I can see them working things out in their brain. I know what's they're thinking before they do, and it fills me with a heated rage.
"Almost four," I say, with a tight, knowing smile.
"Wow." They eye her again.
Shut up! I want to yell. I know what you're going to say, you asshole. Please just keep your mouth shut and your observations to yourself. What do you think, you're the first person to figure this out? She's right there. Don't you know she can hear you?!
They do it anyway. "She's tall."
My daughter is tall - 96th percentile tall, is 4-years-old but wears 5 and 6-year-old clothing tall. She towers above her preschool buddies, she has been able to reach the light switch without a stool for years, she can ride amusement park rides that she's probably way too young for. She's tall.
I am also tall, 5'10", and I arrived at this height at the end of fifth grade and then more-or-less stopped growing. I was tall my whole life - bigger than the boys, always in the back of the line for class photos - and it's left behind an insecurity that I carry as a slouch in my shoulders. Being tall often goes hand-in-hand with early development, and that giant 8-year-old with budding breasts is still stuck inside me, sharing her insecurities. People have commented on my height for as long as I can remember, and it's a legacy I want desperately to help my daughters to avoid. So far, I'm failing.
It's rare that I feel pure, blinding rage as a mother, but whenever someone comments on my daughter's height it fills me with a fire so bright, I feel as though I could combust. It's a combination of my own insecurities about my height mixed with my desire to protect her from the onslaught of comments about her appearance. She is barely four-years-old. And yet, people think they have the right to discuss her looks and body right there, in front of her. As if she is fair game.
Here is the maddeningly frustrating thing about comments about appearance: What, exactly, are we expected to say in return? When people tell me - a woman who is practically six feet and who THEY ARE STARING AT - that my daughter is tall, I often just point at myself and say, "Well, yeah." I mean seriously, what do these people want? A medal? Here's your National You Noticed A Kid's Height Award, congratulations!!!
These people are not announcing anything that I haven't figured already out. I knew my kids would be tall before they even existed - my husband and I both come from families filled with Talls. There is a thing called genetics, and I hear it works.
I spend a lot of time figuring out what these commenters are trying to say with their words. "Wow your kid is freakishly big" is the message it seems like they're trying to get across. And even if they mean it as a compliment, it's still hard for me to hear. Not just because I boil over with anger. I'm a grown up, I can control my s**t. But my daughter - my sweet, strong, energetic, kid who has no idea there's anything different about herself - can hear them. She's listening, picking up on the social cues being pinged through the conversations. I know from my own experience that at some point the words begin to sting, and they chip away at self-esteem.
I see how she's treated differently because of her size. Older kids try to play with her and get confused when she doesn't quite get it. Grown ups speak to her as if she's a true kid, and not someone still growing out of toddler-dom. A teacher, after commenting on some emotional issues my daughter was having, then told me she forgets how young she actually is because of her height.
I know the excuses for such commentary can often be construed as "positive." I've heard all these things myself. "You're so lucky to be so tall! I wish I was tall! Tall is beautiful! Do you play basketball? Do you play volleyball? Why not, you should. You're so tall!"
(For the record I started playing basketball for the first time ever this year and I'll admit - it is really awesome being tall on the court.)
Even as "compliments," these words are still just unwarranted comments about my or my kid's appearance. Ann Friedman recently wrote in NY Magazine about her own experiences being 6'2". She said, "All women’s bodies are regularly judged and measured by strangers who, with shocking regularity, feel empowered to share their opinions out loud. But some bodies invite more direct comment than others — just ask a black woman with natural hair or a pregnant woman, for starters. But I don’t know too many other women who get the same pointed comment about their body every single time they’re in public — not only from catcalling men, but from old ladies and young kids and grocery-store cashiers and middle-aged women alike."
I ache for the young girls who go through this very public scrutiny about whatever it is that makes them "different." I ache for my daughter. And I beg of you, dear strangers with your mouths agape: Please shut the f**k up.