Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?

By Mary Leah Hedengren

The tragic thing is that I used to be tall. In third grade I was among the giants. Whenever there was an occasion for lining up in order of height, like for school pictures, I made my way to the front of the line. There was this kid (Caleb, I think his name was) who was my main competition for the front of the line. Back to back, we’d have some mediator determine who was taller, and whether Caleb’s platform haircut counted as height. Only just now, as I’m typing this, do I realize that height didn’t really matter in that situation. Sure it was a good way to organize third-graders, but I doubt that we’d have to order reprints if the shorter person went first on Picture Day. I can just imagine it—there I am sitting on one of those greasy-feeling black stools, and just as I twist my knees one way and my shoulders the other, tilting my head to keep the glare off my glasses, Mr. Gardner, the principal dashes over and tackles me to the ground. “What are you doing, Mary?” he exclaims as I try to straighten out my short hair. “It’s obvious Caleb is taller! The whole day . . . ruined!” Then everyone is forced back to class and we never have photographs again. All of this is a detour, though. The point is height shouldn’t matter. Or so animated specials would have you believe.

The truth is height does matter. The tall kids, no matter how functionally disinclined, were likely to be chosen for everything from kickball to running errands. Tall kids could bully around any of the other kids, or could, merely by standing close to a bully, defend themselves and anyone they wanted to take under their long, protective wing. I know. I was tall. For this, I could play soccer with the boys. For this, I could give piggyback rides to my friends and earn a reputation as amiable giant. I remember in fifth grade approaching a new sixth-grade teacher. She must have stood around six feet tall. After years of diminutive teachers, I sidled up to her and remarked, “It’s nice to have a teacher that we can really look . . up to.” I thought it was pretty funny. I can’t remember if she humored me with a courtesy laugh. I’m not even certain she thought it was a joke. Height jokes were my personal forte. It probably came from years of those children’s shows with special teams. Everyone’s seen them. There’s the computer technology genius, the leader, the token female, and the tall, strong character. I took the tall, strong position. I was master of my domain. I could beat most of the boys in arm wrestling and all of them in Indian leg wrestling. Then I went to middle school.

Everyone has terror stories about middle school, of course. Mine are few and uninteresting, but among the horrors of puberty comes the growth spurt. More and more of my classmates joined the ranks of the comparatively tall. Oh, it came ever so subtly. I didn’t mind much when I was only the tallest girl in the fourth grade, or when I was just the tallest kid in Ms. Roberts’s room. Standing less than a block from my house at the bus stop in early winter, I realized that everyone there was . . . taller than I was. I began having to stretch to look over the heads of the students in the hall. I tried to get seats closer to the front. The trials of the short began to befall me. In my eighth-grade ensemble, I was placed on the front row time after time. After years at the top, suddenly just over five feet wasn’t impressive. The world had grown up around me.

I come by it honestly, I suppose. My mother’s sisters are both on the short side. My father’s mother, too, is extremely short, but I wasn’t prepared to be short myself. I envisioned myself towering over my parents, not asking them to reach things for me. I am not only the shortest person in my family, but the shortest by a long way. The joke of my short relatives, “I’m just a little short on one end,” began to creep into my repartee. My mom led me subtly to the petite section of the department store because the bottoms of my pants tended to drag. My feet glide a couple of inches over the floor when I sit up straight in almost any chair. The pride I once had in seeing over everyone else was replaced by frantic jumping, and I developed the ability to stand, effectively, on my toenails to get a better view.

Not that being short is all that bad. It’s almost fulfilling to walk passively under branches when your companions have to duck. Coats keep more of me warm than the person of average height? There’s simply less to warm. Also, as an article I once read in Scientific American pointed out, short people tend to live longer. We have fewer cells to get cancer, and are less likely to walk into low, hardwood cupboards. Still, to be short is to be perceived as weak. You, me, and most of nineteenth-century Europe know that.

Short people have a reputation for making up for their height in temper, or stubbornness, or strength. I would like to both perpetuate and explain this belief. When we say that we’d like you to please hand us that glass, it’s really very important that you do. Otherwise we tend to make you as inconvenienced as we have been. Being constantly dependant on others makes a person stubborn and strong-willed.

Still, not everyone who’s short becomes Napoleon. Some of us just find ways to compensate. I like to hang out with the few people shorter than I am. This sounds exploitive, but it’s actually a good way to make friends. “Hey, five-foot-one over there. Hi, what’s your name? Want to be friends?” I have made friends with people whose interests and background vary widely from mine. All we share is the attribute of having to stand up during roll call so substitutes can place our voices. Unfortunately, I can’t surround myself with other short people all the time—the list of people shorter than I am is growing, truthfully, shorter.

Sometimes you can compensate with short surroundings; sometimes you have to turn to material means of height. I own a pair of boots that give me an additional two and a half inches. As exhilarating as it is to feel normal, taking them off tends to depress a short person. Sure it’s great to take off any type of footwear that all but formally declare war on my feet. But noticing afterward that more space is above me than before tempers the relief with despair. Yes, wearing high heels to relive my previous glory is extremely temporary, but beyond that I am able to wear the confidence that being tall for a few vital years has given me. This has been the tallest thing about me.

I’ve resigned myself to being five foot and two inches for the rest of my life. It’s kind of fun to be the short hyper blonde, and it will be fun to be the spunky little old lady. I’m even grateful for being short. I’m in good company. Many scientists, political pioneers, and philosophers have been short. Most of our Founding Fathers were relatively small. Zacchaeus was short and he was host to the Lamb of God. I’m not ashamed to classify myself as short. When I was asked for one word to describe me, I didn’t hesitate before declaring “short.” Still, when my sister came up to see me for a family dinner, she mentioned that I seem to be taller. She could be right. It could be another growth spurt.

About Mary Leah Hedengren

Mary Leah Hedengren is five foot two and 3/4 inches tall. A native of Provo, Utah, she is currently serving in the Russia Saint Petersburg Mission. When she returns, she will continue studies at Brigham Young University, where she is involved in the April Literary Group, Inscape Magazine, and Divine Comedy.

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