a group of women can make me as self-conscious as being a short woman in a group of men. With men I’m always struggling to be heard, although I don’t know how much that has to do with being short and how much that has to do with just being a woman. It’s fucking annoying and either makes me louder than usual or more quiet. Women don’t have to do anything to diminish me, they just have to be standing there. Most of my friends are about the same height as me, but when I’m with one who’s much taller I always feel like Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy — you know, the con man greaser who wheels and deals. I have no idea why I think I look like Dustin Hoffman. No, I do; it’s because I have this conception of myself as small and savvy and naughty and taller women generally as a bit more, well, Jon Voight as naive gigolo. It’s funny because when I’m with someone the same height as me, I’m less conscious of how I look; I’m not an outlier, so it’s a nonissue.
None of this has literally anything to do with who any of us actually are. It has to do with the false ideas I (we) have of myself in the presence of men and other women and the false ideas I (we) have of men and other women and how those things work together to make me (us) self-destruct.
Ironically, the Ratso Rizzo thing probably also comes from my unwillingness to be overlooked. I’m very much “I’m walkin’ here!” when someone taller stands in front of me at a concert or sits right in front of my face at a movie theater. It’s usually a man and I usually want to stab him for being inconsiderate even if he isn’t aware. BE AWARE! Speaking of stabbing, I’m not actually short enough for my height to determine how safe I feel. I think I would feel as unsafe alone at night with a man walking behind me even if I were 6 feet tall, because I assume men are stronger than me regardless of their size. What I do notice is that I have intense anxiety in a crowd that I might not have if I were able to see over everyone’s head. I remember this psychologist relating my anxiety to my size. She said that she commonly got small women coming in and she compared us to small birds or squirrels — you know, how they’re skittish and their hearts beat really fast? Because they’ll basically be trampled or eaten if they don’t have hyperawareness. Maybe that’s what reads as untrustworthy in shorties, their lack of trust in not being stomped.
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A few scenes after the “untrustworthy” one in Big Little Lies, Madeline bumps into Mary Louise again in her real estate office because this is a soap and everyone’s always bumping into everyone else. Madeline has since exchanged her black flats for a pair of grapefruit stilettos, and Mary Louise notices: “I see you’re wearing heels.” At that Madeline confronts her about being an asshole and Mary Louise apologizes and explains that she had some shitty best friend in boarding school (of course) who made her this way: “She was just an itty-bitty little thing with a big bubbly personality that was designed to hide that she was utterly vapid inside. You remind me so much of her and I suppose I punish you for that.” Witherspoon’s face, again. And Streep, again, does this great thing, where, when Witherspoon basically tells her to eff off and walks away, Streep gives her shoes another look and chuckles, with an “Oh, sweetie” cock of the head. Like the idea that Madeline could transcend who she is is endearingly pathetic.
At the risk of playing into the sexist tradition of pitting women against one another, there’s a frustrating feeling that Mary Louise — who is only five inches taller, by the way — has won. That her misogyny has insinuated itself into Madeline to the point that she has actually changed the way she looks in order to appease it. But it’s only a short (ha) stay. Madeline later comes to the rescue of her best friend, Celeste, who is Mary Louise’s daughter-in-law, who vaguely gestures to some kind of emergency. Mary Louise, distraught, asks, “What kind of an emergency?” To which Madeline shruggingly replies, “The kind short people have?” As Madeline walks away you notice she’s wearing running shoes. I love how the connection between two women — Madeline and Celeste — can act as a shield against sexism (in this case, Mary Louise’s). Would that we could all be that strong. Which makes me think of the poll I tweeted asking how tall everyone thought I was. The majority answered 5-foot-5, almost the same height as Streep. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t make me feel better, but I’m working on it.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.