Friday, 17 September 2010

The Long and the Short of it

TALL stories from Woman’s Hour today showed the flip side of my own life. As a child, the programme’s guest Joanne Champion was the tallest girl in the school, while I was one of the shortest.

Joanne, founder of the online boutique, Tall, is 6ft 3ins – exactly 13 inches taller than me. Surprisingly, however, some of the problems we encountered were very similar – but from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Joanne had clear memories of the misery of school photographs, when she was placed away from her classmates, in the centre of the back row, where she towered over the boys on either side of her.

At least she didn’t suffer the ignominy of being stuck at the end of a line of girls in a lower form. Nor did anyone try to make her stand on a box balanced on a bench.

I would have dearly loved to fail skirt inspection, but my hems were always below my knees – unlike Joanne, who could never find school clothes that were long enough.

Talking of clothes, I can still remember the domestic science apron we made, following the same set of measurements for everyone. Mine trailed along the ground, and despite the teacher’s protestations that I would ‘grow into it’ I never did.

And while people always assumed Joanne was older, they always thought I was younger: I had no chance of sneaking into a pub for a drink, or viewing an age-restricted film at the cinema. Indeed, for years after my 18th birthday I carried my birth certificate around with me – then, unlike now, requests for proof of age were not routine, and did not involve photographic ID.

On the other hand, looking younger meant I paid half-fares on buses and trains long after I should have done. When I asked for a ticket public transport staff just assumed I was a child and charged accordingly!

And things didn’t change much when I started work. The woman who answered the door at one of the first interviews I was sent on refused to speak to me, and rang the editor to complain about him sending a ‘child’ to see her.

Today’s programme follows in the wake of news stories about Barack Obama’s daughter Malia, who is only 12 but is already 5ft 9ins tall.

But perhaps we should remember that we are all individuals, and that when it comes to height, as with so much else in life, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. People should be accepted and respected for they are – not what they look like.

And it’s a poor outlook for the world if members of my former profession are more interested in writing about the height of the daughter of the US President than they are in writing about his policies.

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