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Thursday, April 26 Opinion

In Other Words: Being cut down to size

There was a time I was the tallest kid in the class -- until I grew up and became small.

Back in first grade, I towered over little Janie Englehardt. I was a notch above Wendy Worsley, and if any of the boys like Danny Golden "started up," I could take Danny out with merely a glance -- no problem.

Then life changed and my peers started stacking up the inches while I lagged behind, acquiring the nickname of "shrimpy," which to this day I still recall with a sense of humiliation and dread. Even worse, a spray of caramel freckles adorned my face so that adjectives like "cute" and "comely" were added to the list of unfortunate monikers. Like the freckles themselves, the adjectives eventually vanished.

The world as I perceived it was a tall person's domain in which items on top shelves could easily be reached. For me, however, an attempted grasp became a study in futility requiring a step stool, or, if I was lucky, retrieved by a taller person who happened to be standing by. It soon became clear: I was a miniature misfit among those who could physically fend for themselves.

Then something happened: I became an anomaly -- a person who stood out from the crowd simply because my size was accentuated by those who, by comparison, didn't suffer my shortcomings.

For a while, small became the "in thing" -- a fad like poodle skirts, buzz cuts and the twist. Department stores added special lines of petite-sized clothes, facilitating those who wanted to look as chic as long, lanky models without the inches. I was suddenly elevated to new heights, looked up to and accepted as a member in good standing in a club whose only prerequisite was being short.

As I evolved into adolescence, I became aware that some boys felt manly and macho when in the presence of a pint-sized girl. My specific appeal was built on a combination of petite and plucky. In order optimally to survive, I spoke "up" while others looked "down," and so, by assuming a kind of feisty facade, I made my way through crowds of big people and developed a voice that made up in determination what it lacked in resonance.

The late John Kenneth Galbraith, himself 6-foot-8, once claimed: "Heightism is one of the most blatant and forgiven prejudices in our society."

But in my mind, like Galbraith, I stood tall.

Eventually, my career path catapulted me along on a stream of personal accomplishments. My ego developed a growth spurt of its own. My attitude on "small" presented a newfound appreciation, allowing me to navigate with ease into small spaces. I could literally fit in anywhere.

For a while, I fancied myself a ballerina, agile and lithe, donning a leotard and gliding across the slippery floor doing plies that could rival the most seasoned performer.

On long car rides, I got scrunched between fellow passengers. "Scrunching" in fact became an art form I perfected over time. I was a "pocket passenger" who could slide into whatever the situation presented.

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My size, I discovered, solicited attention so that even now, years later, people feel compelled to politely offer assistance. Men have asked to pump my gas; grocery store baggers escort my heavy bundles to my car. Once, a cop, who stopped me for "traveling too fast," greeted me with a scolding: "good afternoon, little lady. Try looking over the windshield." I drove away with only a warning and the unspoken message to grow "up."

I suppose it is my plight to go through life as a "little lady," which presents specific drawbacks: The person in front of me at movie theaters is always too tall. I don't do well in one-size-fits-all elevators where more scrunching takes place. Wearing too-high heels makes me look ridiculously wobbly and off-balance. And yet, in my small way, I have finally grown into myself, and I enjoy the view from my low perch.

A friend once gave me a T-shirt that read: This is what Small, Powerful and Cool Looks Like.

I feel silly wearing it, as though I need to apologize for being height-challenged.

In his charming essay, "My Inner Shrimp," graphic artist, cartoonist and writer Garry Trudeau wrote: "For the rest of my days I will be a recovering short person." He eventually grew, but the psychological scars remained.

Like Trudeau, I, too, have suffered the stings and stigma of being what is often described as "a little girl." But it's more amusing than assaultive, and I've grown accustomed to, and appreciative of my wee-tature status.

And so, I wear that T-shirt to bed, hoping, as the logo suggests, that I am small, powerful and, indeed, very cool.

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com.