My 8-year-old is tall and beautiful, but her self-worth is shrinking

“I just want to be small and cute like them,” she says, looking at her classmates, and my heart breaks.

My 8-year-old is tall and beautiful, but her self-worth is shrinking

Photo: iStock/FatCamera

Like many big babies, our daughter entered the world through a door, and not a tunnel. An emergency C-section culminated in a kind of obstetrical puppet show as the doc held a long, pink, squalling infant above the green surgical sheet separating us from the gore and hollered, “Heeeeeere’s your baby!” Naturally, my then-partner and I burst into tears.

At 9 pounds, 10 ounces and 22 inches long, our baby was formidable. She wasn’t the biggest baby born in the hospital that night—that prize went to a whopping 14-pound infant born hours earlier—but she was still in the 99th percentile for height and weight. We gave her an old Norse name meaning “Leader of men.” With her light-blond hair and Arctic-blue eyes, not to mention her stature, she seemed every bit the Viking baby.

From the beginning, our daughter seemed to be older than she really was. “She looks three months old!” exclaimed my mother as she held E for the first time, a day after she was born. My daughter wasn’t just bigger than most babies—she also had sweet chubby cheeks, plenty of hair, and a perfectly round head that hadn’t been squeezed through a birth canal. Subsequent visitors made similar comments

Even so, newborn E seemed pretty tiny to me. She was my first baby, so I had nothing to compare her to. Her stature didn’t really hit me until I attended a mom’s group meetup a few weeks later. We set our newborns on someone’s living room floor as we drank tea and rambled semi-coherently about sleep deprivation. Next to E, who was already wearing size 3-6 months clothing, the other babies looked like preemies. Mere months later, I began handing down baby outfits to a mom friend with a baby born the very same day as E. 

Now eight years old, my daughter is already five feet tall, and will soon outgrow kid clothing sizes entirely. She’s still in the 99th percentile for height, which means that only 1 percent of other cis-girls her age are taller than she is. Without a doubt, she will be among the 8 percent of cis-girls who grow to be 5’ 8” or taller (surpassing her mama—I'm only 5' 7").  

After years of being blissfully unaware (or at least, unconcerned), E is now becoming self-conscious about her height. At the start of Grade 1, she came home one day complaining about being in the back row for the class picture. “I’m always in the back, Mama,” she sighed. A few months after that, she suddenly refused to go to her dancing and swimming lessons, but couldn’t explain why. In Grade 2, I figured it out when she began comparing herself to the other girls at school. “I just want to be small and cute like them,” she told me. It broke my heart that the outgoing child who had once gleefully run down the hall of her daycare opening doors and screaming "Goodbye!" at the top of her lungs was now shying away from public view.

It hasn’t helped that practically every adult she encounters—from other parents at school to random people at the grocery store—have always remarked on how big she is. In the beginning, it’s not a huge deal when others make bemused comments about your chunky baby or Kindergarten-sized toddler. But it becomes a problem when your child grows older and more aware. Folks are well-meaning, but no child wants to be singled out from their peers at the playground. On top of this, she’s absorbed the toxic messages about female beauty I once thought I could protect her from. She thinks she needs to be small (and thin) to be beautiful.

As my daughter continues to grow on the outside, I fear she’s shrinking on the inside. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of research on the mental-health outcomes of tall girls, but what does exist already worries me. While tall stature boosts the confidence and self-esteem of boys, it does the opposite for girls. By the time tall girls reach adolescence, they’re far more likely than their peers to become depressed. Thankfully, there are some benefits to being tall—even for girls. Height is correlated positively with IQ and academic achievement in both kids and adults, and tall people of both sexes are more likely to be seen as leaders. Our “leader of men” has always been the kind of kid who called out bullying and befriended her shyest classmates, and I hope so badly that she can hold onto this bravery as she grows up. Tall people in general also earn more than their peers; in one study, tall women gained an additional 1 percent for every inch in height above the average. Studies also show that taller adults tend to be happier, as well. Tall women have lower risks of both diabetes and heart disease than shorter women. And during pregnancy, tall women are less likely to have preterm labours or need C-sections. 


Of course, it’ll be years before E becomes a woman and experiences some of these benefits. Until then, I’ll be doing everything I can to help her stand tall (so to speak). I interrupt adults’ comments on her height, we read books about tall women, and we're having frequent conversations about beauty standards and misogyny. 

I’ll also be encouraging her to do what she loves, no matter what others might think. Dancing and swimming are for everyone, regardless of body size (not to mention gender). Happiness is not the sole domain of the "small and cute." I've also clued her in on a little secret: Nearly everyone feels self-conscious, and most folks are too busy feeling self-conscious about themselves to worry about other people’s bodies. And that the most important thing in life is to pursue what we love, regardless of what anyone thinks.

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