I have always been tall. Well above average in height shall we say. I come from ‘good stock’ it has been said by family friends who are farmers – Dad is 6ft 1 and my Mum’s aunt is also 6ft too, so we have height on both sides of the family. But I am not just tall for a human – I am really tall for a woman. I tower over my female friends and some of my male friends too.
I can remember having friends who were taller than me at primary school and in Key Stage 3. I think I stopped growing around Year 9. My body hit pause, I was tall, but not exceptionally tall at this stage. Then something happened in Year 10. I shot up a few more inches. I became huge. A giant.
Being 6ft 1 when you are 14/15 and growing up in the 1990s in North Devon was hard when it came to clothes. I can remember the pain of clothes shopping as a teenager. My younger sister, by 18 months, is a couple of inches shorter than me, and we have very different body shapes. I have always been curvy, carried a few extra pounds and am all leg (36 inches is my inside leg measurement!) whereas Pip is sportier in her physique and has a long back/ shorter legs. It meant that sharing clothes couldn’t really happen either. Saturday shopping trips for jeans or black trousers would often lead to arguments and tears.
My Mum is above average height at 5ft6 but she looks like a midget standing next to Dad, my sister and I. We often get comments when we are all together about how she gave birth to such giants. The human body is an amazing thing! My sister married someone taller than Dad so her family are all very leggy too and her teenager kids will soon tower over all of us. We definitely make an impact when we are all together, as you can’t really miss us as a family unit!
My height has helped me in my sports teams, I played netball, hockey and tennis for various teams at school, college, locally and then for university, often playing up a year due to my physical size. No, I don’t play basketball – a question I get asked a lot… So, my relationship with my height has been very much part of my relationship with myself, my friends, my partners and my career. After all I don’t know any different, there are some characteristics about our identity which we cannot change and whilst my weight has fluctuated, my hair colour has changed and my dress sense has evolved, my height has been a constant!
But how has my height shaped me as a leader?
I think I have probably taken my height for granted in many ways. Physically I know that I am very present. I am always visible – you can’t really hide when you are this height! I trained in tricky single sex boys’ schools and have always handled myself in busy corridors, playgrounds and have been known to separate many a fight. To be fair I just need to stand up as one of my behaviour management strategies. I know I have not had to work as hard as some of my smaller peers to establish myself, although I have also seen very tall men who are gentle giants who I have had to train and coach to be more present physically, to own their space so it is not always a given that if you are taller behaviour management is easier.
I was promoted early on in my career to Head of Year and I then became a Pastoral Middle Leader (the only female). I moved quickly onto SLT (I have served as the sole female on several male heavy leadership teams). I know my physique and my height, along with my loud voice and my confidence, have empowered me to hold my own. They have been an advantage in my career and perhaps, on reflection, I have experienced less bias than my petiter female friends, as a consequence. I think sometimes my male colleagues forget I am a woman in fact, as I can hold my own with the banter and handle myself with the jostling.
Being tall, leads to different choices about dress code too. I own heels, but I don’t need to wear heels. I used to wear them, and as my corridor stomp is well-known – colleagues and children would hear me before they could see me! But as I have been promoted, my work uniform has evolved and usually consists of a smartish dress with flat daps/ ballet shoes so I don’t suffer with sore feet, and so I can run around schools all day – as a school leader I was usually seen chasing a runaway down a corridor or up a stair case! When I worked under men who were shorter than me, I consciously wore flat shoes so as not to overpower them. They didn’t know this, but it was out of respect as I knew they had an invisible chip on their shoulders about their height. However, if they pissed me off, the next day I would come in wearing heels as symbolic gesture! I can remember at my second school I had a friend who had the same stature as me, our Headteacher was a small irritating man. The two of us were a tag team and would walk a corridor either side of him, hemming him in, if we needed to challenge anything.
So, my height has served me well as a leader, it has empowered me to be visible, to be present and to manage behaviour. Moreover, it has enabled me to hold my own as a woman in a male heavy space. Being tall has served my professional life well as it makes teaching and leading easier, whereas in my personal life it has been more problematic, but that’s a different story!
Some days I do feel like Gulliver in Lilliput. Travelling to Singapore in my 20s with a university friend, I felt like I was in a circus freak show. And, really, I should be rich for the number of times I have been asked “what’s the weather like up there?” Most of the time I can laugh it off, and after a few drinks in a bar if I get a “big lass” comment they usually get a retort along the lines of “rude git”. It is in those moments where you catch your reflection when you are standing next to a smaller colleague or you see a group picture and you are towering above everyone else that remind you that you stand out. It could make me self-conscious, and perhaps it did when I was younger, but I have worked through that and accepted myself for who I am.
I would say that my relationship with my weight has been less positive. Being tall and carrying weight is a double whammy. At school as a child I was bullied by a group of bitchy girls who called me BFG (“Big F***ing Ginger”) and the worse thing I have been called by a kid is a “Fat Bitch”. Although I think my retort at the time was: “whilst I might be fat, I am far from a bitch!” It has taken me longer to find peace with my body shape, my curves, and my weight. I don’t think my weight has impacted my leadership though. It is just who I am, I am comfortable in my skin and I have a strong sense of self. As a teacher and as a leader I have supported a lot of students struggling with their self-identity and their body image. I know I was lucky to have a strong family support network, so my self-esteem and self-confidence have always been high.
As for my hair colour, we were ginger when we growing up, so my sister and I were on the receiving end of all of the schoolyard taunts. My sister fared it worse than me as she has curly hair too. The jibes cut her a lot deeper than they did me. I have always had thicker skin than her, and in defending her, I learnt to accept myself, I think. When I went to university, I started to dye my hair and lost the ginger hues, and as I have aged, my hair has become naturally darker. Women don’t tend to comment on other women’s hair colour but some of the male leaders I have worked with, especially those who were threatened by me, did make comments about me being a feisty redhead, so I guess I have had to navigate some of the stereotypes that come with that too. I can remember watching an episode of Graham Norton and he had a couch of stunning redheads on it, and Julianne Moore shared her fascination with the British slurs for being a ‘ginga’ whereas in the US redheads are seen as being exotic. An interesting change in lens on what we value about difference in how we look.
Personal identity is interwoven with professional identity. Our leadership self is a fusion of how we look and how we behave, with what we know and what we create. Being myself, being authentic – being a tall, curvy, ginger – is who I am. I accept that, I own that, I am proud of that.