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I want to tell you about my shins. They're nearly two feet long, extending my legs to forty-five inches, and my total height to six-foot-three. Most tall people are tall because of their shins. My femurs, trunk, head and other parts are all normal sized. Perhaps my other shin-like bones, in my forearms and fingers, are a bit lengthy as well — I have a nine-and-a-half-inch thumb-to-pinky span, and my six-foot-five wingspan is slightly freakish. But mostly, it's the shins.
Long shins alter your social universe. To begin with, to be extra-tall is to be somehow more public than the average woman. Everybody sees me. Strangers on the subway peer upward and tell me about their childhood neighbor who was tall. Fellow grocery shoppers sheepishly request my help procuring items from upper shelves. Male passers-by mutter, "That was one giant woman." Men seem particularly inclined to register one characteristic: tall. They put me in the "enormous" category and move on. I compensate by joking openly about my height — a maneuver that I've noticed fat girls use. It's a social trick, pulling the ball back into your court by letting all your wonderful traits shine through from the get-go. The message is, "There are other things besides my shape that I want you to register, such as the fact that I am not a he-man, and you need to re-categorize me pronto."
But height does have its bonuses. I'm remembered by everyone I've ever met. I've never been mugged. I'm perceived as smarter. And short people seem to think that tall is synonymous with sexy. They'll point out that Olympic volleyball bombshell Gabrielle Reece is six-three, that Kimora Lee Simmons is just a smidge over six feet, that Brigitte Nielsen, six-one, starred in a rarely viewed romantic comedy called She's Too Tall. What these people are really noting, however, is that pop culture finds long legs on very thin bodies sexy. All of these women weigh at least seventy-five pounds less than I do. But it's nice that short acquaintances of mine think that hypothetical others think I'm sexy.
Last year, it was my height that got me hired by a glossy magazine to photograph the Tall Clubs International convention, an annual gathering of men over six-two and women over five-ten. My assignment: Shoot the convention's crowning event, the glittering Miss Tall International pageant, where one woman would be chosen by pageant judges to represent the beauty and virtue of tall women everywhere.
As with any unusual trait, tall women attract fetishists. Because we're public, we're easy targets. Men follow me with their eyes. They begin with a head-to-toe-to-head scan, then settle into a sustained invasive gaze. Others follow me digitally, repeatedly emailing my ariannecohen.com account. Sometimes I'll find myself being tailed down the sidewalk until I duck into a fancy building and flash a smile at the doorman. Would he mind if I stayed for a moment? There's a creepy guy following me. "Sure, miss, no problem." We stand in silence. He glances over at me. "So, how tall are you?" Thus the allure of hanging out with tall people in a hotel at their weeklong social convention for uncharacteristically tall people. I could finally kick on my heels and be among my people.
My flight into Charleston arrived late, and I entered the lobby of the Riverview Hotel at a sprint, camera bouncing across my chest. The concierge glanced at me and silently aimed a pinky toward a dimmed conference room. Inside, a hundred men and women, five-foot-ten to seven-foot-two, sat around tables. The door banged closed behind me. Half of the audience turned at the disruption, straining their specially ordered formalwear, before nodding and returning their eyes to the stage, a set of cheap two-foot platforms on a beige rug, in front of a puce wall divider on tracks.
On the stage, spotlights followed five gowned pageant contestants in the formalwear competition, teetering through a holding pattern of steps, turns and pauses. The crowd hooted in support, and I began clicking away at the women, ages thirty-one to sixty-eight, trying to ignore the haze of fluorescent hotel lights.
The contestants disappeared, and the lights rose to blinding brightness. Intermission. I dashed backstage, behind the fake wall into the same beige conference room, to find out who, exactly, I was photographing. They immediately invited me to join the pageant, while squeezing into custom costumes, slathering themselves in skin-care products and experimenting with duct tape. "For tonight," announced the six-foot-two rosy-cheeked brunette who would later become the pageant's runner-up, "our make-up standard is, 'Can you see it from a galloping horse?'"
They returned to the stage for the pageant's Q&A and talent competition. Photographing normal-weight tall people is tricky, because on film they generally appear fat rather than tall. Shin height doesn't show on film, particularly when hidden under a gown, so the subject looks normally proportioned, but wide. The enormous breasts of six-foot-plus women only add to the illusion. I sat near the stage and quickly moved to the floor, keeping the camera low to accentuate the contestants' heights rather than girth, ignoring the fact that my black-denim rear was on view for the crowd.
I nervously anticipated the crowning of the winner, a blond-banged six-foot-tall special-education teacher in four-inch heels who later told me she'd entered because she wanted to meet people. Her strategy paid off. "When you're wearing a sash and crown," she later confided to me, "people talk to you." I dug my left shoulder into the rug, contorted the lower half of my body toward the crowd and nailed the crowning shot.
After the pageant, I circulated through the crowd of cocktail drinkers, who seemed to be mingling with no purpose. Weeklong conventions have a lot of that. It soon became apparent that tall clubs serve different purposes for different members. The women tend to be exceedingly friendly, a common trait among those with unusual physical characteristics. They are there to meet tall men who appreciate them, and to gush amongst themselves about how nice it is to rest a cheek against a male chest rather than a forehead. The men, on the other hand, are either incredibly tall and sick of bending down to normal-size women all the time, or they're tall fetishists who've squeaked in just over the six-foot-two minimum. Men, I've learned, will travel anywhere for a fetish. I once worked for a newspaper in Cambodia and met men who'd relocated from Manhattan instead of just hanging out in Chinatown.
"You must come on our trip through historical Charleston tomorrow," I was told repeatedly by women. "We recruit on the go! And after that is the pajama party." That was the closest anyone came to broaching the subject of height directly. Like a bar that caters mainly to alcoholics, talking about the thing that had brought us all together seemed strictly taboo.