The average height for an American woman is 5’3.8”, which makes me at 5’4” pretty darn close to average. Before we moved to the Philippines, I was used to looking straight across at most women and up a bit at most men.
In the Philippines, where the average woman is 4’11.8” and the average man is 5’4.4”, I looked straight across at most men and down at most women. It’s a different feeling. I was used to being an average-size woman. Now I was big.
In a practical sense, being 4.2” taller than the average Filipino woman was no problem. During the time we lived in the Philippines, women, both local and foreign, had most of their clothes made by a dressmaker. All I had to do was bring fabric and a sketch, come back for a fitting, and a few days later pick up the dress. Since I grew up drawing my own paper dolls and designing their clothes, the sketch was no problem. The fabric wasn’t either. My husband often provided it. Being an avid shopper, he would return from his business trips with exotic fabrics stuffed in his suitcase—Thai silks, Indonesian batiks and modern Chinese silks from Hong Kong and Singapore.
If visiting the dressmaker was easy and fun, finding shoes was a different story. I’d browse the shoe display and point out one I liked. Then, invariably, the clerk would shake her head, “Sorry, ma’am, that doesn’t come in big sizes.” Big sizes? I wear an 8—back then, sometimes a 7½. The average size now for women in the United States is 9. (Strangely, Americans’ foot size has increased faster than our height.)
For six or seven years I wore old shoes or shoes bought on home leave. Eventually one of the large department stores (Was it Rustans or Shoe Mart?) opened a section for large sizes, and finally I could drive to town and buy a pair of shoes.
(Maybe Imelda Marcos also had large feet. Her midnight shoe-shopping trips to Hong Kong were legendary.)
On a trip to Kyoto, Japan, I learned that my feet weren’t the only thing about me that was the “wrong size” in Asia. My arms were too long. I was still living in the Philippines, where it was too hot to wear long sleeves—or jeans or jackets for that matter. But I decided I wanted a long-sleeved white blouse as protection from the sun, and I thought Japan would be a good place to find one.
Sure enough, the shops in Kyoto had lots of long-sleeved white blouses. The trouble was, they were all “one size fits all,” and the “all” they were talking about didn’t include me. Some of the blouses were too tight in the chest; others were loose enough. The sleeves, however, were a different story. Every single blouse had sleeves that were about four inches too short. Or rather, in Japan, my arms were too long.
My three daughters weren’t the wrong size until I signed them up for a Saturday morning ballet class. At the Manila International School where they studied, children came in all sizes. But in the Saturday ballet class, all the other students were petite, wispy-thin Filipino girls. Next to them, my heretofore regular-sized daughters looked tall and chubby, and the Filipino girls let them know it.
I doubt that my girls were destined to become ballet dancers, but being the wrong size in that ballet class may have cut the experiment short.
My simple experiences while living abroad helped me appreciate the way size can affect how we are perceived by others, and, especially, how we feel about ourselves.