I grew tall enough by my teenage years – six feet, though I told people five-eleven-and-a-half – that everyone asked if I played basketball.
Of course, I didn’t play basketball. It was bad enough that I was constantly asked to stand back-to-back with my sisters, my brother, and my father to marvel over how freakishly tall I was growing. Bad enough that my arms and legs jutted out beyond the hemlines of the clothes in the juniors section. Bad enough that by age 15, I’d already experienced the awkward horror of having a shoe salesman at the mall suggest to my mom that maybe we could find a nice pair of loafers in the men’s section to accommodate my monstrous feet that had already outgrown the shoes on the ladies’ side of the store.
I envied the girls who were petite, who fit not just the trendy clothes without looking like they were waiting for a flood, but who also fit the cultural ideal of femininity: fragile and demure young maidens who needed a strong man to protect them, cute bubbly cheerleaders who could stand atop pyramids or be tossed in the air, or even the feisty little spitfires with larger-than-life personalities – yet who still could be carried over thresholds. By the time I owned my first training bra, the ship had sailed on my ever fitting any of those stereotypes.
Yet I also didn’t fit the ones that aligned with my giantess presence. I didn’t feel strong or confident. I didn’t feel elegant or sophisticated. And I refused to entertain any athletic prowess. It felt like an act of rebellion against my stature to refuse to as much as dribble a basketball.
The photographic evidence of my adolescence portrays a girl who hunched her shoulders, knocked her knees, and tried to shrink into the background. When I look at those photos now, it saddens me that the girl I used to be thought she might be fooling anyone into thinking she were more delicately sized. It saddens me that she would want to. In the rare instances when she did straighten out her spine and hold her head high, she looked a lot less like sideshow attraction than she imagined. I want to tell her to own who she is, to embrace it. But it took me a long time to get there.
I was in my twenties before I said out loud to anyone that I was six feet tall. After meeting another woman who purported herself to be “five-foot-eleven-and-three-quarters,” it suddenly struck me how ridiculous it was to fudge the numbers, or to refuse to round up when it was obvious to do so. I wasn’t any shorter just because I told people I was.
I’m 44 now, an age when perhaps my bones have begun to settle. I’ve grown as tall as I’m ever going to and will only get shorter from here on out. Occasionally, it occurs to me that I should run out and get officially measured somewhere, get all six feet officially documented while I might still meet the mark. It doesn’t bother me anymore when people remark on my height, ask me to reach something from a top shelf in the grocery store, or even jokingly ask how the weather is up here.
And when someone asks me if I play basketball? These days, I sometimes wonder what it might have been like if I had. Maybe I would have been really good at it – or would have had some good laughs trying. Maybe I would have pursued a different dream. Maybe I would have gone on to coach girls like my daughters, who at 11 and 9 years old are nearing the ages when they’ll compare their own bodies to societal norms. While I know I can’t protect them from self-consciousness and that everyone has their own set of hang-ups, maybe by finally letting go of some of mine, I can encourage them not to slouch their shoulders.
Lately, when the three of us walk into our local Y to go swimming, I catch myself looking over at the basketball courts across the hall from the indoor swimming pool, separated by plate glass windows, and I wonder if maybe it’s not too late. From the pool, I catch glimpses of the pick-up games and practices, sweaty bodies running up and down the court, lay-ups and free throws, and I wonder what might happen if I had the guts to walk in there – all six feet and 44 years of me and say, “Somebody teach me to basketball.”
Because I never bothered before to take the time to find out if I’d be good at it. And maybe I’m not done learning who I might grow up to be.