Performativity Grounded Theory Methodology Cultural Studies Essay


This study explores the topic on body stature that has been largely ignored in earlier sociological debates on the body. Primarily, it examines how height is not a mere biological attribute, rather a social construct. Further, the ways certain categories of height and gender are articulated and considered 'normal' have particular consequences for people who cannot help but live outside those normalized articulations. The study inculcates concepts inspired by Goffman and Butler in revealing the repertoire of repetitive encounters through which female tallness is discredited as non-normative bodies. The conceptual framework of this study was built from the grounded theory methodology to highlight the ways in which female tallness become produced, managed, and experienced as a minor bodily stigma across various domains of everyday life. These insights shed light on the implication of cultural ideals onto women's body and agency in the post-industrial societies.

The purpose of this study is to uncover the stigmatization of women's bodies through exploring ways in which cultural meanings of the non-normative body of very tall women as deviance are repeatedly acted out in everyday situations. As I examine the body and the alleged differences between sex/gender as constructions, I draw attention to the symbolic meanings attached to body height used to justify grounds for prejudice and discrimination. Of particular interest is the ways in which cultural mythology of tallness intersects with gender dynamics to create categories of height and gender which have particular consequences for people falling outside these normalized articulations. Whereas existing inquiries focus on the negative consequences faced by individuals who are labeled short, very tall women seem to be stigmatized in less obvious ways. In this study, I explore the primary question: How do height-related experiences play out in society? I also explore the following questions: Do height-related cultural messages perpetuate the stigmatizing of very tall female bodies? How do these very tall women make sense of their bodies and cope with their "difference"? To answer these questions, I focus on capturing the lived experiences of very tall women in understanding how height-related messages are repeatedly produced through the social, material, and sensory domains of everyday life. Giving a voice to these very tall women, I understand how they cope with their bodies rendered too tall yet often unknowingly reproducing their own stigmatization concurrently. This study serves as a legitimating force in establishing the connections between personal lived experiences, social processes, and structural forces, as well as to incorporate body height into critical academic inquiry.

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Earlier literature on the classical and contemporary readings of the body has well illustrated the corporeal nature of the body as a basis for human subjectivity and agency. Alongside the acknowledgement of the body as central to political, economic, and socio-cultural exchanges in post-industrial societies, sociologists, feminists, and cultural theorists have extended their discussions beyond body's relation to social norms. They have also demonstrated how gendered bodies that fail to fit into socially prescribed categories tend to be marginalized and regulated by various institutions in establishing bodily normative standards (see Malacrida and Low 2008: 124). For example, various medical procedures, including controversial medical treatments such as the limb-lengthening surgeries, are available in the marketplace to modify the body height of patients to culturally-appropriate standards (see Howell and Lee 2006).

To date, existing literature on body and gender is dominated by research interests concerning the issue of body weight and its connection to gender (see Bordo 1993), largely ignoring an equivalently important topic on body height in these critical inquiries. To illustrate, gendered height ideals are recurrently transmitted through contemporary consumerist market where bodily deviations are marked through the labeling practices of the apparel industry and the presence of specialist stores to cater to short or tall people (Featherstone, Hepworth and Turner 1991). It is therefore important to identify the ways in which body height ideals are enacted and replicated that have contributed significantly to processes of othering and normalizing of people based on their body height.

Whereas visual-centric approaches are widely pursued in the consumerist research sphere in response to the prevailing cultural emphasis on visual representations, the relegation of importance to the marketplace in establishing gender-appropriate height norms obscures other ways in which gendered bodily norms are reinforced. Specifically, this study places emphasis on the mundane aspects of day-to-day lives. As C. Wright Mills (1959) argued, sociological understanding will require relating the 'private' to 'public' - to find social patterns in the lives of individuals. Therefore, the focus on everyday life as a site in exploring height-based encounters is equivalently crucial in revealing the continuous fabrication of cultural norms on body height ideals.

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I have adopted the grounded theory as the most appropriate method in exploring a relatively new research domain such as this study. Unlike the positivist approach where data collection, data analysis and theory formulation precedes one another, grounded theory approach allows for the simultaneous interplay between these three elements. In this sense, theory is "grounded" and verified by the collected data, rather than imposed by the researcher. I have conducted in-depth interviewing where conversation oscillates among rigid structuring under the topic of investigation yet promoting participants' flexibility in accounting of their experiences, yielding responses without predetermining the results (Cook 2008). Validity of the study is enhanced through the triangulation process by investigators which also serve as a check against biasness and misinterpretation.

To capture the production and enactment of female tallness as deviance conceptually, I place emphasis on the work of Butler (1999, 1993) to demonstrate the repetitiveness of acts which has preserved and perpetuated the naturalness of gendered height ideals through the stigmatization of female tallness. I also draw on Erving Goffman's (1963) classic notion on stigma to illustrate the consequences of deviation from culturally accepted physical attributes. Yet, while Goffman described stigmatized attributes as those that are "deeply discrediting" such as serious physical abominations which tend to be taken as the dominant identities in social interactions, female tallness represents a minor bodily stigma. Minor bodily stigmas are often experienced as an interactional and emotional double bind, responses from others may be ambivalent and insignificant yet they are internalized by the bearer, forced to live and cope with the differences that are brought into play (Ellis 1998). I demonstrate that it is difficult to resist and reframe stigmas due to the sustained, repeated acts from all domains of life.

In the following, I refer to previous studies done on body, height and gender. This section is followed by the conceptual and methodological starting points of the study which guide the analytical discussion on the ways female tallness as deviance are reproduced and sustained in day-to-day life. I conclude with limitations of this study.

Previous Studies on Body, Height and Gender

The social construction of gendered bodies

The body has long been a topic in women's studies, and is no less important to the study of gender. Sociology, which is primarily concerned with institutions and social structure, the constitution of society and social change, has made significant contributions to work on the body through feminist sociologists in the 1970s and 80s and more recently, by mainstream sociologists who are becoming interested in the paradoxes which the body poses in a world where identity is in flux (see Butler 1990). Sociological analysis on how bodies become gendered has focused on challenging essentialist approaches which take the 'natural' body as a basis onto which two bipolar constructs of femininity and masculinity are imposed. Notably, feminist studies identify with the social construction of the body, particularly on the analysis of the politics of women's bodies. Two eminent feminist scholars, Lorber and Martin (2005) have highlighted the crux of social construction feminism in their view that "…bodies…are socially constructed in material and cultural worlds, which means that they are physical and symbolic at the same time" (p. 284). Clearly, the physical body is only meaningful when invested with social or symbolic meanings.

Bodies have been the subject of consistent evaluation and regulation by normative societal standards in classical and contemporary times, which have contributed to creating and sustaining inequalities between men and women through norms that are deeply gendered (Anleu 2006). Size, comportment, and appearance of bodies are modified and modulated in order to meet social expectations through extreme regimes, often in completely unconscious ways. Importantly, the socially constructed differences between female and male bodies are deeply enforced with the continuous fabrication of the body through manifold ways in which mundane everyday activities shape these gendered bodies (Nettleton and Watson 1998). Such norms specify associated expectations of how bodies of gendered beings of primarily two sexes - man and woman should look such as the appropriate body shapes and sizes, appearance, movements, and types of adornment. A girl or women who looks or acts masculine, and a boy or man who looks or acts feminine is criticized, stigmatized, and sometimes ostracized for not meeting the "culturally idealized views of how women's and men's bodies should look" (Lorber and Martin 2005: 284).

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The existing literature has been invaluable in exposing the complex nature of body and gender, stimulating critical discussions on the rigid gender expectations to which both female and male bodies are subjected to, and on various consequences and opportunities that these physiological ideals may bring. Notably, the question of bodily size on physical appearance has drawn attention in considerable amount of scholarly inquiries focusing around the issue of weight. The other dimension of bodily size on body height is of obvious importance, yet terribly under theorized and unexamined despite the role it plays in social interactions and judgments. It is therefore important to study the symbolic importance of body height and examine how physical differences on the vertical axis are complicated when placed within the systematic, institutional system of gender hierarchy favoring the men.

The symbolic importance of height and the stigmatization of female tallness

Body height, here referred to as "the actual length of the body when measured vertically" (Butera 2008: 7), is one crucial defining aspect of physical appearance. Clearly, the observed body height marks the biological processes of human growth overtime. However, the decision to track this vertical growth has invested the act with social significance which builds on body height's social component. The measurement of body height therefore marks its relevance only in relation to other bodies identified as 'tall' or 'short' within particular localities and cultural contexts. Often, the average height specific to cultures serves as the point of reference from which deviation is marked. This lays the groundwork on the social construction of body height and rendering what has been scientifically and medically defined as "normal" height questionable.

Borrowing Synnot's interpretation on the importance of hair, body height is yet another powerful facet of individual and group identity, whether measured or perceived visually, "…first because it is physical and therefore extremely personal, and second because, although personal, it is also public rather than private" (1987: 381). The process of growing up is accorded cultural significance as the implication of failing to do so is likened to childhood as children are categorically short. This socio-cultural failure means above all, the denial of many capabilities normally attributed to adulthood and an implicit assumption of incompetence and lack of authority and intellect (Valtonen 2012: 12). As the category of shortness is infantilized, the category of tallness is hence often automatically associated with dominance and leadership ability. Research studies have suggested a social preference for taller individuals, predominantly in the professional field where greater height is an asset in hiring, evaluation, and promotion, and a signifier of wealth and success (see Farman 2010:34-38). Building on the "mythology of tallness," (Butera 2008: 11), Hall (2006) has documented a list of positively inflected traits ascribed to tall bodies, viewing the tall body as "superior, better, desirable, and powerful" (p.11).

Whereas the unearned social privileging of tall bodies over short bodies is questionable, teasing out the gendered nuances of the myth reveals yet another systematic construction and maintenance of gender differences. In Butera's study on Height, Power, and Gender: Politicizing The Measured Body (2008), she asserted that the identified traits within the mythology of tallness is closely tied to the definition of masculinity under the two-sex/gender dualistic system. Consequently, the devalued category of shortness which signifies passivity, weakness, and powerlessness, are notably normative codes of femininity (p.12). Although tall women are seemingly perceived with values such as assertiveness, and independence, these attributes may be detrimental as they violate traditional gender traits of femininity. Further, height has been used as a tool for scientific justification of men's innate supremacy over women, since men are generally taller, which becomes fodder for the development and perpetuation of a sexist social structure that relegates women to subjugated positions by virtue of their physicality. Women of body stature taller than men therefore challenge men's masculinity embedded in their physicality (p.30). They are viewed as non-normative bodies in terms of gender standards, and are pathologized for their unintended claiming of space which is an exclusive entitlement for men in demonstrating masculinity (p.14). It makes sense that tall stature in women under the context of a sexist society is therefore deemed as an undesirable trait.

Since men and women are expected to conform to bodily ideals of masculinity and femininity, least to demonstrate the biological necessities, tall female bodies not only fail to reflect the prescribed feminine traits but cast doubt over physical supremacy of men as propagated by evolutionary socio-biological theories otherwise accused of perpetuating sexism (p.10). It is beyond scope of this study to determine the role of sexism in the evaluation and treatment of very tall women, nonetheless the price to pay for their subversion of appropriate feminine physicality overwhelms the benefits that their tall bodies can accumulate in accord to the myth, as evidenced in an observed "height ceiling" faced by these very tall women (Farman 2010: 46). The influence of physical height on heterosexual romantic relationships is one such contemporary societal phenomenon in the maintenance of normative ideals of femininity.

Sabine Gieske's essay on The Ideal Couple: A Question of Size? (1998) drew attention to the Western cultural imperative of height ideal and norm for heterosexual couples consisting of men standing at height tall than women. The phenomenon has since turned universal from when considerations of height had played an insignificant role for aristocratic couples in the eighteenth century (p.379). Despite the trend of narrowing gap between the height of both men and women, this social representation of differential height norm is so strong that the pairing of a short man with a tall woman can evoke rude disapproval and shock (p.377). Moreover, this social phenomenon is translated into grounds for medical intervention to limit the growth of healthy tall adolescences since mid-1950s (Astbury, Rayner and Pyett 2010). Medical literature has reviewed that notwithstanding the administration of height-reducing synthetic estrogen treatment made available to both sexes/genders assessed with tall stature, it is far more commonly pursued by tall adolescent girls despite the potential risk of long-term side effects and paucity of studies on the effectiveness of such medical practice. In fact, the single most commonly cited social rationale for treatment is inextricably tied to cultural ideals about femininity associated with heterosexual desire (p.1081).

Current academia has largely adopted the feminist perspectives on the construction of bodies in analyzing how gendered relations shape women's bodies. Positioned with the complex intersecting social networks of bodily signifiers, women of tall stature are locked into a paradoxical situation within the confines of conventional norms of femininity. As taller individuals, they benefit from the social privileges that their height has granted, yet their mere presence as larger bodies in relation to men's threaten predominant stereotypical ideals of men's bodies as bigger and physically more empowering than women. The female tall body is indeed a site of multiple contestations ought to be studied. It is also through giving voice to such specific "problematized" female populations that broader movements for autonomy of women's bodies can be solicited.

Conceptual Framework

I argue for an understanding of gendered bodies accomplished through the frame of 'body-reflexive practices', which includes understanding bodies as both objects acted upon by social forces and agents of practice as bodies capable of action (Connell 1995). I take the view of the body as crafted by social and cultural expectations assigned to each gender, which affect the way it is represented, interpreted, and shaped overtime. Cultural meanings are attached to the normative body categories through the use of language, dictating the "proper" and "improper" body forms. Eventually, the appropriate body forms are internalized through repetitive acts by self and others which then have a tremendous impact on the ways individuals conduct and present their bodies.

Several theoretical perspectives have reviewed the relationship between culture, body and the self. The socio-cultural perspective accounts for the macro level analysis of the prevailing appearance culture in which the worth of individuals is measured in terms of their compatibility with the appearance norms. The emphasis on one's physical appearance is institutionalized largely through media as well as social groups like the family and peers, and is believed to be internalized during childhood and adolescence (Kristjansdottir, Vilhjalmsson and Ward 2012:368). In this line of thought, I argue that categories of body height and gender are not simply aspects of individual identities but are also institutionalized ideas embedded in social organizations we interact on a daily basis. Butler asserts that all identity categories "are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin" (Butler 1990: ix). Further, these categories complement one another not through individualistic acts but rather a "tacit, collective agreement" to routinize these acts (Butler 1999:178). In keeping with the spirit of Butler, I place the notion of "performativity" at the center of the paper's conceptual mapping, capturing the gendered nature of stigmatization through a set of repetitive acts in various encounters.

Butler conceives of the body as constituted within processes which determine how the body acts and is acted upon by regulatory norms observing the rules of "heterosexual matrix" (1999: 42-3). Specifically for Butler, "what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body" (1999: xv). Butler recognizes that certain biological differences exist; nonetheless, it is important to realize how institutional forces interact to conceive ideas of what is normal or deviant at particular contexts. Unlike the conventional view of the biological body structuring gender norms, Butler sees the reverse in gendered height norms materializing the body, investing it with a peculiar understanding of what counts as "proper height for each gender" (Valtonen 2012: 6).

Overall, the undergirding emphasis of Butler's studies point to the regulatory power of politically-charged, all-pervasive, taken-for-granted ways of interpreting and talking about height and gender that structure social assumptions and provide "natural" grounds for sorting people into different height-based categories in accord to the heterosexual frame such as short man/woman, tall man/woman. Within this frame, each category is treated differently which ensures inequalities between gendered bodies (Valtonen 2012: 6). I have used Butler's perspective to frame my inquiries into the devaluation of very tall women in a culture where average-height dominates and women of height shorter than men are valued.

The social psychological theories offer a micro level perspective in studying how social interactions in turn shape the view of self and others. From the interactionist perspective, individuals act in the social world on the basis of symbolic meanings that emerge out of interactions and via ongoing interpretive processes in various situations and contexts. The emphasis is placed on the idea that humans rely on verbal and non-verbal symbols as tools in the process of meaning making that guides their views of self and others (Kivisto 2012: 144), forming their social realities. In accordance to prevalent cultural knowledge of an appropriate combination of gender and height, bodily forms that deviate from the preconceived gendered height ideals are therefore stigmatized (Goffman 1963).

Erving Goffman has contributed to the constructivist argument on the social construction of the body, especially through his work on stigma which he is famed for using the term to signify relationships which relegate possessors of bodily attributes that are deemed discrediting to a deviant status. On the other hand, his contribution on gendered bodies (Goffman 1979) is often overlooked. Goffman highlights how biological differences are played upon in distinguishing between 'normal' and 'deviant', thereby justifying the ways bodies are managed and experienced. He takes the idea of gender as a form of tribal stigma, where the female population is marked as having deviant bodies, hence naturalizes the idea of men as 'naturally' superior. Goffman dismisses the idea of "naturally" discrediting attributes, rather he emphasizes on the nature of social relations which has brought about the stigmatization of attributes that have deviated from culturally accepted norms. Measured against the body height of average man in heterosexual relationships, the body type of taller woman represents a female "body in trouble" in Goffman's account as they simply fail to meet cultural expectations of woman's body as small, weak, and frail, therefore providing a conceptually fruitful stance for this study (Valtonen 2012: 2).

Both Goffman and Butler provide valuable conceptual tools for analyzing how the category of "very tall woman" is constituted and performed through everyday interactions. Whereas Goffman is famed for his account on performance where social actors create and maintain common understandings of reality through the use of verbal (e.g. comments, laughter) and non-verbal communication (e.g. postures), Butler's work on performativity highlights the reiterative function of speech acts in (re)producing dominant understandings of gender and the associated physical inches which consequently reinforced the constructed 'truth' of gendered height-based categories. Both theorists express concerns over normative bodily standards where failures to meet expectations lead to stigmatization. The visibility of stigma is important in Goffman's account as a determinant factor in the consequential effects of "inappropriate" bodies. In the case of very tall women, their stigma is always under scrutiny. It is therefore justifiable in studying the everyday lives of these very tall women as an important analytical site in exposing a whole range of social, material, and sensory experiences that marked their transgression and shaped their social realities. In responding to Butler's questioning on the possibility of eliminating categorical thinking through reframing the language used in 'constructing' the stigma, this paper demonstrates the difficulties in reframing stigma due to the pervasiveness of cultural assumptions in silently imposing strict standards to body conformity as such those stigmatized are also bounded to the cultural framework and attendant language they use which reproduce their own stigmatization.

Research process, data, and analysis

Research process: Participants

I have interviewed 16 current female undergraduates at a public university in Singapore who have self-identified as meeting the requested height criteria of 1.74m. An email was circulated to all female students. Participants were intentionally selected through criterion sampling (Mason 2002) with the purpose of studying from extreme manifestations of very tall women. This specific height was determined after considerations on the reported average height of grown adults in Singapore [1] . Self-reported heights are taken to be fairly accurate measurements, and biasness would almost invariably be the case of under reporting. However, 1.77m was ultimately selected for two key reasons. Firstly, 1.77m is the criteria set for women to qualify for membership of Tall Clubs International (TCI 2012), a recognized international social organization for tall individuals. This "Western" indicator is validated for this study in the "Asian" context, presuming those further on the height spectrum would experience stronger stigmatization. These women have also clearly violated the regulatory forms of culture in which women are expected to be shorter than men. This study only considers the experiences of very tall women to enhance the study's internal validity and to generate clearer themes. Therefore, it is not without its limitations with the assumption that the sample predominantly composed of the middle class or middle class-to-be. Consequently, it is not possible to question whether differences in social backgrounds of these very tall women would alter their experiences.

All contacted participants participated in the interview procedure including a follow-up session on the transcribed data. Participants were recruited and interviewed to the point of theoretical saturation when further data collection from new participants ceased to provide significant findings (Charmaz 2000). Prior to the interview, all participants were required to verbally acknowledge to the informed consent on the research and the permission to audiotape. Participants were assured of their confidentiality and rights to withdraw without penalty.

All participants were asked to complete a one-page demographic questionnaire to collect descriptive information of the sample population. The participants were young, ranging in age from 19 to 23. This narrow range was fairly due to the sole recruitment of current undergraduates at one location. All 16 participants were Singaporean Chinese, and have self-identified as heterosexual females. The mean body height of participants was 1.77m with a range from 1.77m to 1.81m. The participants were identified by numerical index code assigned according to the order in which they were interviewed, with the first participant assigned #000 to the sixteenth participant with an index code of #015.

Data collection: In-depth interviewing

Each participant was asked to participate in a semi-structured interview yet the format of the interview was intended to be more interactive than scripted in order to capture personal accounts and conversations within larger cultural stories about body height and gender. Through sharing of my own experiences while encouraging the participants to address the questions in their preferred order and depth, a strong collaborative relationship was fostered and had provided me with access to thick description (Geertz 1973) of these individuals' lived experiences of stigma. It was interesting to note that my automatic "insider" status as a very tall women standing at 1.79m had perhaps made it easy to establish rapport with the participants since apprehension was minimized.

Interview questions revolved around the topic of body height and the perceived societal perception of body height and gender. Specific questions about body height included: Does height play an important role in your everyday life? Please share with me some of your experiences about daily conversations with others, shopping experiences, dating/relationships, activities in public areas such as taking of public transportations. Does height affect these experiences? How do you feel about your height? Have your feelings changed over time? Participants were encouraged to express themselves fully, with probes if necessary, and to elaborate on issues raised.

All participants were required to attend a follow-up session two weeks after the initial interviews. All interviews were held in a neutral academic location. The initial interviews spanned from forty-five minutes to one and a half hours in length while the follow-up sessions tended to be shorter, taking half an hour to forty-five minutes. Conducting the follow-up sessions allowed me to review the transcriptions and to clarify the emerging theoretical concepts with the participants for accurate data interpretation. Credibility of the study is thereby enhanced through this triangulation process, gaining deeper insights via member checks while addressing potential biasness as a researcher with an "insider" status. Participants were give $8 cash as a token of appreciation for their participation at the end of the follow-up session.

Data analysis: Grounded theory

Grounded theory is prized as an inductive approach that employs analytical strategies which allow for systematic comparisons of data collected throughout the research process aimed towards theory construction. As such, theoretical categories are directly "grounded" in data based on real experiences of all involved (Glaser 1992). With its high theoretical validation relying on empirical evidences, grounded theory as a methodologically sounded approach best suits this relatively unexplored research topic on height and gender with the focus placed on the microcosm of interactions between very tall women and their immediate social and material environments (Creswell 2008).

Following the conclusion of each interview, I have coded all collected data and have used the initial codes to engage in constant comparison of all subsequent codes. I have continually written memos when analyzing the codes to elaborate and generate connections between the emerging theoretical concepts. As the interviews proceeded and new information gathered after the follow-up sessions, I have examined all transcribed interviews, feedbacks, and notes taken during the sessions to look for recurring themes that informed the theoretical categories. As these categories began to saturate, I proceeded to sort the memos in accordance to their logic of theoretical analysis. However, consistent testing of emerging theoretical concepts persisted in making sure that these were not "data dressed in preconceived concepts" (Charmaz 2000:511). The common themes identified from all collected data were developed into the following conceptual model:

Figure 1: Model of Thematic Concepts

I have adopted a critically reflexive stance towards the reading of data necessary to achieve an appropriate analytical detachment in this study where the researcher is closely involved in phenomenon under study. Instead of a phenomenological account, I have engaged in an iterative back-and-forth cultural analytical process between the data collected and the theoretical understandings by Goffman and Butler to present an argument concerning the ubiquitous nature of unintended, politically-charged height-related sayings and doings in constructing the category of "very tall women", consequentially normalizing the conceptions of height and gender, and securing particular effects on social experiences.


Height in everyday life

The purpose of conducting this study is to uncover the stigmatization of women's bodies through exploring ways in which cultural meanings of the non-normative body of very tall women as deviance are repeatedly acted out in everyday situations. In this section, I present findings from my data analysis by identifying three channels through which cultural standards of female bodily appearance are transmitted - the social, material, and sensory spaces which inevitably shaped the lived experiences of very tall women. Coping strategies untaken by these very tall women are also discussed.

Navigating the social spaces

As participants perform mundane tasks, the social and solid environments constantly remind them that they cannot take certain comforts for granted. Daily, these participants are confronted with the reality that their bodies do not 'fit in' public spaces which favor the average-height. Participants are confronted with a profound sense of being different from other people. #008 described this sense of differentness through mixed messages that she received from the surroundings:

…like my parents didn't say anything about my height but those kids will make fun of my height…like they will stare at you then they will shun… maybe because of my height… like too tall.

Participants reviewed a wide repertoire of verbal messages that they received, through which their bodies were rendered too tall. The most common form of sayings is the ones that comment on their physical stature. These comments can be a mark of curiosity or a convenient source as a conversation starter. However, these routinized acts of commenting on physical stature can represent a powerful yet implicit way of marking their bodies as deviant. For example, participants told of stories where they overheard complete strangers making comments of their height or they were approached at public places or social gatherings asking about their height, with a follow-up question on the height of their romantic partners, implicitly implying a check on the phenomenon of the male-taller norm as discussed later.

This sense of difference was intensified during adolescence. Participants reported that they had to put up with teasing and name-calling by classmates during their earlier schooling years. #000 articulated:

I definitely felt a little outcasted especially when I was younger like primary school days because I just want to blend in with the rest... But I guess children tend to be a little more insensitive and make fun of differences and when you are young you tend to believe in your peers and take their negative comments more seriously.

It is apparent that being 'too tall' has impacted the lives of these participants, especially during early adolescence. Virtually all of them recalled similar negative childhood treatments. In fact, the participants reasoned that the processes of socialization in schools on "appropriate" femininity and masculinity of "proper" gendered beings during that age period were the causes. #006 suggested that "because in class we learnt about like what is it to be a girl and boy, and when the image of the boy should be tall and built and you have this girl here being taller than the boys, of course you are immediately like stand out".

It is also interesting to note that participants are most concerned over comments that invoke embarrassment. #009 provided an example:

Daddy Long Legs, Giraffe, Bamboo stick, Tall one… I was quite affected when I was young like "why do they have to call me that way?" but I guess as I grow up, I got used to it. I still have nicknames like "Big Friendly Giant"... A bit embarrassing though…

In most instances, embarrassment emerges when the topic on body height is made salient in the presence of others. Notably, the pervasiveness of cultural ideals towards bodily conformity is so strong that internalization of societal beliefs about appearance norms is evident. Participants confessed to the inevitability of invoking embarrassment as a "normal" part of social life. Indeed, the stigmatized also engage in the process of stigmatization unknowingly. #003 described her instinctive reaction when she saw other tall women, thereafter relating her feelings onto others who saw her:

Even myself, when I see someone my height or even taller, I will be like "Woah! She is so tall! What's her height?" So I can totally understand why but sometimes I just hope that people will stop commenting on my height... I know of course it's interesting but it is just plain awkward.

Embarrassment can elicit negative emotions in the receiver, yet it can be humorous to others. Human corporeal qualities, such as extreme height that is physically distinct, may be teased out as materials for jokes and funny remarks. Participants commented that they were bored of silly questions posed to them like "How's the air up there?" that were mended to induce laughter. It is important to recognize how these height-related sayings are politically-charged such that the normative body is discursively represented and conveyed through inducing embarrassment and eliciting laughter at bodies deemed deviant. Davies (1990) agreed that humor and fun directed at non-normative bodies indeed reinforce the naturalness of the normative body. Billig (2001) argued that people do not necessarily collaborate in face-saving tactics (Goffman 1955); rather, they may simply enjoy the embarrassment of others. In fact, laughter induced in such situations resembles a form of hate speech (Davies 1990).

Sayings also take the form of suggestions from significant others (Cooley 1902), many referring to the appropriateness of their dressing to avoid appearing much taller. #010 lamented that:

Not that I don't like to wear heels but I can't because I am already so tall! If I wear, I will stand out even more. My friends they will also complain when I wear heels like I don't need to. And I can't also because my feet are big so it's hard for me to find shoes that fit.

…I thought that perhaps long tube dresses may look good on me but from the feedbacks of my friends and mother, I look even taller and maybe more imposing so I kind of avoid those clothes as well.

While participants often heed the advices of others to fit in more aesthetically to avoid being stigmatized, the significant others also actively engage in assisting them in concealing their deviance. These illustrations exemplify the problematizing of people who deviate from the hegemony of body normalcy and they are recurrently reminded of it. Suggestions also strengthen the categorization of gendered bodies whereby deviant bodies are modifiable to meet normative standards. Participants also responded that they had troubles finding clothing and shoes that could fit, therefore they had to customize their clothing or visit specialized stores for their purchases usually at an additional cost. Here, stigmatization of deviant bodies is enacted in restricting the participants of their choices to construct their desired image due to their body height in the market commonly catered to the needs of average-size bodies.

In essence, these tall women are constantly made aware of their physical difference which arouses their emotions often in an unwanted manner. Besides the impact of social interactions in enforcing body height norms, materiality also plays an equivalently important role in transmitting cultural messages on bodily ideals.

Navigating the material spaces

Material objects and environments are structured to facilitate certain bodies while resist the movement of others in fulfilling the demands of social life. All participants agreed that the built environment could be hostile to very tall individuals like them. They contended that whereas normal-size individuals might take physical constructs such as the layout of public facilities for granted, such places were potential triggers to their body nonconformity and could lead to forms of patrolling. #012 described such occurrences:

You know places with seating arrangements like auditorium, cinema, vehicles… I think because I am tall, I am really conscious whether my long legs can fit in. Others will never understand the problems of being tall…I have to look out for places with more leg space and also make sure I don't block the people at the back…

Physical structures built for normal-size individuals have become stressors to be managed physically and emotionally. #012 is aware of the ways she communicates with physical objects for comfort and importantly, to avoid situating self in an embarrassing position. Similarly, #004 described the awkwardness of her body in public places.

How I wish my legs can fit into the seats on bus or the theatre without having to slant towards the side. Not that I want to invade the spaces of others and invite that glare of theirs like "hello you invading my space, sit properly!" As much as I want to…to keep in my own space like to be careful not to cross the personal space of others, block them or cause discomfort to them…

Other than physical objects, #004 has highlighted that the presence of the generalized other (Mead 1934) is itself a trigger to her deviant body. Because of her body size, #004 is compelled to make adjustments to the way she carries herself to ensure that she is not encroaching on the spaces of others.

As participants live alongside the immediate co-presence of an array of material objects, it has become apparent that the material world is designed for certain bodies. With the development of measuring devices, the act of statistically measuring the body height of people is justified by the perceived neutrality of scientific calculations through which normalization of bodies is achieved. The obtained average height specific to populations serves as a yardstick in determining which bodies are normal while others deemed abnormal. #009 recounted a childhood memory where she was "always called for special medical checks because [her] height was abnormal." Average height as the "master image of the body" (Sennett 1994) also guides the surrounding physical arrangements in a way that denies the comfort of bodies that do not fit in. As a result, deviant bodies are left to devise a range of body techniques (Mauss 1973), most clearly demonstrated by participants who admitted to slough in order to find fit in their environments.

The above discussion illustrates the ways in which material arrangements contribute significantly to the perpetuation of body height ideals by facilitating and constraining the participants' full abilities to maneuver the trivial of everyday lives. Put differently, there is already an assumed existence of a single body which the material entities are made for - the average-height. The material qualities of the bodies become salient as deviant bodies navigate though the material world.

Navigating the sensory spaces

Analyzing the sensory experiences of participants is crucial in understanding how participants make sense of their social and material world. In fact, sensory experiences are invested with cultural meanings and values which in turn condition social interactions and establish hierarchal roles between people (Howes 2006). As such, co-presence with different bodies in the public sphere creates many instances where participants are emotionally stirred. Other than being physically distinctive, the rarity of tall female bodies also encourages acts of comparison which thrust participants into potentially embarrassing situations. #015 described a typical situation in which her height was noticed:

I am most irritated by those insensitive young guys in their early 20s. They thought I am not aware but I do. They thought it is just plain funny and amusing to creep up somewhere near or beside me and try to compare height… just makes me feel like a weirdo attracting these weird attentions wherever I go, like I am too tall for a girl.

The issue of physical stature is perhaps most striking when bodies of dramatically different heights are at close proximity. Participants recounted how they positioned themselves in order to reduce the height differences, such as consciously bending forward during conversations or lowering one's posture during photo-taking with their shorter acquaintances. These socially incongruous acts may be interpreted as humorous by others which again thrust participants into the center of attention as comedy to all (Billig 2001).

Interestingly, height differences can relate to an unintended embodiment of authority by taller bodies due to the leveling of eye contact. Where contemporary cultural depictions of men's and women's bodies as visibly asymmetrical are illustrated by the predominant images of large, muscular male bodies and petite, delicate female bodies, the cultural meanings assigned to the sense of sight may explain why the height differences between male and female bodies is often played upon, especially when the female body is taller. #009 shared that "no doubt the height difference will be laughed at," and she "always has this weird feeling and a sense of an unspoken awkwardness in the air" when she was with male friends who were shorter than her, like "a switch in [gender] role."

These examples illustrate how sensory encounters are crucial carriers of prevalent gendered height ideals. Both visual encounters as well as kinesthetic conducts within social and material spaces play a part in the construction of very tall female bodies.

Coping strategies

"When the stigmatized person's failing can be perceived by our merely directing attention (typically, visual) to him - when, in short, he is a discredited, not discreditable, person - he is likely to feel that to be present among normals nakedly exposes him to invasions of privacy, experienced most pointedly perhaps when children simply stare at him." (Goffman 1963: 16)

The obtrusive quality of stigma experienced by these very tall women is in a sense of being undisputedly the attention-grabber, unintended and undesired at times. Consequently, participants learn how to manage or divert attention away from their stigma to minimize associated negativity. This effort requires considerable social skills as illustrated through three cultural strategies identified in this section. They are stigma management, humor, and dating.

Stigma management: managing one's height

In this study, constitutive tall stature in women is culturally discredited as a form of "deviance", propelling participants to engage in stigma management to address this obvious "flaw". Participants engage in several strategies to deflect and normalize their stigmatized tall identity. The most common involves the act of 'passing' and/or 'covering' (Goffman 1963) by participants to divert attention from their stigmatized height through the use of available disidentifiers such as clothing and shoes. #010 recalled her deliberate attempts to 'pass' as a smaller-sized female through the ways she dressed (for example, by matching the color of the bottom wear and footwear) by adopting advices from fashion magazines. #012 illustrated her choice of fashion and method of 'covering' her height:

I usually wear flats mainly because of comfort and also I don't need that extra height. But for more formal receptions where I have to wear heels, my heels are never as high as those commonly seen stilettos, and I will try to sit down at every opportunity I have or maybe move towards the corner of the room for standing banquets to make my height less salient.

Humor: Joking about height

Participants shared accounts of unintended blunders which had induced laughter when they failed to negotiate the surroundings such as heading into low ceilings. Social faux pas are also commonly committed in conversations when height-sensitive issues are raised. #011 recounted how she had been occasionally mistaken as a boy during childhood due to her height and cropped hair. Often, these contexts land participants in embarrassment, thereby threatening their presentation of self as they are left in 'that state of awkward abashment and chagrin that results from public events that disrupt [their] expectations and communicate unwanted impressions of [them]selves to others' (Miller 1996: 10). Yet, in many other instances, participants also engage in self-mockery by openly acknowledging their own foibles, and portraying them in a positive light. #002 revealed that she poked fun of her height to siphon off awkward tension:

I mean you can kind of preempt what everyone will comment on your height…so good in the sense can make everyone laugh then you feel like the atmosphere lightens up then people starts to open up to you.

According to Turner (1972), he suggested that deviant people commonly engage in deviance avowal in attempting to normalize their relationships with non-deviant people. This avowal often takes the form of self-depreciating humor, functioning as an "icebreaker" by joking about their deviant attribute. The vital social role of humor in this instance can serve to restore positive sentiments and enhance relaxed sociability among individuals. In this way, these very tall women demonstrate they can align their perspectives with the normal and see themselves as deviant too, thus augmenting personal identification to others while affirming to cultural standards (Ungar 1992).

Dating: adherence to the male-taller norm

Individuals acquire culturally approved ways of thinking, feeling, and acting through continuous socialization and internalize the standards of conduct prevalent within the larger society. Notably, gender-related bipolar trait stereotypes such as "tall, strong, dark-skinned" are believed to be more characteristic of men while traits such as "petite, fair, and weak" are more characteristic of women. These stereotypes are clearly enacted in the sphere of intimate heterosexual relationships (Gieske 1998:378). When the question of proper height of women is determined in relation to men, this cultural assumption is clearly observed by the "cardinal principle" of mate selection where men are supposed to be taller than women (p.376). The cultural understanding of body size also translates to measurement of masculinity and femininity observed by participants and their attitudes towards the physical height of their potential partners.

Envisioning the image of an ideal couple, over half of the participants strongly insisted that their mates had to be taller than them. #013 and nine others shared the same sentiments: "It's just weird! I have no idea but I just can't [date a shorter guy [2] ]." When probed for the reason behind their unyielding sentiments in observing the height differences, the most commonly expressed rationale was simply a general sentiment that it was "natural" for men to be taller than women. Participants acknowledged that this combination was a stereotype, yet they were reluctant to go against the norm. #007 echoed the thoughts of the others:

I want to feel protected and perhaps that sense of security when the guy is taller than you. If the guy is shorter, he just resembles my younger brother. I highly doubt I can look up to him… he doesn't exude that feeling that I can be dependent and reliant on him…

I know this match is purely stereotypical…like demonstration of male superiority and female subordination…but I wouldn't have the courage to invite more attention if I am to break the norm.

Participants clearly associated the physique with typical gendered attributes, thereafter affecting their choice of partner according to their build. All participants almost unanimously indicated that the differences should be kept minimal. #005 explained: "I am ok with shorter guys but not too much. You won't want to feel that you can beat up your boyfriend or appear too 'manly'. It definitely makes me feel less feminine if I am much taller." Only #014 had experiences with shorter dates, yet cultural requirement to couple properly was enforced by looks of contempt and smiles of aversion upon her "unnatural" coupling with a shorter mate as she admitted to face overt disapproval from her parents, and was the topic among friends due to the 'mismatch'.

Participants lamented that it was a self-inflicted predicament in limiting their dating prospects, expressed by #001 that "…too bad. I am too tall." Indeed, the challenge against deeply internalized cultural mandate of a standard height relation is too hard to bear for these participants as "…the desire to be like everyone else is a desire for social integration in the positive sense" (p.390).


The preceding analysis explores the lived experiences of stigma of women of very tall body stature. Critical analysis of the findings have revealed how awareness of their divergence from normalized height standards is often triggered by seemingly innocent height-related encounters in everyday life, and participants are confronted by the need to manage their deviant bodies. Findings have also revealed the importance of emotions, primarily embarrassment as an integral part of their experiences as very tall women. In this study, embarrassment is inherently socially constituted to mark the infractions of relatively minor height norms by eliciting a milder form of shame (Goffman 1967:105) on these very tall women.

Clearly, these very tall women are aware of their stigmatization in society as they violate traditional gender norms marked by visibly asymmetrical images of men's and women's bodies where men are 'naturally' or supposedly bigger, forceful, and protective of the dependent women. In fact, these participants are conformists to the cultural standards of appropriate height into which they have been socialized, most demonstrated by their adherence to the cardinal principle of male-taller dating norm. The silencing of stigmatization as observed by the stigmatized in exercising cultural strategies and the normal in observing cultural height standards serve yet as reinforcement to prevailing height standards.

Overall, putting these seemingly individualistic encounters in the wider socio-cultural context, this study has unpacked the prevalent height-related cultural understandings and rendered visible the significance of everyday routines as means to exercise normality. Contestation against the stigma of excessive height of women is therefore proven to be difficult due to the commonplaceness of interactive situations where height becomes salient and people uncritically refer to the same cultural stock to understand and talk about body size and gender in a certain way. Nonetheless, I have made suggestions for negotiation in the following section.

Conclusion and Implications

The paper explores the complex ways in which bodies are brought in line with society's rigid gender scheme, drawing attention to the underexplored component of the body - the physical stature. It demonstrates how cultural production of height and gender has real consequences for bodies that deviate from the gendered height norms. I do not intend to illustrate the passivity of bodies subjected to socio-cultural forces, but aim to bring attention to how seemingly innocuous mundane encounters with other people and physical artifacts are translated into particular socio-political struggles. Moreover, the interpretations of the experiences of these very tall women do not suggest any psychological impact on their sense of self nor to deconstruct all associated meanings related to the female tall body, least to claim that all very tall women encounter similar experiences. This study aims to inspire alternate ways of engaging in critical reflection on the issue of height, stimulating thoughts and further discussions on how height matters to other height-based categories including the average-height.

While I acknowledge the powerful grip culture has on the workings of society, a possible way to combat the impact of cultural stereotypes on appearance norms is for marginalized women to acquire knowledge and language to deal with their unique positions in society. Should they be able to transform cultural messages about their "abnormality" into alternate readings of normal variations of bodies, they would be empowered in promoting changes to contemporary thinking about body size and gender.

Additionally, changes have to be taken institutionally to be enforced effectively. The most efficient method to eradicate ignorance is through education at an early age before social norms take toll in the minds of young men and women. Education should encompass teachings that address discrimination and valorize the human bodies in all its shapes and sizes regardless of the assigned gender. Changes can only be effectively induced when individuals are encouraged to be open-minded from young to bodily variations.


One of the most notable limitations is the inability to make generalizations to the broader population of very tall women due to the low response rate. There are also limitations to the demographic variability of this study as participants of relatively similar demographic characteristics are intentionally chosen to achieve coherence in generating analytical themes. Although this study is ethically based on voluntary participation, a self-selection bias is suspected among participants who are comfortable with talking about their height. Should these issues be possible to amend, the generalizability of this study could have been greatly increased.

This study is still at its exploratory and descriptive stage. Further research should be done in different cultural contexts where cultural meanings attached to tall female bodies may differ, and through different methodologies in exploring the interplay between height and other bodily signifiers such as weight and age. Further studies should also explore on the impact of height on identity development of these very tall women.


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