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My Power Outfit Deserves Its Name

2016-2017 Rising Voices Fellow Isabel Kirsch with her Model UN partner.

I am just over five feet tall, although I round up to 5’1” on my driver’s license. I’ve been the shortest student in my grade since Kindergarten and the top of every summer camp human pyramid that I can remember. Although I've learned to embrace my short stature and recognize its impact on my confidence as a woman, when I was younger, my height was my biggest insecurity.

I came home in tears from school in first grade after a group of boys had taken my hat and thrown it to each other over my head. I wasn’t just upset at the boys, though. I was also angry at my teacher who, when intervening, had said, “Give Isabel back her hat! You know she’s too short to reach it!” To my first-grade self, her statement was incredibly insulting and further cemented my perception that my height was a weakness. Although my reaction seems overblown ten years later, I've had countless experiences that have exacerbated my own insecurity about my height.

In third grade, I remember going out to dinner for my birthday with some friends and my parents. When they had finished singing "Happy Birthday" and I had blown out the candles in an enormous wedge of chocolate cake, the waitress asked how old I was turning. I told her that I had just turned nine years old. She burst out laughing and said incredulously, "Nine? I had guessed you were six!"

To this day, I don't remember which friends were at that birthday dinner, but I do remember how hurt I was by the waitress' comment. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but I do remember trying not to cry in front of my friends, who didn't seem to have noticed the interaction. Because of moments like these, no matter how much my (very short) relatives told me that my height didn't matter, I was absolutely certain that it did.

After seventeen years, I'm less sensitive to comments about my height than I was in elementary and middle school. Part of that likely results from having grown physically as well as emotionally; however, I still do whatever I can to present myself as looking at least my age, if not older. I wear my glasses whenever I introduce myself to an adult because I find that people take me more seriously that way. As uncomfortable as it is, I enjoy wearing high heels for special occasions because even a few additional inches makes me feel significantly more confident. I recently cut my long hair to just above my shoulders; one of the factors that contributed to this choice was a hope to look older going into the new school year.

Recently, I've wondered about these aesthetic decisions in a broader sense- do I fear not being taken seriously because of my height, or is it actually because of my gender? Have I wrongly conflated the two? Do I feel confident in a blazer and high heels at a Model UN conference because I appear marginally taller or because my "power outfit" fits the stereotypical image of an intelligent woman? Do I enjoy wearing mascara because it makes me look older or because I need the validation from adhering to typical gender roles? The more I think about it, the more I realize that much of my insecurity about my height, especially in recent years, is closely connected to my fear of not being taken seriously as a capable young woman.

Yes, it's sad that it takes a "power outfit" for me to feel capable of holding my own in a crowd of loud male delegates at a Model UN conference. It's sad that I feel my most confident in spaces like these conferences when I visibly conform to gender stereotypes to be taken seriously. Despite my efforts to be judged for my hard work, opinions, and voice, instead of my height, I still get referred to as "cute" when I would prefer that people see me as "capable;" "sweet," when I’d prefer "strong." Although I make plenty of self-deprecating comments about my height, it needles me when other people do so or jokingly use my head as an armrest.

I’ve come a long way since my tears in first grade. I still have confidence to gain, but my fear of being discredited as a small-statured young woman serves to motivate me. I now participate actively in situations that used to terrify me, in part because I’ve grown up (a bit), but also because I don’t want people’s initial judgements about me as an unassuming young woman to be true. I relish writing a problem on the board or volunteering an answer in my male-dominated math and science classes. I love speaking in Model UN committee sessions. I take satisfaction in showing condescending flight attendants my drivers’ license, proving that I am in fact old enough to sit in the emergency exit row. As much insecurity as my height has caused me over the years, underestimation of my intelligence, maturity, and opinions has taught me to assert myself to be taken seriously. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Kirsch, Isabel. "My Power Outfit Deserves Its Name." 16 November 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 26, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/my-power-outfit-deserves-its-name>.

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