What About The Amazons? I'm Tall But NOT Model-Thin, And I Rarely See Women Who Look Like Me Represented In Media
With a 6'3" father and a 6' paternal grandmother, it was never a question that I was going to be tall. I was always told that this was a lucky thing. Who's tall? Basketball players! Models! My height was going to arrive one day, and it'd be a gift. Just like my period.
In actuality, it turned out to be about as much of a gift as my period was. Especially since I turned out to not only possess zero basketball-playing ability, I looked absolutely nothing like a model.
In the traditional tall-girl narrative, an average-sized child shoots up to a beanpole overnight, where she's charmingly awkward for awhile until she fills out into a statuesque beauty.
Not so with me. I didn't shoot up so much as sluggishly expand upward and outward from age 11 (when my FEET had a growth spurt) until about junior year of high school, when I suddenly realized, hey, I AM tall. I was never a beanpole and definitely never statuesque. Just taller than the average height for men, and almost always heavier than the average woman.
Giantess, Amazon, whatever you want to call it: to go with my long legs, I have a thick waist, huge shoulders, and big thighs and calves, and trial and error has taught me that no amount of dieting or exercise will ever meaningfully change that. Eventually I got semi-comfortable in my own skin, but it was a long, hard road – one that would have been much easier if I hadn't had it imprinted on me from an early age that the only way to be a tall woman is to be model-thin.
In our culture, female-coded behavior and female beauty standards are usually inextricably linked to occupying as little space as possible. So a woman with extra height AND extra weight has kind of a double whammy on her.
Media representations of thin women of all heights are never in short supply, of course. But there are also a number of "voluptuous," "zaftig," or actually fat female celebrities and characters who are short or even average height. It's true that not every portrayal of a fat, short woman is as nuanced as we'd all like it to be, but they're visible, at least.
The message, even when it's tacitly not okay to be short and less-than-thin, is that it's at least possible, and that these women exist. But tall women who are less-than-thin are woefully underrepresented. With very, very few exceptions, women in pop culture over roughly 5'8" are universally sylphlike, when in fact tall women come in just as many different shapes as short ones do.
Women can apparently be forgiven for taking up a little extra horizontal space, or a little extra vertical space, but don't dare to take up both or you apparently lose your Lady Card.
Don't mistake me - there's no active oppression at play here, and I'm not claiming to be marginalized in any serious way. But even if there are plenty of women out in the real world who are built like me, I do often feel like I've failed at being a tall woman because I'm neither a model nor WNBA-ready.
On the rare occasion that a tall, more-than-model-sized woman DOES make a cameo on the pop-cultural landscape, her size is almost never something she – or anybody – is comfortable with. She's usually a punchline at best, frequently a freak.
Look, I love Joel McHale, but when he makes yet another joke about Khloe Kardashian – a woman who is obviously larger in both dimensions than the average female celebrity – being a drag queen, sasquatch, or Hulk, how am I supposed to feel?
At roughly the same height and weight, that means Joel and The Soup's writers think I'm pretending to be a woman, or I'm not human, or I'm the result of a science experiment gone wrong. Short men, to be fair, aren't immune to mockery based on their size – elves, hobbits, what have you – but there are rarely the same implications about gender or personality tacked on to that.
(While I don't believe I'm the right person to dig into the gender sociology of all of this, and I can't speak from the experience of being anything other than cisgendered, I find it particularly interesting that the go-to slams on tall women frequently challenge their femininity, or speculate about their biological sex. As though man-sized and lady-sized are not only fixed dimensions, but that anybody who falls outside of those dimensions can't possibly be the gender they claim to be.)
Recent pop culture has delivered exactly one complex fictional character who is specifically and always portrayed as both tall and broad – Brienne of Tarth. And much as I adore her as a character, am grateful to George R.R. Martin for creating her, and think Gwendoline Christie is amazing in Game of Thrones, even Brienne is hardly a stereotype-buster.
Martin makes a point of mentioning how ugly she is every time she appears, much of which is attributed to her size. Men joke about her appearance constantly, and when Jaime Lannister is legitimately attracted to her, he's ashamed. (And this is a man who had zero shame about banging his own sister.)
I hope this doesn't spoil too much for those of you who aren't reading the books, but I hold out hope that Brienne's arc will eventually stop dragging (like it's doing where book 4 left off) and she'll find some kind of acceptance and happiness. Since this is George R.R. Martin we're talking about, it's unlikely.
But hey, someone in his epic is representing the Amazons, and she's realistically built like one yet still allowed to be a major plot-driving force, so I'll happily take it. And HBO, of course, gets props for keeping her true to the books and not, say, restyling her as a Xena: Warrior Princess type, which I think they would have done had the show been made 10 or 15 years ago.
And trust me, nobody else is repping Amazons in any real way right now. In the world of comics, Wonder Woman, who is supposed to be A LITERAL AMAZON, is usually drawn to be relatively lithe and frequently not that tall. The official DC word on her measurements has varied over the years (right now, her "official" dimensions would make her clinically underweight), but artists don't usually consult a bible to figure out who looks how big standing next to which other character in the first place.
So because she's a woman, she's naturally drawn the way media has repeatedly taught us a woman should be built – stacked, svelte, and smaller than the men. When Wondy is shown alongside male characters (including her boyfriend, Superman – yeah, apparently they're dating now), she's almost always shown as shorter.
Over at Marvel, She-Hulk has been lucky if her artist gives her any kind of musculature apart from slightly larger-than-average biceps. I'm not going to speculate here what gamma-radiated muscle mass would realistically look like if it were actually a thing, but I don't think it's out of line to want a woman who's flinging cars and punching through brick walls to be drawn as slightly more substantial than a green Kate Upton.
As I've grown older, I've certainly tried, mostly successfully, to divorce my sense of self from my sense of what pop culture tells me I should be. But I still treasure my Briennes and my Dorothy Zbornaks and my Ellenor Frutts on the rare occasions that one turns up, because I still sometimes need to feel like someone out there in media-land is built even vaguely like me. I'll go see anything in the theater if it stars 5'10" plus-sized Queen Latifah (don't care what anybody says," Just Wright" was awesome) and relish the way her size is rarely an obstacle to her characters' femininity or humanity.
We need more of that – not just for big girls, but for all shapes and sizes.
And I try to do my part to speak up when ANY type of body is shamed, othered, marginalized, or underrepresented. Because we are all complex characters, and how much space we occupy shouldn't determine our worth as women or as human beings.