Back when I started school, I was so tiny that even the smallest off-the-peg uniform had me resembling Tom Hanks at the end of Big, all trailing cuffs and quarterback shoulders. Turning up on my first day in the ensuing knockoff was my less than dizzying introduction to bespoke fashion. In High Wycombe in the early ‘90s, gingham wasn’t the big deal it is now.
"Look how CUTE you are!" friends shriek when I show them the class photo from that year. "LOOK AT YOUR TEENY FEET!" In the photo, my feet – admittedly teeny – dangle miles above the floor. Even I can see I’m adorable.
The trouble is, not much has changed. I’m 31 now, and 5ft 1in. The average height for a woman in the UK is 164.4cm – around 5ft 4in – which leaves me three inches wanting. Find me someone who enjoys being below average.
There are perks, of course. Most people will let me slip in front of them at gigs and music festivals; dating is (marginally) easier without the threat of a Rod Stewart-Penny Lancaster situation; and in Topshop, if the dress I want has sold out in my size on the main floor, I’ll often find it lurking in the Petite section. I hold fast to these little victories, for each is accompanied by a dozen defeats.
My teenage dream of dancing on Top of the Pops was dashed when I learned you had to be at least 5ft 4in to stand a chance of getting work; likewise my backup dream of becoming an air steward (I may have taken that "reach for the stars" memo too literally). Rush hour on the Tube is nerve-shredding: I can’t reach the overhead bar so if I find myself beyond touching distance of an upright, I have to pray for as tight a crush as possible, to keep from falling. As for what’s on the top shelf of my wardrobe – your guess is as good as mine.
But that’s all cosmetic, really. What narks me off is this perception that small equals girlish, delicate, dainty. Cute. Who decided that all the adjectives for women of diminutive stature should be similarly dinky? Why the collective jaw-drop when a short woman turns out to be powerful? Try googling "small female celebrities" – you’ll notice the results are depressingly uniform in tone. "You’d never know how tall Gaga is judging by her ginormous presence," gasps one writer, "but Mother Monster barely stands over five feet tall. Pretty surprising, considering the way she owns a room."
Then there’s Simone Biles, the incredible US gymnast who won four gold medals at the Rio Olympics. Media coverage of her performance was universally adulatory – words like "eye-popping", "strength" and "brilliance" abound – yet you’d be hard-pressed to uncover an article that doesn’t make a point of her height – even in women’s gymnastics, where athletes tend to be on the smaller side anyway. (Biles, if you must know, is 4ft 8in.)
Let’s be honest, though; I can’t imagine Lady Gaga losing sleep over a handful of "Fuck me sideways that woman is minuscule"-type editorials. The damage is done in the real world, to those of us without 67m Twitter followers or a stash of Olympic medals to waggle in the faces of our belittlers. I may be the eldest of three children, with a job and a flat and a demonstrable ability to keep out of trouble but, around my family, I revert to impractical, head-in-the-clouds liability. My mother visibly crumpled with relief when I arrived in Australia for my brother’s wedding earlier this year, having travelled out alone. “Did you know what to do?” she asked, as we discussed the flight. As if I hadn’t been on a plane before… Increasingly I wonder whether years of bear hugs and being told "I do worry about you, Katy, you’re so tiny" has coloured not just my mother’s impression of me but my impression of myself. Tell someone something often enough and they’ll start to believe it.
I've already resigned myself to making considerably less money than my taller colleagues over the course of my career. There are, apparently, certain "noncognitive abilities or social skills that are correlated with stature and rewarded in the labour market." Well, what about the former boss who would pantomime reeling back in shock whenever I spoke up for myself? Or the number of visitors at a recent university open day who asked my little sister – the tutor – what she was hoping to study? After a while, she said, the satisfaction of wrong-footing people gave way to exasperation. If these are the social skills deemed worthy of reward – rudeness and a tendency to patronise – then I'll take my circumscribed earning potential and run, thanks.
In the grand scheme of things, I know there are more pressing concerns. I know that having the space to air my woes is a luxury not afforded to many people with actual problems. But man, I’m tired of lads (it’s always lads) in the pub resting their pint glasses on my head. Or seizing me as an opportunity to bolster their fragile masculinity. "STOP FUCKING PICKING ME UP I’M NOT A BARBELL" I want to scream as yet another muscle-bound city boy hoists me over his shoulder. Perhaps I should make more of an effort to put my foot down. To call out the next person who dares equate my size with my strength. To take up more space in the world. In the meantime, can everyone agree to stop calling us short women "cute"? After all, we’re the perfect height to kick you in the shins.