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As a 6-foot-3 woman, rising above self pity has served me well.
I am the height of an NBA point guard with the wingspan of an eagle and the narrow face of a baby giraffe. In 1993, I was taller than my Grade 3 teacher. Today, I am taller than my mom, dad, grandpa and my two grandmas put together. I have devoted my life to reclaiming my height, taking the stage at every talent show, open mic night or dance off. “Rock your wingspan,” Mom would cheer, “Give ‘er all you got!”
Mom has always rallied around my height; no one was ever allowed to say a bad thing about it. (Well, she slipped once, when converting my height as a toddler to see how tall I’d be as an adult. “Shoot, I hope not,” she wrote in my baby book.)
As a kid, I fielded compliments from elementary school teachers, who couldn’t believe I didn’t slump or hunch or slink around. I also fielded comments from strangers, who noticed my height and suggested I become a model. I smirked when parents told their kids to stop staring at me and laughed when a four-year old fell off a curb gawking at me. I dressed up as Big Bird for Halloween one year.
In high school, my height was my pride and joy. I loved being asked how tall I was or whether I played basketball. I used to get a thrill out of older boys yelling “Shaq” anytime they laid eyes on me. I’d throw them a fist-pump, pretend to shoot a basket or run over to high-five them. Not sure how to read the attention, I even handed one of them a valentine. When that didn’t pan out, but not because it didn’t pan out, I took to the high-school cafeteria stage for a lanky strip tease: from a baggy olive green Adidas fleece sweatshirt to a baggy olive green Adidas T-shirt underneath.
In university, I captained our basketball team and worked my height every opportunity I could. The world was my little oyster. When people asked how tall I was, I used to drag out the inevitable, urging them to guess how tall I was, before guessing how tall they were in return. I embraced every minute of small talk, finishing with a joke or two for the finale.
I was a late bloomer, but, when I got around to it, hitting the bars was invigorating. On one of my first nights out, a guy came over to me to say, “My name’s Jason; your height doesn’t bother me one bit.” I rolled my eyes, made some circus noises, and made it my goal to have my height bother him by the end of the night. “Does it bother you now, Jason? How about now, Jason?” I dropped to my knees and showcased my double-jointed elbows.
After university, I spent three straight years – four to five nights of the week – twirling shorter men on the dance floor and asking people to guess my height. I remember feeling giddy and grateful for having so many short, pudgy guys, willing to shimmy up beside me and poke fun at dominant social norms. “If I’m not married in 10 years, I’m coming back for you,” one of them would say. “Make that 20 years,” I’d joke, drink in hand to cope, but pretending we were making something of ourselves.
Occasionally I did make something of myself though. At the top of my height game, I won a dance competition at a piano bar in Vegas. I was the least co-ordinated person in the room, but I edged out six sexy dancers by cultivating clumsiness and putting a leg up on the bench of a duelling piano. I walked away with a free drink – $7 value.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly I slowed down, settled into myself and eased off the flamboyant counterattacks. I’ve stopped reclaiming my body, resting my elbow on people’s shoulders or rushing to beat people to the punchline.
A couple years ago, I was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome – a genetic disorder that weakens the connective tissue in the body. The symptoms of Marfan include a tall and slender build and disproportionately long arms, legs and fingers. Marfan – not my mom’s cooking – became the reason I was so tall.
Growing up, I had been assured by a doctor that I had the features of Marfan – the tall build, flexible joints and long limbs – but that I didn’t have any signs of the life-threatening heart problems found in other patients. I sighed with relief that I wasn’t at risk for an aneurysm or tear of the aorta. Nothing to stigmatize here, I thought.
At an intake appointment while I was pregnant, my husband Philip nonchalantly asked if we could double check for Marfan, as he had read that pregnancy can increase the risk of a cardiac event. Our doctor set up the tests. Shortly after that, I was diagnosed with an aortic root aneurysm (essentially a bulge that was at risk of tearing or dissecting). I was also scheduled for an immediate abortion and open-heart surgery.
With the diagnosis, I went from tall and funny to tall and disordered.
I had the abortion, and my life-saving, life-changing surgery. I was grateful for the second chance at life but I was mostly in survival mode – keeping my head down and going through the motions.
After years of only ever celebrating my height, lately, I haven’t known what to do with it. Now, “tall talk” leaves me wondering if I should be doing more to process my newfound dysfunction or uncover any well-repressed shame.
I’ve had doctors ask to take pictures of my wingspan and ask me to play along as they have medical residents guess what genetic condition I have. “Shh, don’t tell them you have Marfan,” one said. It’s been hard to get ahead of the jokes and hard not to feel like an object in a hospital gown.
Now I am taking stock, making space to grieve for the body I thought I had, and questioning if humour has been a way to cope with something painful. At the same time, I still like being tall, I like cracking jokes and I like being recognized for my height by people I haven’t seen in years.
So, while I’m confident I could wipe most unsuspecting or accomplished dancers under the table, I’m taking a break from dancing or joking about my height until I can work out a way to reclaim my body that involves grieving and celebrating. So I can both ham it up and embrace my vulnerability. So I can hold the pain and go in for the high-five in good faith.
Janna Klostermann lives in Ottawa.