For the last three summers, I’ve woken up at 7 a.m. each morning, donned a neon-orange apron, and clipped a radio to my front left pocket. I keep my hair boyishly short around my ears; or, when it is long enough, swept back in a messy ponytail, from which an increasing number of flyway hairs escape throughout the day. By evening, my apron and shoes will be splattered with blue and green paint, sticky clumps of drying playdough or white glue will flake off of my fingernails, and my eyes and shoulders will be tired.
But the morning is the best time. At the children’s museum where I work, crooked into the curve of the Sam Francisco Bay right where the Golden Gate Bridge meets the hills to the north of the city, the morning means improbable masses of fog, like whole mountains or sky-bound oceans drifting into the hills. The morning means sleepy-eyed parents clutching coffee in one hand and toddlers who rose before the sun ready to play in the other. It means rooms full of bright paper and sharpened pencilsnot yet ravaged by little hands.
On one such morning I give a small boy a handful of blue playdough and receive a frown in exchange.
“Do you work here?” he asks. I tell him that I do.
“But how can you work here if you’re a kid?”
Like every morning since sometime in seventh grade, I woke up that morning five feet, one-and-three-quarters inches tall, and I will likely continue to do so for the rest of my life. I almost never wear makeup, for reasons which are complicated but largely depend on the fact that I can’t be bothered to get out of bed the 10 minutes earlier that this would require. I have never been really comfortable wearing anything other than jeans and t-shirts; the frighteningly feminine and perfect outfits of my peers have felt both out of reach and undesirable. The result of this has been a decade and a half of confusion, of being mistaken for a boy when I was young and for a much younger girl regularly since.
I can’t remember the first time this happened, but if you’re interested, I can give you a list taller than me (not saying much) of the other times: like the time when I was sixteen and the two moms staffing the ticket booth at the homecoming game wouldn’t let me in without a parent because they weren’t convinced I was a high schooler. Or the time last year, that I was given a menu that clearly indicated it was for children 10 and under. Or two months ago, when I almost wasn’t allowed on the plane back to Logan because I looked too much like an unaccompanied minor. I could go on.
I’ve learned, in many ways, to cope. Jokingly referring to myself as “vertically challenged,” insisting that good things come in small packages, etc. I like being small, I like how I dress, I like not wearing makeup. It all comes with certain advantages: My favorite stripey shirt from elementary school still makes regular appearances, and I can jam myself effectively into tiny, comfortable spaces, like bookshelves and lockers. I honestly like it (usually) that my friends can pick me up and sling me over their shoulders, and I like that most hugs put me firmly at mid-chest range. Being small and looking young has made me more approachable to children at the museum where I work, and has allowed me to get away with ridiculous behavior like climbing trees and sitting on my knees in public for far longer than most.
But there are downsides, too, strange dimensions to my diminutive size, which people on that higher plane of average height can’t seem to see (perhaps I’m just too far below their line of sight?). I’ve been whacked in the face by backpacks more times than I care to count, and I’ve had to become adept at scrambling on top of countertops and makeshift stepping stools to reach the highest shelves. I am too short to become an astronaut, and will likely get carded well into my 40s. I wish I could say that these are the things which bother me most about my appearance.
There are times when being called cute is nice, and times when it hurts so much.
There are times when being called little is to be made to feel small. When I wonder if the person who is shocked to find I am not a child would also be shocked to find that I don’t think or act like one, and times when I don’t have to wonder because they tell me as much.
There is also a difference between a stranger being confused by my height, and a friend or a classmate being confused by me—by the things I do, not to appear younger or older, but simply as a function of being myself moving through the world.
There are times when I’m told, no, this is not for you—not for you to be drunk or in love or a part of this conversation, because you are little, you are a child, so I adapt. I still remember crying at slicing up my legs shaving badly and for the first time at summer camp, trying desperately to look and act as old and as much like a girl as everyone else there. In high school, it was a joke to hear me say certain words—little Emma, wash your mouth out —so I stopped saying them. The laughter of friends, amused or disgusted at the idea of me, still a child while they believed themselves adults, having sex or being drunk or simply existing, continues to slice me up, but usually I say nothing. The assumption that I act like a child because I apparently look like one makes me afraid that other assumptions are being made as well: assumptions about how smart I am and what I’m capable of, about who I might fall in love with or what that might look like, about a million other things which I shouldn’t have to justify.
I know I can’t have it both ways. But also, why can’t I? Is it so wrong to want to be able to be small, be this comfortable version of me with short hair and not have to explain it, not have to ask anyone not to laugh at me? I don’t think it should be.
So for now, I smile at this little boy, hand him the play dough and grab a handful myself, because if I have to deal with the various injustices that come with being five feet, one-and-three-quarters inches tall, I might as well get to have some fun, too.
“I can be a kid and work here, too,” I tell him. There are, I suppose, much worse things
Emma K. Talkoff ’18 is an FM and news writer in Currier House. She has a rainbow of playdough at home.