Why don’t tall people get the same sympathy as short people? Everyone feels sorry for minnows, cutting them slack when they talk loudly in meetings or get themselves elected Speaker of the House of Commons. But tall people are seen as life’s victors; the ones you want to be, the ones who get everything their own way. It just isn’t the case.
I’m not actually that tall — 6ft 1in — but even I encounter problems. Cashpoints are too low, hotel beds are too short, train seats don’t have enough leg room. In the days of phone boxes, I spent every call hunched over (not enough lead). I regularly have to bend at the knees to use mirrors, and am sometimes forced to take showers kneeling down, because the head hasn’t been fixed high enough up the wall. What’s that you say? Have a bath instead? I would — if that wasn’t too short as well. It’s a choice between sitting bolt upright or resting my feet against the tiles somewhere near the ceiling.
And if I’m struggling, what’s it like for the 6ft 4-and-above brigade? The other day I used a walkway in the Barbican where I only had three inches clearance — anyone that much taller than me would have had to stoop. I know, the whole Barbican is a design-free zone, but it’s far from the only place. Much of modern Britain is structurally tallist.
It was only when talking to a friend who’s 6ft 6 that I realised just how troublesome clothing can be. All I’ve ever had to do is buy shirts with extra-long sleeves, but Rob has an extra problem with casual shirts. ‘They all expose my navel when I stretch. And not in a winsome, sexy way.’ Trousers are a nightmare. My inside leg is 34 inches, Rob’s is 36, and apparently those extra two inches make all the difference. ‘They dramatically limit your options,’ he says. ‘I can buy suits from T.M. Lewin and jeans from Gap — and that’s it.’ Rob once walked into a tailor’s on Jermyn Street and asked if they had anything to fit him. ‘The bloke held up a tie.’
It’s even worse for women. ‘There’s a shop called Long Tall Sally that every tall woman goes to once,’ says my friend Emma (6ft). ‘You’re desperately hoping you’ll find a pair of trousers that go all the way down to your shoes. The customers lurk between the rails of polyester stretch, taking furtive glances at each other, all thinking: “Well at least I’m not that tall.”’ Emma’s amazed at people’s attitudes when they meet her. ‘They think it’s perfectly fine to say, “God you’re tall, do you find it difficult to get shoes?” Imagine if I said to a fat stranger, “Do you find it difficult to get clothes?”’
Then there’s the matter of relationships. How often do you see a woman with a man shorter than her? There’s the odd exception — the ex-Mrs Bernie Ecclestone, for instance — but for whatever reason it seems to be a no-no. Germaine Greer (6ft) says she never learned to dance backwards because she always had to take the male role. Some tall women (and indeed men) hunch their shoulders in an attempt to hide their height. The habit never goes away, no matter how successful you become.
Tall poppy syndrome, of course, that’s what they call it. Rosamund Beattie (6ft 4), a member of the Tall Persons Club — not a joke, they really do find life difficult — says it’s like being famous but without the money. The club’s website relates that tall children are ‘disproportionately likely to be bullied at school, something that most adults do not appreciate. The tall child has to be the aggressor, right? Wrong.’
There can also be health problems. Louise Ross (6ft 3, another TPC member), has had ‘dodgy knees since I was ten’. Her loose ligaments have necessitated 12 operations. OK, such troubles will only be common for out-liers like her. But even if the ‘averagely tall’ like me don’t suffer health issues, we do encounter regular irritations. The glass shelves that stand above bars in many pubs — I can only order my round by squatting slightly. Someone my height could never work behind that bar: they’d be in agony after the first shift.
Yes, I know all this is going to sound rich to someone of below average height. ‘I’ll swap places with you,’ they’ll be saying. Fair enough. On balance I’d rather be 6ft 1 than 5ft 5. But it’s still true that, as so often, a supposedly desirable outcome in life is slightly less desirable than you might think. Before you look at a tall person and say you wish you were them, walk a mile in their shoes. Assuming they’ve been able to find any.