Editor’s Note: Christina Wyman is a writer and teacher living in Michigan. Her debut novel “Jawbreaker” is a middle grade book that follows a seventh-grader with a craniofacial anomaly that’s caught the attention of school bullies — including her own sister. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. Read more opinion on CNN.
When my spouse saw on Instagram that former first lady Michelle Obama had addressed her struggles as a tall girl on the latest episode of her podcast, he immediately sent it my way. He knew it would resonate — after all, that very day, the planned publication of my latest middle grade novel had been announced: a story about a 12-year-old girl whose 4-inch summer growth spurt and accompanying signs of womanhood begin drawing unwanted attention from family, friends and strangers.
Tentatively titled “Slouch,” the book is based on my own past as a tall child trying, and failing, to fit in. Before Obama made her comments, I felt that my experience of isolation and shame was a solitary one. Having Obama speak so openly on “The Light Podcast” felt like a private validation of a very specific and scarring set of childhood events. But it was also a public one.
Obama didn’t just speak openly to her audience about her past. She spoke openly about her vulnerability. Whether Obama is sharing the grief she felt in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s inauguration or highlighting some of the most daunting challenges of her life, her regular dives into emotional self-reflection across multiple platforms model how our politics and culture, as well as personal identities, can be enriched by our engagement with vulnerability.
Indeed, her courage is to our benefit. We need high-profile leaders like Obama spotlighting their experiences being human and being women — especially women who are still haunted by past encounters with peers and men because of the bodies they inhabited as youth. Obama understands that speaking up is not only an exercise of her power but also empowers everyone she speaks for.
As Obama told comedian Conan O’Brien on the third episode of the podcast, adapted from the tour for her book “The Light We Carry,” she still has painful memories associated with being an unusually tall child.
“That whole thing, you grow up, nothing fits you. Clothes weren’t made for you,” recounted Obama, now 5-foot-11. She confessed, “I just desperately wanted to be like the girls I saw, the peppy cheerleaders.” Her emotional frankness and relatable imagery were refreshing for offering a poignant window into my struggles.
Like Obama, I “spent my life tugging on my pants.” My frame rendered me an outcast from the time I started kindergarten. I reached my current height of nearly 5-feet-9-inches in the seventh grade. Raised by working-class parents, I already wasn’t stylish because we could never afford the latest fashions. My frequent growth spurts made it nearly impossible to keep me in clothes that looked right. My mother was forced to shop for me in the women’s section of most clothing stores before I even hit puberty.
The difficulties didn’t stop there. No one wanted to befriend the girl who resembled Big Bird from “Sesame Street,” a likeness I wasn’t even aware of until my classmates took it upon themselves to sing the show’s theme song when they saw me in the hallways. The few friends I did have were petite and adorable. When we took pictures together, I stood out like an overgrown weed. Even now, pictures of my youth make me cringe.
When I was in high school, I learned the hard way that my height would limit my options for love interests. I was considered unfeminine and intimidating by many of my crushes. They preferred girls they “could physically throw,” as one boy put it.
But there’s a larger, darker context underpinning the life of young girls who are unusually tall for their age, and it’s one I wish Obama had taken on.
Adolescent girls in our global society are hypersexualized — as evidenced in studies of social media and its effects on sexualization and on girls’ mental health outcomes. According to the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, “ample evidence indicates that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.”
As a tall child, I naturally looked older. A lot older. Old enough to draw the attention of grown men. Men who’d decided that I was an adult long before I actually was one.
I recall as a 12-year-old when a friend’s father referred to me as an “Amazon woman” (I was his height). I later learned that this term had sexual connotations; there’s even a sexual position apparently named in its honor. I also remember grown men pulling up to me in their cars when I was that age and running solo errands for my mother in our neighborhood of Brooklyn. I began to grow terrified of the New York City streets that I used to call home.
The research on how to help tall children navigate their difficulties with their height typically deals with bullying by peers and self-esteem issues. While these are problems that certainly require intervention, the struggles of being a tall girl are about so much more.
I worry for the children born into my family of tall women (my aunts approach or surpass 6 feet). My niece is 4 years old and is the size of a 7-year-old. I fear for her future in a world that might decide she is a woman long before she actually is one, before she’s had the chance to decide what that means for herself.
There’s a lot to the story of being an unusually tall girl, and while Obama didn’t touch on every angle of that experience, I’m glad she started the conversation. She said she wanted to describe her own experiences as a tall child because it was one of the ways she felt like an outsider growing up. “So many of us in this country feel othered, we feel different,” she said. The audience applause suggested she’d indeed hit a nerve.
Yet Obama didn’t only diagnose the problem but prescribed an antidote. “We don’t see our ourselves reflected anywhere, and I hear from young people who talk about feeling invisible because they don’t see signs of themselves anywhere in the world,” she said. “So many of us are living in a world where we feel othered. That’s why it’s so important for us to tell our stories.”
For those of us who have felt that we should make ourselves invisible in order to fit in, Obama’s own willingness to be emotionally vulnerable means that we finally get to feel seen. That lets us stand up tall and proud.