Photos by Catherine Lee
When Jessica Goldschmidt was five years old, she was put in a swimming group at day camp with a bunch of kids twice her age. She was taller than the average child, so her strength was assumed to be on par with the older campers. But, the current was stronger than her athletic abilities, and she struggled to stay afloat, nearly drowning.
Though her height hasn’t had quite as dire an impact on her personality since then, its influenced her work as a theatre artist. Along with three other tall women, she co-created, choreographs for and performs in “Tall Women in Clogs,” a funny, feminist take on how height can shape a woman’s identity in America.
Goldschmidt met Sophie Shackleton and Katherine Cooper at Brown University while performing for a student production of “The Rocky Horror Show.” After graduating, the three women moved to New York City, where they teamed up with Madeline Wise to create “Tall Women in Clogs,” a variety show involving dance, physical theater and circus, which sold out on its first run. The troupe recently campaigned on Kickstarter to bring their work to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.
“‘Tall Women in Clogs’ is an ethos, an attitude,” they wrote on their Kickstarter page. “It’s a way of looking at ourselves, the world, and our bodies in the world as four 20-something women who take up more space than average.”
Below, Goldschmidt, Shackleton, Cooper and Wise discuss their play, their height, the Rockettes, and the woes of middle school dances.
Do you think being tall is an integral part of your identity?
Madeline Wise: In general my height is something that I feel doesn't define me. I'd always prefer that I am defined by nonphysical traits, because those are the traits I can control and cultivate.
Sophie Shackleton: It affects my feelings of femininity deeply. But it also makes me feel very capable, and older than my age much of the time, and is a great asset for leadership and confidence in many parts of life, too.
Jessica Goldschmidt: On a family vacation when I was five, I was so tall they placed me in a day camp group with the eight to 10-year-olds. I almost drowned because the undertow was too strong. So for me, early on, being tall became almost literally a matter of life and death.
Katherine Cooper: Absolutely.
You discuss a few of the woes of tall women on your Kickstarter -- that others expect you to be stronger than you are, for instance. Which of these misconceptions do you struggle with the most?
MW: I think the bit about being tougher than you are, probably. I've had a lot of people project stoicism onto me simply because I'm physically above the sturm und drang.
SS: I struggled with weight as a kid, so that is strongly related to my feelings about “bigness." I’m no longer overweight, but because of my height, I’m realizing that I will always feel like I still am “too large.” As I get older, I’m much more interested in embracing femininity and vulnerability. I’m full of those things too, perhaps even more because of my size, and I’m less scared of showing that.
JG: For me, it's this ideal that a tall woman is an outlier, that she must be either a) ungainly/"unfeminine" or b) supermodel/Rockette material -- ogres or sex objects, and not much in between
KC: I definitely struggle to share my vulnerability with people. I'd say that's probably true of a lot of people. But I think being tall exacerbates that feeling because people do expect you to be stronger and more competent a lot of the time.
Has your height ever kept you from accomplishing something -- or, conversely, aided you in something you wished to accomplish?
MW: My favorite factoid is that I'm too tall to be a Rockette -- I think the cutoff is 5'10". But, like, I don't lose sleep over that one. My height probably kept me from dating in high school, but again, I think there are a whole slew of other factors there.
SS: Where I’ve lacked in confidence socially, I gained it professionally. People take me seriously, and I sort of naturally end up in positions of leadership.
JG: I have never in my life been able to do a pull-up. I blame it on my height.
KC: I definitely swiped more cookies than average from the top shelf when I was little thanks to topping out at around 5'9" at age 14.
What’s the most badass thing about being a tall woman?
MW: Society loves to infantilize women in a way that grosses me out, and it's hard to infantilize a tall woman.
SS: Walking down the street. I do sort of feel, regularly, like I could conquer the world when I’m walking down the street. You get a lot of momentum.
JG: The space you get/learn/are able to take up on the dance floor.
KC: I think being tall makes you stand out in most groups. As with any kind of difference you have to learn to own it. If you can learn to own something that's different about you, you're a badass.
Do you think height lends itself to analysis the same way gender might? What about humor?
MW: Oh, totally. But also I perceive a correlation between my height and my sense of humor. I come from funny stock to begin with, but I think I cultivated my specific brand of humor in order to offset the fact that a lot of people find my height intimidating.
SS: I don’t think it’s the same, because it doesn’t have specific histories of oppression. But, it is another lens on difference, and I think we are all, as a global community, doing a lot of processing around how to accept difference in the face of a natural human instinct of feeling safe when we’re the same.
JG: Yep. Though in keeping with my feelings about gender, I'm mostly interested in tall people who are short, and short people who are tall, and small big people, and big small people, etc.
KC: We definitely project gendered assumptions onto tall and short people. I think we often associate height with physical strength and strength with masculinity so in that way, yes.
I'm not sure what height has to do with humor. If you're taught that you shouldn't take up too much space and then you're body takes up more space than average that can result in some pretty humorous behavior. I once got a plaque at the end of a soccer season in elementary school that honored me with the nickname "The Destroyer," because my height made me an excellent defender. That was sort of funny. Also, completely scarring.
Why should tall women wear clogs?
MW: You already stand out for being tall, why not add comically loud wooden hooves to the mix?
SS: I ultimately feel like they communicate my most basic self: a lady who knows how to get things done.
JG: Because they're like heels without the constant looming specter of patriarchy.
KC: If you're looking for quirky, comfy, discreetly sexy footwear that will accentuate your height while keeping you grounded, clogs are for you!
What are some other artistic mediums that you think smartly reveal what it’s like to be a tall woman?
MW: Vivian Maier's photography? That implies all tall women are bizarro hermit types. (Which is true.) I'm not even sure she was all that tall.
SS: Middle school dances. I don't know about smartly -- but it's all there.
JG: Stand-up comedy. The Rockettes Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Low-ceilinged rehearsal studios.
KC: Can Tilda Swinton be a medium? Basically anything Tilda Swinton does I think reveals something smart, beautiful and deeply felt about what I feel it's like to be a tall woman.