This is the first installment in “A Month of Blind Women,” a four-part essay series presented by LightHouse Interpoint, the new literary supplement from LightHouse for the Blind, and cross-posted at The Toast.
When I was about nineteen, I got into a cab in Paris and the driver commented on my height. This was not unusual; I am tall, have always been tall, and was accustomed to people commenting on it. But then the taxi driver told me that in Sweden they have an operation to fix that.
“To fix what?” My French is good, but the reference to Sweden caught me off guard.
“Your height,” he said. What they did, he explained, was to cut out a section of the thigh bone, just a few centimeters. Then they’d pin the bones together and sew up the leg, and I’d be good as new, only shorter.
I should have let it go at that; should have said, “Sounds great. I’ll pack my bags and leave tomorrow.” But I was too stunned to let it go. “If they cut out part of my thigh, my calf will be disproportionately long,” I said.
“So they can take a piece out of the calf bone, too,” he said. “Then they could take a little bit out of each arm bone, and remove a couple of vertebra as well.”
I was fascinated and horrified. In my mind’s ear I could hear the sharp, metallic clink as small sections of my bones dropped one by one into a stainless steel receptacle, to the accompaniment of the melodic but muted commentary of my Swedish surgeons.
And why Sweden? I wondered. At the time, Sweden was universally associated with sex change operations, so perhaps it was natural for the taxi driver to assume that the Swedes would be able to handle this comparatively simple dissection and reassembly job. But the Swedes are, on average, tall people, certainly taller than the French, so is it likely that the Swedes would come up with an operation for a physical condition they would not define as abnormal?
I snapped out of it. “They can’t do that,” I said. “They can’t remove parts of your spine for cosmetic reasons. And anyway, even if they could, that would make my ribs too close together, and my inner organs would get all squashed. And when they sewed me back up there would be too much skin. I’d be all lumpy.”
“It would smooth out,” he assured me. “Anyway, the point is not to be in proportion. The point is to stop being so tall.”
As I say, my height provokes comments – though this taxi ride was the only time someone had suggested I seek a cure for it. Typically, when I enter a room, people begin talking about their friends and relations who are tall, whether amongst themselves or to me directly. In certain situations, such as a doctor’s office or clothing store, the comments might be appropriate. But it is not uncommon for strangers to come up to me on the street, in airports, even once at a funeral, and talk to me about my height.
I was in an elevator in a hospital recently, and another woman got on and asked me, without preamble, “How tall are you?” When I told her, she piped, “Well, good for you!” Her tone was that of a cheerleader or preschool teacher. Naturally, it’s nice to receive praise from a stranger, but what had I done to deserve it? I suspect that her initial reaction to my height was astonishment, which often veils disapproval, or at least an assessment of something out of the ordinary, abnormal. Perhaps, in attempt to cover the rudeness of her question, she transformed her astonishment into praise.
I can think of very few times that my height has changed the course of my life. And yet people still treat it as noteworthy. For instance, the first time I met my agent, it was all she could talk about. We had known each other for some years already; she had read my work, and through letters, phone calls, and emails we knew quite a lot about each other. When we finally met in person, the first thing she said to me was, “You never told me you were so tall.”
It was true. I had not deliberately withheld the information, but I’d never announced it, either. I’d never written about it. My height does not appear on my CV. Apparently I don’t sound tall on the phone.
I couldn’t even remember an occasion when I might have slipped the fact into our conversation. How would I bring it up? “Speaking as a tall person…” “The tall perspective on that is…” “We in the tallness community…” But my agent found it somehow relevant to my career, as if she would have put my height to some use if only she’d known.
My height makes people doubt their own perceptions. The typical response is to look up at my head, then instantly down at my feet, as if to determine how much of my height comes from my shoes. How high would my heels have to be to make me this much taller than average? Once a teenager on the bus looked up at my head, then down at my feet, then raised her face again to ask: “Are you really that tall?” Is there an answer to such a question?
I am very popular with tall women, or women who always thought of themselves as tall until they met me. In public places and social gatherings, tall women spot me from afar, then lift their chins; straighten their spines. Suddenly they achieve the posture their mothers always nagged them about: “Be proud of your height.” I am grateful that I never heard this imperative from my own mother, and this may account for something. She had been considered tall in her youth (and was still tall in adulthood, except when I was around) and had heard the admonition from her own mother, whose height was average. The tall women who see me become proud of their height, or else proud of my height, relieved at last of the burden of being the tallest woman in the room.
Or it may simply be a sense of kinship. Tall women have common concerns: we can never find shoes large enough, sleeves long enough. We’ve heard all the wisecracks: “How’s the weather up there?” Way better than it is down there.
Many tall women, despite obvious success, desire some consolation for their height. In interviews, the actress Geena Davis complained at length about her height. She described how self-conscious she’d been about it in high school, how hard it had been for her to get a date. She is not as tall as me – only about as tall as my mother – and yet I don’t relate.
While tallness is an asset for men in just about every culture on earth, denoting authority and leadership, height in women is often considered a liability. Tall women learn that to be taller than their male partner is unfeminine, undesirable, and unlovely. It’s true that fashion models tend to be tall, because a tall body is considered a better frame on which to drape clothes. But typically fashion models are on the tall side of average, and most report the same unhappiness that Geena Davis suffered.
My late husband was four inches shorter than I am. We observed that this automatically elevated him in the esteem of women—both strangers and friends who commented on it to me. They judged him to be less shallow than other men, more secure than a man who would be threatened by a tall woman.
While women are conditioned to think of excessive height as a detriment, men often exaggerate about their height, adding an inch or two when questioned. Even the tallest, most popular tall men on the planet – say, basketball players – lie about how tall they are, pushing their inflated stats to the height of believability. Men have good reason to stretch the truth about their height. Tall men tend to earn more than shorter men. Researchers have shown people pictures of a group of men, all similarly dressed, and asked them to say which man appears to be in charge. They tend to pick the tallest one, even if another man is exhibiting dominant behavior.
Things may be changing, however. Recently, a high school women’s basketball team greeted me warmly in an ice cream parlor, not just relieved but proud to be in good company. Indeed, when I see young tall women today, more often they seem to wear their height with a certain swagger: “That’s right, mister, I’m tall. Wanna make something of it?” And I cannot help but think that that as women compete with men more and more in the workplace, in politics, in sports, and elsewhere, the favorable assumptions people make about tall men will extend to tall women. I assume this is why Geena Davis, not some shorter actress, played the U.S. president in the short-lived primetime show ‘Commander In Chief.’
It will not have escaped the attentive reader that I have not said exactly how tall I am. I am the tallest woman I know but not the tallest woman ever. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the tallest woman for whose height there is reliable evidence was Zeng Jinlian of Yujiang village in Bright Moon Commune, Hunam Province, China. She was 8 feet, 1.5 inches tall when she died in 1982. Until 2012, the tallest living woman was Yao Defen, from the Anhui province of eastern China, who measured 7 feet, 9 inches, two inches taller than the previous Guinness record holder, Sandy Allen of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Today, it is Siddiqua Parveen, estimated at 7 feet, 8 inches. And no, I am not in their league.
Yao Defen, Sandy Allen, and Siddiqua Parveen have all had tumors removed from their pituitary glands. Problems with the pituitary are frequently identified as the cause of excessive height. Operations of this kind are deemed necessary when the person’s extreme height makes it difficult for the heart and other organs to function. In Parveen’s case, they were even concerned the tumor would cause her to go blind.
But there have been medical interventions to curb growth even when it does not necessarily threaten life or vision. From the 1950s into the ’70s and in some cases even later, doctors prescribed synthetic estrogens to pre-pubescent girls who showed signs of growing too tall. The hormones were supposed to speed up the maturation process so that the skeleton would cease to grow. Reasons given for wishing to limit the height of girls were that tall girls would have trouble finding clothes, getting dates, and pursuing a career in ballet—as if a career as a ballet dancer guaranteed happiness. There has been little in the way of follow-up research to determine the long-term effect on these women, but some report problems such as early menopause and cysts.
As far as I know, the limb shortening operation the Paris cab driver described is not commonly performed. He may have extrapolated from a limb lengthening procedure by which the long bones of adolescents are severed and lengthened in such a way as to encourage the bones to grow longer. There are by far many more treatments to increase height than to decrease it. Even a cursory web search will yield everything from shoe lifts to human growth hormone therapies to devices that purport to stimulate the pituitary gland or thicken the disks between the vertebrae.
What complicates the ways people respond to my height is that I am also blind. I cannot always see the double takes, the astonished gaze sweeping up and down the length of my body – though it is possible to feel these responses, or rather to hear them. A hush tends to come over a room when a blind person enters. My blindness, like my height, makes people see their surroundings differently. Every object, every feature of the ground underfoot is transformed into a potentially lethal obstacle. “Watch your step,” people tell me, and then: “Watch your head!” – a physical impossibility even for the sighted.
Apparently when people see me coming they sometimes jump out of the way. A blind friend and I were walking down the street in Montreal one nice spring evening, and my husband said it was as if we were parting the Red Sea. Even when I’m on my own, people dive out of the way, whisking toddlers and small dogs from my path. My cane moves with steady, rhythmic care; what are they afraid will happen if it touches them? Do they think I’m out there waving a cattle prod around? Do they imagine a risk of blind contagion?
A while ago, I sat down in a Paris restaurant next to a couple of international businesspeople. Immediately they began talking about Lasik surgery to cure myopia, and it was obvious that my blindness led to the topic shift. They both knew people who’d had the surgery, and each had considered having the operation, despite the fact that they’d heard many horror stories about surgeries gone wrong. They both agreed that wearing glasses, even wearing contact lenses, put them at a disadvantage in the high-powered international business world. Wearing glasses denoted weakness, and therefore a lack of authority. From this I gathered that if you show a group of research subjects a room full of men in business attire they will never assume the one in charge is the blind man, no matter how tall he may be. (Unless, of course all of them are blind, but I doubt this experiment has occurred to anyone but me.)
People often tell me that I’m tall, as if I might be in some doubt about the fact. But people never tell me that I’m blind. Blindness is assumed to be such an unmitigated tragedy that presumably I might burst into tears if reminded of it. Rather they tell me, usually in somewhat hushed and reverent tones, about cures. They’ve read something somewhere or seen something on TV about some doctor who has invented a cure for blindness. The public imagination translates a news item about some promising preliminary finding in lab rats into an announcement of a readily available cure for blindness of every kind.
The general public has touching faith in the promise of human perfectibility through science, and a rather murky understanding of the wide range of causes of vision impairments. Cataract operations only work on patients with cataracts. Laser treatments can slow or arrest the progress of certain retinal diseases, but cannot restore cells that have already died. Gene therapies and retinal and cerebral implants may one day improve or restore vision to certain individuals, but not all of us, and not now. Remarkably, the same people who express horror at an operation or hormone treatment to add or subtract an inch or two from a person’s height are perplexed that a blind person might decline the opportunity to have holes drilled in her skull and wires threaded through her brain in the hope that she might be able to gain back even just a few shadows or color perception. Pointing out that a white cane or guide dog can help prevent collisions will only earn one the label of willfully obstinate. I’ve learned that the expected response when these descriptions of cure are offered is: “Sounds great. I’ll pack my bags and leave tomorrow.”
I have been blind long enough to know that I can either drop everything and traipse around the world volunteering myself as an experimental subject to any researcher who will have me, or I can concentrate my efforts on adapting my environment to suit my nonvisual needs. Fortunately, in my lifetime, the proliferation of adaptive technologies has vastly improved my life. My talking computer not only allows me to do my work, but gives me access to an ever-growing amount of reading material. Global positioning devices can help blind people navigate unfamiliar places and, most gratifyingly, let us give directions to taxi drivers.
As the population ages, the baby-boomer generation will be affected by the leading causes of blindness that tend to occur later in life. Demand for assistive tools and services will increase. Environmental concerns will make public transportation more and more of a necessity, so all us non-drivers will benefit.
What makes my height and blindness analogous is that both can be understood as relative. I am taller in France or China than in America or Sweden. I am also more blind than most people, but less blind than some.
The concept of “legal” blindness in the industrialized world identifies some visual activities as more crucial to living and working than others. Blindness is defined as the inability to read standard print or drive a car safely. The standard measure for legal blindness is an acuity of 20/200 or less, or a visual field of 20 degrees or less in the better eye with corrective lenses. People whose vision falls short in these areas are legally eligible for educational and vocational programs. In some countries, such as Egypt, the threshold to be considered blind is 20/300. I would still be blind in Egypt; perhaps not in another country. But I would probably still be noteworthy.
What I don’t always know for sure is whether it is my height or my blindness that strikes people most profoundly. Recently, a man in front of me at the supermarket checkout line said, “You were in line behind me when I was in here last week.” He reminded me that he had asked me to hold his place in line so he could go get some tomatoes he’d forgotten. “You’re a very distinctive person,” he said, by way of explanation. “I mean, you must be the tallest woman in here.”
I sense he might also have been thinking, “You’re the only blind person in here,” or even “You’re the tallest blind person I’ve ever seen.” But since blindness is not considered something polite to mention, he decided to mention only my height. Why mention any personal characteristic at all? I wondered. I mumbled something about how “I stand out in a crowd” and let it go at that.
I remember a man in Montreal once offered the comment: “La géante est aveugle!” The giantess is blind! This sized me up, in a way, but did not manage to get me in a nutshell. My blindness, like my height, is simply one of the many characteristics that make me who I am. I am way above average in one respect, way below average in another. And while life could always be better, I do not feel I need to be cured of anything. That’s right, monsieur. I am tall. I am blind. I am female. And the weather up here is just the way I like it.