Short little girls

Short little girls Photo: Catherine Ledner

I was raised in a family whose females were short in stature and big in personality. My grandmother was not even five feet tall; her slippers were almost doll-like. My mother was slightly taller and my sister had another inch on her. I was the "tall girl" who eventually just made average – 5'4" or 162cm.

My sister was nicknamed "Big Mac" and I, at some stage, was "Monkey", but we didn't care. In fact, we actually loved being small. I almost mourned getting bigger – stooping as a teenager and later developing scoliosis.

I relished being little because I stood in the front of lines, got in the first row of school photos, played centre in netball and was suited to gymnastics. Later on, I found it easier to push to the front at concerts and skip along queues without being noticed. I liked being held in the arms of others, or sitting on their shoulders.

It seemed to me that for girls, being small was cool. I like to think I never played the "cute card" – I was actively discouraged from putting on a babyish voice. Yet I wonder now if my enjoyment of being little was actually an infantalising of myself.

Perhaps I enjoyed the safety of being small; the security of being non-threatening, non-powerful, of needing protection and not looming too large in life.

I have a good friend who is small but never saw herself as being so; she was raised to believe she was big. However, she now has a tiny daughter who goes to a country school were everyone, from the school principal down, calls her "Shorty". She is "Shorty" in class, at assembly, in the playground and in town.

My mate, her mother, is big on anger and frustration; she worries her daughter is being teased, bullied and belittled. Her husband is also appalled but the school has ignored their pleas to stop. The child wears her nickname like a badge of honour – she feels valued in her community as she is recognised and identified. She has learnt over the years that if she does act "cute" and use a sweet little voice she gets attention and adoration.

As a former "Shorty" I understand both the child's need to be cherished and her parents' unease. While "Shorty" might be a point of pride in lower primary school, it's not a persona you want for life. It would be cruel and unfair if her nickname becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – an excuse to stay small and adored and not stand tall in life. While her cuteness gives her a certain power, it's not the power you'd wish on a girl as she becomes a woman.

Of course, it's worse for small boys. And men. Australian and international studies have shown tall men earn more, get promoted further and are less likely to be unemployed. One even found that with every inch, there is a gain of about $1000 a year. Researchers hypothesise that height creates a belief in competency and authority, power and intelligence.

The influence of height is far more pronounced for men than women. Girls can use it to their advantage, but only for a while – as they get older the advantage becomes a disadvantage.

For a start, some female-centred research is showing taller women are also starting to do better in more careers than the catwalk. As women enter the real world, being small no longer works for them. Except perhaps in music – I find the current trend for cute, little girl voices (such as that of Katie Dunstan who was recently knocked out of The Voice) intensely irritating. While I appreciate they may be trying to be alternative and avoid being over-sexualised they seem to swallow their own strength to be non-threatening and likeable.

As small women age, they realise further disadvantages – my mother often finds it hard to get served at counters and literally gets stepped on. The invisibility of older women is exacerbated when they are tiny.

Now, as my mother shrinks in society, we are watching my daughter grow like a weed. At ten she's nearly as tall as my mum and wears a shoe size larger than mine. (As I write she's clomping around the house in my high heel boots). If girls are like dogs and foot size signifies future growth, she'll end up much taller than me.

One of her best friends is small and they love to dress up in identical clothes to pretend to be identical sisters, but they look more like the Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito version of twins.

She doesn't like being the big twin. When people exclaim how tall my child is, she literally shrinks in front of them. She's even acquiring a lisp to compensate. It appears she knows that smaller girls are sweeter and cuter and more adorable.

So, in contrast to my friend who worries about "Shorty", I find myself concerned about my tall girl. I've put her into netball where her height is an advantage. I encourage her to stand tall, to put her shoulders back, to be big and bold and beautiful (without the blow dry bouffant hair-do).

Our children are supersized in more ways than weight. We are breeding a generation of Amazons who will be taller than our generation, so we need to convince our towering girls to love their height, to use it to make themselves stand out, to be commanding, to look strong and to assert their power. That it will help them in life.

We need to embrace the power of tall and the power of small and kick the cute, small-minded nicknames back to where they belong. In the past.