The date was June 13th 1993. I was at teen cotillion, our first formal dance. For those unfamiliar with this practice, cotillion is a weekly dance class, held at night, where about 50-80 teenagers stand in a gymnasium and are taught everything from the foxtrot to the box step. This is meant to prepare us for the future. In the Southern states of America, specifically Charlotte, North Carolina, it’s full of a lot of upcoming debutantes and the men who will one day lead them in their coming out. I fell at the first hurdle of this great test for the future. My size restrictions were presented to me in the worst way a teenager can experience them.
You see, in this gym, the girls sat across from the boys, on a set of folding chairs that were flimsy enough to break under the stress of anything greater than 75 pounds. I suppose, even then, I was slightly aware of my size as I remember teetering on the edge, praying the chair would hold my weight, while the girls around me jumped excitedly up and down on theirs as if they were made of air.
I sat in that chair the whole night and watched as girls I had grown up with were asked to dance. One by one they were led to the dance floor, and before long I sat solo. I sat patiently, not really understanding. Sure, the boys during class all used to snicker if they had to dance with me. There were remarks made that they all had the best view in the house – as they were level with my chest area. “Boys will be boys” our instructor used to say. But that night, no one wanted to dance with me. It was our first event when boys were learning the way in which to ask a lady to dance, and none had chosen me. I lasted exactly one hour of that two-hour cotillion.
In the middle of a rather fast paced foxtrot, I snuck out the side door. As I stood up, however, I can remember feeling as if the rise was endless. I was taller than even our instructors. I was taller, and larger in general, than every single person in the room. How had I not noticed this before?
As I sat on the pavement, hands in jacket pockets, the tears came fast, heavy and steady. I sat in the dark and waited another hour for my mother to show up. These were the days before mobile phones. If you wanted to leave a school function, you’d have to ask an adult for assistance with a pay phone. There was no way I was going back in. So there I sat, and waited, alone with the thoughts that are, to this day, still tattooed on my brain.
I was different.
Those three words are a curse to any teenager looking to fit in.
I cried the whole way home from the dance and I can remember my mother saying the same thing used to happen to her when she was my age. I just sat there and in my head asked “mom, why would you send me if you knew it would be like this?” Perhaps my parents felt we’d moved on as a society in being more accepting of people of all sizes. Sadly, that was not the case, not even a little.
I do believe there comes a point in every person’s life when they realise their physical size for the first time. Alarmingly, as a child who was always wider and taller than all of her peers, I was a late bloomer in this arena of “knowing my size makes me different.” My family is anything but small. I have three brothers who all stand close to 6’6 and parents who both strike well above the six foot mark. For the longest time I thought this was the norm. Surely everyone was this large? Then, at grade school, size wasn’t ever really an issue. I was a little plump but never considered myself overweight. Now, I can’t remember a time when I was ever under a size 16 (UK). That all being said, it wasn’t until that fateful night, at the age of 13, that I realised how large I was. I do believe that experience at cotillion left a gaping wound.
At that point in my life I felt physically massive, and yet socially I felt as tiny as an insignificant grain of sand. This was my first example of how feeling big on the outside could make me feel tiny on the inside. In retrospect, I know now that what makes me big and strong as a person has very little to do with how I look or the physical space I take up; confidence and moxie are not limited to petite or skinny women. But the way we believe others perceive us physically can have a huge effect on how we feel internally. And that feeling of size can morph with every circumstance life throws our way.
Since that fateful day at Cotillion I have become somewhat of a personal expert in measuring my physical and mental size in every part of my life.
I wish I could say it all changed for me overnight, that I went from an ugly ducking to a beautiful swan, that Cindy Crawford had nothing on my immense beauty and popularity. But, let’s face it, there would be no story here if I was the beauty who got everything she ever dreamed of at age 16. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today had that been the case. No, the drama continued. I like to call it my proper education. Everything that happened next was an important part of my textbook of life and my understanding of the concept of physical and mental size.
Middle school was an unending hell. As soon as I hit six feet tall at 13, it was clear this was going to be an uphill battle. Just how big that incline was, well, I wasn’t quite prepared for it just yet. I kinda wish someone had been able to say, “we’re going to put this treadmill on an incline of ten for about fifteen more years, and then things will get easier.” At least then I would have known and prepared myself with some great hiking shoes.
High school was as you’d expect – a lot of nights at home crying, praying that I could be normal. I even remember reading an article that said one’s growth could be stunted by smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at a young age. So guess what I did? Yup, I snuck a cigarette from an older kid at school during a Friday night football game. Needless to say, it wasn’t for me! In fact, it just ended up making me the butt of more jokes. I took one drag and nearly vomited. If social media had existed at that time, I am almost 100% positive that I would have been a viral video.
Every day of high school I felt my entire soul was spread out on the quad of our campus, laid out for every Tom, Dick and Harry to stomp on between classes. I was called every name you could imagine, only most weren’t said directly to my face. I heard whispers, received notes in my locker calling me “Big Foot,” “Jolly Green Giant” and more. And yes, someone actually did drop a label in my locker from a can of beans with the Jolly Green Giant cartooned on the paper to make a point. There was even an arrow drawn with a sharper that read, “this is you.” If only I were smaller, maybe they wouldn’t have noticed me as much. Maybe I could have just gone through high school “normally.” That’s what I kept thinking. If only I wasn’t me… if only I were normal. Heck, I would have accepted just being someone that could fade into the shadows of hallways. There was literally nowhere for me to hide at six feet tall. No where.
So anyway, smoking didn’t work out as an exercise in stunting my growth, so I turned to the next option on the list– coffee. As I drove myself to school, I made a habit of stopping at Starbucks every morning. I’d order a large coffee and chug it down with a clear agenda in mind. It certainly wasn’t enjoyable. I had no love of coffee or the caffeine that came with it, but I hoped and prayed it would make some dent in what seemed to be a never-ending growth spurt. The other girls were drinking coffee and it seemed the cool thing to do, to arrive in class with a cuppa. I don’t think I told another living soul, ever, that I hated the taste but prayed daily it would have some effect on stopping my increasing height. My dislike of the taste, however, led to other problems. I was, absurdly, killing the coffee taste with fully loaded bagels or doughnuts, which always tasted so sweet and fulfilling. I’d enjoy every morsel and feel all the better for it. And so began a rather dangerous love affair with food and emotions, a tale for another time, which would be a staple in my life for, well, forever.
Coffee, cigarettes, sleeping rolled up in a ball hoping not to stretch at night, none of it worked. I gave up on the idea of being any physically smaller. It wasn’t an option. So I came to terms with what I was and always would be, short of donating my legs to science. I would be a woman who was over six feet tall. I would be a woman who would always have a sizeable arse. I would be a woman who would find a way through this. But, at eighteen, I didn’t know how on earth that was ever going to happen. I didn’t see a way out, I just knew I had to keep moving forward. But, let me be clear, I did not, in any way, shape or form, see my height as an advantage.
My junior year of high school, however, I found a path to salvation in the most unexpected place. Traditionally, it’s at this time that high schoolers in America go in search of their institution for higher education, otherwise known as university or college. My mother and I set out to the mountains of Virginia, where I had decided I wanted to spend four years of my life preparing for medical school. There was one small college, in the middle of nowhere, that had an exceptional reputation for their graduates’ acceptance rate at med schools around the country. However, there was a catch; it was an all girls’ school.
I’ve written a lot, over the years, about how this all women’s college changed my life (you can read about it, linked just there). But I’ll give you a quick synopsis herewith. These were the years, in my early 20s, when I started to see that being tall wasn’t the end of my world. It wasn’t a critical flaw that would leave me miserable for the rest of my life. In fact, it was an asset…
To say that I found myself at university would be just about the biggest understatement I could think of. I didn’t find myself; I found my potential. While there I was taught that there was no limit on how big an impact I could have on this world. I learned that the size of my body had nothing to do with what I could achieve, unless I allowed it to. I also learned that the world is a very big place and it was calling out to be explored. This happened because I was surrounded by a group of women that built each other up in every way they could. I had professors that valued the opinion of their students and councillors that worked hard to build up the self esteem of every woman entering their doors. This was a place where I transformed from a scared little girl into a woman that felt she could do anything and go anywhere, without limitation.
So, at the age of 22, having never had a “real” job before, it was time to graduate and enter the real world. While I felt I could take on any challenge, I had no idea yet what I wanted that challenge to look like. Midway through higher education I had switched from being pre-med to getting a degree in Art History and Art Management. I blame chance. Leave it to me to wander into an Art History class by accident, be too embarrassed to leave, and fall in love with the subject! This was an event that forever altered the course of my life and I couldn’t be more grateful. A little happenstance created a rather large ripple. Again, we reflect on size. How can something so small end up being so colossally huge? This is a pattern in my life. The things I believe to be insignificant in the moment are always the ones which bring about the biggest changes. And the things I always place such massive amounts of worry and weight on are always the smallest, most meaningless things in the long term.
For instance, having no idea what I wanted to do after school, I jumped on a plane to London with a friend. We had a six month visa to work as we pleased and a return ticket once our visa ran out. I wrote letters, six months in advance, to every single gallery in London. I sent, by snail mail, CVs to 321 different institutions. Everything from the Victoria & Albert to the smallest gallery in Mayfair knew that I was coming to town and needed work. Over the course of the next six months, I heard back from about half, and none offered me a position. I went anyway. I took a chance.
I moved to London nearly 20 years ago, with $1,500 to my name, not knowing a soul and having no idea where I was going to live or what I was going to do. My goodness how feeling big enough to conquer any task can lead you to do some amazing things, no matter how stupid they may seem to everyone around you at the time. And for the first time, I felt big inside, not just out. I felt empowered and I didn’t think at all about my height or weight. I had moved to a foreign country and reshaped my destiny, little ole me, or not so little ole me, really. Just like that, miraculously really, I offloaded a feeling that had made me feel miserable for years and years. I can’t even begin to explain how good it felt or how different the world looked. All it took was a plane ticket, for me.
By pure luck, right place, right time, I ended up finding a job as an assistant to the managing director of one of London’s most prestigious auction houses. It was my first job and it was a massive learning curve. I was a young American girl, trying to make a memorable dent in an establishment that was made up of 95% men, all above the age of 45, most over 55. While such an environment may seem intimidating or altogether frightening, I absolutely thrived. I had nothing to lose and that in itself is an intense motivator. As an American woman standing 6’2, I, for the first time, felt my height worked to my advantage. I would not go unnoticed in this world and it was time to use my physical presence to my benefit.
I didn’t just walk into a boardroom, I commanded it. I do believe any woman, of any size, can do this. But, for the first time in my life, I was using my height to further enhance that confidence of walking into a room. Whereas before I wanted to hide in the shadows, now I was happy being the centre of attention as I walked into a room. There was nowhere I could hide and I was absolutely ok with that. It only took 25 years.
I remained at the auction house for over a decade, eventually becoming the head of PR and VIP client management, and the youngest member, and second female, on the Board of Directors for a company that had existed since 1666. I don’t think I could have felt more in command of my space in this world.
Then in 2009, I founded this blog, while still on the clock with the auction house. I didn’t know where it would take me or what on earth it would lead to. I wrote it on the bus on the way into work, I wrote on my lunch hour at Starbucks and I wrote at night, for hours on end, when home from a 12-hour day at the office. I was a woman obsessed. I worked hard, I wanted something but I didn’t know how to define it. So I wrote and wrote until it defined me. It’s crazy to think about that now. I felt I had everything figured out for so long, yet there was always something missing. There was a part of me that still felt blank and undefined, and I thought I could discover it with writing and creating content for the world to absorb.
Ten years later, here we are, and FFG has, rather interestingly, moved from being a news source to a very personal and anecdotal account of my life. The minute I opened up about my issues with size, the fashion world and the ongoing battle I have with myself about wanting to “fit in,” the course of my writing changed forever. This is a direction I never thought I would take, but has ended up playing a massive role in challenging society’s hang ups on the definition of size in an industry that is forever telling us that the smaller you are, the more beautiful you are. I am attempting to tear down the wall, one brick at a time, and hurling the rough remnants over the fence while screaming “change is coming, are you ready for this?”
It’s important to say, however, that ten years on I think of size in a completely different way as a result of becoming an advocate for change.
It’s strange to say that. Even reading back, on what is more or less a summary of my 40 years on this earth. I still hurt thinking about how I suffered as a teenager. But then, if asked today, there are only two times I ever think about size in my life, in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable.
The first is when someone says, “oh my God you are so tall.” Please people, stop doing that. There is no reason for you to say that and it’s horribly uncomfortable. What are we meant to say? “Thanks,” or “What? I had no idea, thanks for telling me!” Also, there is nothing that makes me feel more embarrassed than when I’m out with my boyfriend and someone feels the need to comment on how tall I am. It’s the one thing I haven’t quite “overcome.” I honestly don’t think about how tall I am… so when strangers point it out, in front of someone I’m trying to appear “feminine” in front of all the time, yeah, it hurts. It makes me feel like Shrek. There, I said it. This is, in fact, not an article, as you will see, where I’m saying “it’s all fine, I’ve come to terms with it…being different is great.” It still hurts at time, but hells bells is it easier than it was.
The second time I think about size, and this is without fail, is when I’m shopping. Always. Things fit me differently. My height and weight make me a problematic case in the fashion world. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the two together mean I technically shouldn’t be a part of the modern day fashion world at all.
If you think sizeism doesn’t exist, just look at a runway, mannequins, Vogue magazine, or any Vogue magazine from any country. The fashion game is for small and slightly above average tall women. Not tall and curvy women. Not for curvy women in general. Sure, things have changed. But, I’ll believe they have changed for good when it doesn’t feel “special” when you see a plus size or odd sized woman writing a column or appearing in a fashion editorial.
For forty years, I’ve worked hard to get to a place where I’m happy in my own skin. I was lucky enough to find a sort of middle ground in my early 20s. I was successful and confident, proofing to myself that my height was an asset, not a burden. Now, I find myself settling into my skin even more, accepting that fashion rules are ridiculous. They are constructs in our minds, put there by snooty fashion editors dictating this or that. It’s all bullshit. Every last word. The most stylish thing you can be is yourself, always and forever, no matter your size or age in this world. And if anyone tries to tell you anything differently, they’re either pure evil or trying to sell you something. Please remember that.
The most beautiful thing we have in this world is our diversity, how no two women are the same. That is beauty. That’s the real beauty. And I wish, with all my might that I could go back and hug my teenage self and say, “listen to your parents, they are wise. Believe them when they tell you you are beautiful and strong and above all those unfortunate souls who lifted themselves up by putting you down.” If there are any young ones reading this, please let me add that bullies suck. Sorry, that’s the long and short of it. There’s no elegant way to writ that. Their words feel like long sharp daggers. They sting and the sting remains. But I wouldn’t change what I received in those years for all the money in the world. Being bullied about my size was painful, but it was throwing gasoline on a small flame, at the time. Today, that fire roars out of control in wanting to spread this message to anyone that will listen…. and here it is for you again, for the kids at the back who didn’t hear it the first time.
TAKE UP SPACE IN THIS WORLD… AS MUCH AS YOU CAN!
Be big, be powerful, be strong. Never ever try to hide away! Never apologise for who you are or what you look like. YOU were put here for a reason and you may not know it yet, but it’s for something special, and important, and bigger than you could ever imagine. Just believe in yourself. That’s all. And trust me, that’s enough!
Believe this old lady, please.