I spotted the prospective client from across the café and waved her over to my table. We were meeting to discuss a potential freelance job, but I wasn’t really interested in the work. As she approached, I stood up to shake her hand, and she looked me up and down. I’m just under 4’ 11” and weigh about 95 pounds. It didn’t take long.
“Aren’t you adorable!” she said, in the voice someone who doesn’t like dogs might use to address a friend’s new cocker spaniel. She didn’t bend down to get to my eye level, and she didn’t pat me on the head — both methods of greeting with which I’m all too familiar — but the effect was the same. My blasé confidence disappeared, and I felt like a child. A tiny, insecure, eager-to-please child.
I was born small and grew slowly. When I entered first grade, I was just over three feet tall and weighed 31 pounds — about the size of a petite preschooler. To rule out medical causes for my inability to register on the national height-weight charts, my parents took me to a series of specialists. After a barrage of x-rays, sonograms, blood work, and a fasting glucose test all came back normal, we received a diagnosis: I was “constitutionally short.”
My parents needn’t have looked much further than the mirror to figure this out. Neither one was over 5’5”, and my paternal grandmother and great-aunts were less than five feet. At the age of six, however, I had been hoping for a different answer, a diagnosis that would have come with a cure. Even then I was aware that I was not only short, I was exceptionally short, the kind of short that made my size my defining characteristic.
My smallness did come with several perks, all of which I eagerly exploited. I was given the starring role of Thumbelina in my first-grade school play. In a bid to encourage weight gain, I was the only child allowed to bring cookies to class. And at my own request, I spent lunch periods up in the classroom eating with my teacher rather than in the school’s terrifying, Dodgeball-filled courtyard.
I felt protected up there in a way I didn’t when in the midst of large groups of kids. I was so much smaller than my peers that a well-intentioned tap during a game of tag could easily knock me over. My classmates also loved to pick me up — as in literally lifting me off my feet, whether I liked it or not. It was mostly innocuous; just kids being silly, or older girls passing me around like a little doll, or a school-aged boy’s way of flirting. But sometimes it felt less benign; sometimes it felt like a way for someone to say, I can do this and there’s nothing you can do about it.
And that was the thing: There was nothing I could do about it. Nor was there any way to avoid being an obvious target. But most kids are teased about something, and “shrimp” and “baby” are far from the worst names that have ever been yelled out in an elementary school classroom. Plus, I wasn’t exactly meek: Despite being so small, I had a big, smart mouth. I deftly argued my way through most disagreements; my grandfather referred to me with pride as “a Philadelphia lawyer.”
Not surprisingly, being an undersized smartass didn’t exactly endear me to other children. Around the age of nine, with braces and a terrible homemade haircut, I became decidedly less adorable, and the teasing took on a harder, nastier edge. At my first school dance in fifth grade, kids had just begun pairing off when the most popular boy in the class approached me. He asked me to dance — and then got on his knees to do a spastic impression of a short person while his friends watched and laughed. Adults were nicer, but they always assumed I was years younger than my actual age, which drove me crazy. In my apartment building’s elevator the summer I turned 10, I stood on my tippy toes to reach the button for my floor. The neighbor standing next to me smiled. “Are you starting kindergarten this fall?” she asked in a singsong voice.
To compensate, I became a miniature adult. I was a voracious learner and a competitive student. I made myself reading lists over summer breaks and wrote out flashcards of dictionary words. Every day from fourth grade on, I walked my younger sister the two blocks from school to our New York City apartment — always vigilant of the kidnappers I was sure were lurking behind every car — and I watched her until our parents got home from work. When I was 11, I began taking care of neighbors’ children, using a stool to reach into the crib to lift out my infant charges.
All of this industriousness belied how vulnerable I felt. Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the early 1980s was not the charming, Whole Foods-sporting provenance of investment bankers and nannies that it is today; like most of the city at the time, it was grittier and louder and more unpredictable. On three occasions bricks or bottles were thrown through the windows of the apartment I lived in as a young child — one missed the armchair my mother, younger sister and I were reading in by only a couple of feet. Muggings were common. Years before I took over as the sitter, my own teenaged caretaker once showed up bloodied and crying at my elementary school at pick-up time after having been jumped by a group of girls. And it wasn’t only the neighborhood — I was just a really anxious kid. Babysitting one night in the sixth grade, I was so terrified to walk through the dark hallway leading to the apartment’s bathroom that I peed my pants, doing my best to hide it with a shirt tied around my waist when the child’s parents came home.
For some young women, the transition to adolescence brings with it a sense of loss — of what, I’m not sure. Innocence? The end of a carefree childhood? I grew up with loving parents, but my childhood certainly didn’t feel carefree, and I wasn’t sorry to see it go. I greeted the onset of puberty with open arms, grateful that my rapidly increasing bra size made me look older (and gave me traction with guys). Unlike many girls at this age, I had no interest in hiding my new figure: my high-school wardrobe centered around a medley of form-fitting tops. I was no longer a child, and my boobs were the proof.
With boys, my size was often a point of curiosity. As a high school sophomore I hung out with a group of older guys who liked to joke about how they could throw me up in the air and catch me on their dick. Crass, perhaps, but I didn’t care. Acrobatics or no acrobatics, they were imagining having sex with me. Over the course of just a few months, I’d gotten my first period, bought my first bra, had my first kiss, and seen a boy naked for the first time. My relief at my sudden sexual viability was palpable. After years of feeling powerless and physically different from my peers, it was deeply reassuring to receive male attention — and I wasn’t particularly choosy about who was doling it out. Each guy who thought I was cute, who asked me out, who made out with me in the stairwell of my parents’ apartment building gave me hope that maybe I was normal, that maybe I would one day be married, that maybe I did have some power of my own to wield. Every interaction with a boy was a referendum on my future. “You’re like a woman, but in miniature,” said one guy with whom I ended up in bed during college. Was that a compliment? I didn’t know, but I’d take it.
With female friends, my size was a double-edged sword in the subtle games of comparison we all played without acknowledging it. In high school, when my friends and I had sleepovers, we’d often end up standing side by side in front of a mirror, wearing only the bras we had shoplifted from Victoria’s Secret and cataloguing each other’s physical assets and liabilities: one friend had narrow hips but short legs, another had a flat chest but a great ass. I had a nice rack, but hated my profile and was the height of a 10-year-old. “You’re so tiny,” was the refrain I’d often hear from friends, particularly those who struggled with their weight. “High metabolism,” I’d answer, and then make a joke about still having to ride in a booster seat in some states. My height leveled the field, giving me an easy way to reassure other girls that I was in no way a threat.
And I certainly didn’t feel like a threat. I felt exposed and unprotected. At home in New York City, I stuck to well-lit streets and took a lot of cabs, but when I went to college at a small Connecticut university I was terrified to walk around the sprawling, less densely populated campus alone at night.
During my freshman year I decided to build confidence by taking a women’s self-defense class. For two months I spent every Monday night with other female undergrads in a large, windowless room in the basement of the university gym, where I learned to yell “Fire!” to attract the help of bystanders, practiced kicking would-be assailants in the groin, and tried to join the group in chanting, “Women are strong!” without rolling my eyes.
At the end of the semester we all gathered for our final, esteem-raising trial: a session with a padded attacker. I watched as the man dressed in what looked like a white beekeeper’s outfit with a creepy hockey mask went up against several of my classmates, all of whom eye-poked, kicked, and nose-butted their way through a choreographed sequence of moves to free themselves.
When it was my turn, the attacker grabbed me from behind and lifted me in one swift, easy motion, his arms trapping mine at my sides, the way you’d hold a child who was having a tantrum. My legs flailed, kicking at nothing, like Wile E. Coyote’s just before he falls off the cliff.
As I futilely thrashed, I caught a glimpse of my best friend, who was watching from the wall and looking panicked. The attacker released me, and I crawled off the mat.
“You’re small,” he said, removing his face mask. “So you’re going to get picked up.”
This was hardly news.
It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, living across the country in California, that the feeling of being tiny and vulnerable began to fade. I started doing all of the things San Franciscans like to do with their bodies: hiking, going for runs along the beach, taking Pilates classes. I even became comfortable driving, an activity I had previously included on my list of Things I Won’t Be Good at Because I’m Small (also on that list: wind-surfing, public speaking and all team sports). Driving my roommate’s Toyota Camry down Highway 1, with the windows open and the cliffs jutting out over the Pacific on my right, I felt limitless and invincible in a way I never had before.
Was I now brawny enough to fight someone off? No, but I just didn’t worry about it as much. And with that I suddenly had a lot more time and mind-space to think about other things, like my career, and how to enjoy doing things alone, and whether I was actually interested in the guys I was dating.
And maybe I was hanging on to this feeling of vulnerability to hide something that felt even more shameful: I like being small. Maybe because it sets me apart and gets me attention. Maybe because I’m lucky enough that the thing that’s most different about me is a trait consistent with societal norms, if exaggerated. Maybe because my size causes people to underestimate me, which helps me seem more impressive when I exceed their initial expectations.
Today, as an adult in my mid-thirties with a husband, two young daughters and a career I enjoy, my size is just a part of me, one of many defining traits that are intrinsic to my identity. Sure, I have to special-order my size-4 shoes online and use tongs to grab cereal boxes off the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, but I also weathered labor and childbirth like a champ and ran a five-mile race last spring, discovering physical strength and endurance that I hadn’t known I had.
Recently, while walking with my five-year-old daughter and two of her friends, I ran into a neighbor. “I thought you were just one of the kids!” she said. “You’re so cute!” A while ago this would have sent me into a spiral of doubt and self-consciousness, but this time I just found it amusing.
Was that a compliment? I don’t know, but I’ll take it.