I came out of the womb with toned calf muscles. That’s how my mother tells it, anyways. Nine months of turning and kicking and out comes one jacked baby. Me. Moving right along to childhood, I was too dense to float. My mom was a swimming instructor with the Red Cross in Panama, but she never could teach me to float. My lower half sank. Every. Time. As a ten-year-old, I took down and pinned a boy twice my size when we were play wrestling. In high school, I played defense on the varsity soccer team. When the other team’s forwards would run into me, trying to get the ball, they tended to just fall over. In spite of what all of those judgy refs thought, I did NOT push them.
I have always been what Tom Hanks in the “Black Jeopardy” SNL sketch would call a “sturdy lady.” I blame genetics and growing up on a farm where I started lifting 50-pound bags of grain to feed the cows around age eight. It probably sounds like I am bragging, but I’m really just trying to paint a picture here. Your girl is not dainty in any sense of the word.
Even though I am average height for the overall human population, I’m tall for a girl, and I have never had the proportions of a prepubescent boy. By that I merely mean that I have always had what hip hop artists like to refer to as a “donk”… or at least they did ten years ago. That’s right, clutch those pearls. I’m talking about my butt.
When I was a singer, I found myself at a distinct disadvantage because of my height (OK, also because of my crippling performance anxiety). I was cast as “Fleta”, a fairy, in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe in grad school. I had four full inches on every other fairy in the ensemble. And yet, because the other fairies were hesitant to be at the front of the group, I was put there and so I spent the majority of our scenes in the three hour opera in a perpetual squat.
Every time I auditioned, I knew that I was being measured up, quite literally, not just for my singing ability, but also for my “type” (aka what the character I was auditioning for was supposed to look like, as though in a show in which there are talking clocks and candlesticks God forbid the leading lady be over 5’4″ and weigh more than 120 pounds. That would just be ludicrous). If I was in consideration for a role that required me to be coupled with a dude, I needed to be smaller than him.
Any female who is on the tall side can tell you that there is an unspoken assumption that women are supposed to be small, and especially smaller than any dude they might find themselves dating. And less strong. And so I find myself obsessing over and pursuing smallness, occasionally begrudging my height and posterior. And yet, I wonder if we ever actually reach the “ideal”, if we are capable of being satisfied and defining what “enough” is. The sheer number of people who struggle with eating disorders and disordered eating should indicate that is a hard no. And the thing is, I know plenty of women who are small in stature who have their own feelings of inadequacy and societal pressures to wrestle with. It would seem that we are all missing the point.
I like thinking about the woman at the well and how Jesus engaged with her. She had big questions and big burdens that he took in his stride. He told her about living water, a water she could drink and never be thirsty again. As a woman who had been striving for so much for so long–acceptance, belonging, love–it was probably hard to imagine a different way.
Behind my ideas of what my body should look like as a woman, there is a whole lot of striving. That striving takes me to the gym regularly and makes me choose to eat kale. What if I could draw from a more sustainable well, motivated out of respect and love, not punishment and shame? While the latter is effective, I keep coming up empty.
The world may continue to tell me that I need to be small and delicate. There’s not a whole lot I can do about that. But I can start to choose to tell myself a different story, to draw from a well that will never come up empty.