How Tall Are You? (on being a tall woman in South Korea)

She pushed her way onto the bus and fought for a spot near the exit door, grabbing a handle just before it pulled away from the stop. She felt a pair of eyes on her and glanced down to see a four-foot-ten ahjumma (old woman) craning her neck to get a good look. She looked back up, unperturbed, but after looking around the bus she noticed that everyone on board today seemed to be particularly short. Even all of the men were under 5’6″. On all forms of public transportation she enjoyed being tall. She could grab handles and poles easier, reach over other passengers, and easily push her way through crowds. Her height, however, in crowded places like this was always a reminder that she didn’t belong.

Carly’s struggled with insecurities about her height since puberty, when she became tall…”for a girl”. As a middle schooler she hated being the tallest among her friends, especially the boys that hadn’t caught up yet (read: all of them). By mid-high school she’d become relatively comfortable with it and by college, even though she still had the occasional toxic thought, she had more or less come to embrace it. Most of the time she enjoyed being different.

(–> I guess this is where I tell you that Carly is ~5’10”, or 176cm)

Unfortunately, moving to Korea erased a lot of the progress that Carly had made in regards to confidence about her height. Many of the men that she sees here are her height or taller, but most of the women seem to hover around 5’5″, and she can’t help but notice that this is the height that the men seem to desire. Of course there’s a little variance among female height, but only VERY RARELY (as in, once) has Carly seen a Korean female that met her 5’10”, and only a handful of times has seen women above 5’8″. (Since having an obsession/complex about height from a very young age, Carly is very good at judging it).

So, of course, because it’s so rare to see a tall woman here, she understands why people stare at her. When Carly witnessed the aforementioned 5’10” Korean woman on the metro she stared like hell! It’s just unfortunate that there is now so much attention given to the insecurity that she has (just recently) learned to accept and, at times, embrace.

The worst part is when people ask. Sometimes people in the United States would ask how tall she was. Carly doesn’t by any means consider it a rude question, it’s just something that people don’t seem to care as much about back home. People can see with their eyeballs that she’s tall and don’t need factual confirmation. In South Korea, however, it’s one of the first questions that people (especially men) ask her. Here’s a little example:

*standing up from a meal, the man realizes Carly is tall*

Man: Wow, how tall are you?

Carly: 176cm

Man: Oh, wow, good! I’m 178. Good.

So maybe you can see here that it’s not as much the question itself that bothers Carly (again, it’s not a rude question), but rather the follow-up exclamations. “Oh, good! I’m 178.” Oh, good! Are you able to continue this friendship now that you feel like enough of a man? She’s also had several disappointed remarks. “Oh, I’m only 172.”. Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. You can tell she’s taller than you, did you think that asking her was going to make her shrink 6 centimeters so you could properly take care of her? Like wgaf?! You have more of a complex about your height than she does!

Clothing shopping is also particularly frustrating. Dresses turn into shirts. Pants turn into (awkward as HELL) capris. Sleeves are too short, shoulders too narrow. Even in stores that carry actual sizes (not just one-size-fits-all like many of the stores here) she has yet to find a pair of pants that fits. So she’s been embracing a measuring tape and online shopping.

With her foreign friends she feels (relatively) normal. Everyone is a different height and body type. Nobody cares. Around her Korean friends, especially coworkers, however, she feels out of place. Like a giant. And the comments are never-ending. Even her students gasp when she reaches to turn on the projector without a step-stool and muttered “와, 키가 진짜 크다!…wow, she’s so tall!”‘s can be heard throughout the room.

What bothers her the most is the idea (not unique to Korea) that a woman should be short and small to be feminine. That she should be shorter than a man. That being cute is better than being strong. A large percentage of Carly’s friends (she knows…she’s asked) have said that they’d “NEVER date a guy shorter than me! Ew.” Why EW?! WHY?! omg Why do people care so much? About a genetic quality that no one can control? Is a height difference between a couple really so important for both parties? Just because (read: THE ONLY REASON) it’s the norm? Much of the time Carly has spent in Korea has, unfortunately, become a regression to middle school, a struggle to once again overcome the insecurity about her height, about the constant reminder that she is different.



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