I'm small, so what?

Defying stereotypes has become a hobby of mine. I don’t particularly enjoy proving people wrong for the sake of it, but this one is an exception. Simply based on my height, people often mistake me for being 12 years old. One-on-one, it’s pitched as a joke—”aren’t you supposed to be at school on a Monday?”—which I laugh at (in pity, because your joke lacks wit and creativity) and respond to by sharing the benefits of being 4’11 and “petite”. Like, I get to shop in the children’s department where shoes cost half the price. Take that, suckers!


For those that incorrectly guess my age, they try to redeem themselves. “It’s a good thing,” they say. “You won’t look fifty when you’re fifty”. I can basically mouth the words as they’re being said – it’s gotten that predictable. I don’t think aging quite works that way, but I appreciate the intention (not really). I’m 22 and I’d like to look (and more importantly, be treated as) 22, thank you very much.


Being the subject of someone’s pathetic attempt at humour is fine, but when I’m stood beside a tall, “mature” looking individual, it’s like I don’t exist. Shop attendants, passers on the street or friends of friends will often choose to address my model-esque comrades over myself, sometimes even avoiding eye contact with me. It’s like height somehow denotes superiority. Sure, a 6″ person can be intimidating and their presence naturally demands attention, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less a human being. Just 30cm less.


I’ve had an 18-year-old Lorna Jane sales assistant greet me by saying she didn’t realise that high school students were on summer break yet. When I worked at Camera House a customer asked me whether I was qualified to sell him a camera because, “aren’t you still in primary school?” Once, a guy hit on me by asking whether I was legally classified as a midget and whether I received benefits from the government. What a charmer.

Of course it isn’t the end of the world—having people think, first impression, that I’ve lived only half the lifetime I have—but that hasn’t stopped me from taking appropriate measures to prove them wrong just for “shits and giggles”, as us youngsters call it.


I never bother to debate height prejudice people (at least not to their face, because here I am giving this lecture now). That would be a waste of my time. Instead, I embrace the “fun size”, pocket rocket persona (I can efficiently zigzag between crowds, I’m not complaining when it comes to certain conveniences) and work on my “tall” person at heart.


So, how have I gone about this mission to defy the little person stereotype? Number one – weights. I was the tallest girl in primary school and the shortest in high school. When I graduated as a rather round-faced, “softly shaped” female who never participated in PE, I thought it time to get fit. Shortly after beginning on my fitness “journey” I moved to Melbourne from Perth. I soon befriended the much- (if not most-) loved fitness instructor at the gym – a fellow five-footer who was all muscle and zero fat. No one ever treated her as a weak 12-year-old. I was instantly inspired.

It’s not only the strength of vertically challenged individuals that shock people, but their stamina and power, too. A fitness instructor friend of mine (quite possibly shorter than myself) smashes out tuck jumps so fast his legs disappear like a comic book superhero whose limbs are sketched a blur.


Speaking of shock factor… Let me tell you what happened while I was living in Montreal. I often went to Body Pump classes. It reminded me of home, but training in a group also made for good French practice. When it got to squats (the track where the bar is its heaviest) I stacked on my regular amount. Unavoidably, thanks to the mirrors, I noticed that the whole class was staring at me. Most of them had one sixth of the weight on their bars. The unabashed whispering began and then the laughter, but just from one man. He said something colloquial, directed at me. I didn’t understand him (as usual, I never quite grasped the thicker Quebecois accent) so I just awkwardly laughed. He pointed at my bar and scoffed, “You can’t possibly lift that. You’re tiny!” He then turned to the Body Pump instructor and said, “Look at this! She’s got to be kidding!” I said nothing and smiled sheepishly at the leather-skinned, mustached man with a potbelly and little legs (picture a toffee apple), and lifted the bar to my back. I went through the whole track without missing a rep. The dessert-shaped man was truly stunned. He didn’t apologise for attempting to embarrass me in front of the class. He probably felt emasculated (and hopefully defeated for having been proven wrong). From that day forward we acknowledged each other with a nod.


More recently in Melbourne, there was this scenario at the gym where my friend and I were waiting to use the squat rack. After the guy using it finished up he said, “you won’t need this much weight on the bar will you?” A polite gesture to take off the weights for us (aw, how sweet) but, dude, a little presumptuous. He’d clearly taken one look at me and thought I’d be lifting, like, 5kg or some shit.


We encountered this guy again a few weeks later. As I was doing chin-ups he walked past and exclaimed, “show off”. This fascinated me. Did this comment mean that he thought women (specifically small ones) were not only incapableof lifting such heavy weights, but were forbidden to because if they could accomplish such a feat, they shouldn’t show it? Was I not entitled to be proud of my achievements nor exhibit my strength in public? Show off, me? More like “showed up” – you.


Three years after joining the gym, I can squat 65kg, endure a three-hour session at the gym and do 603 burpees in 30 consecutive minutes. At least I’ve got the shock-factor fitness down pat. Now I’m taking self defence classes, so guard your nose and eyeballs when you next comment on my height.


At the end of the day I’m not seeking to prove anything to anyone but myself. Shocking people and seeing the looks on their faces is simply an added extra and provides good entertainment. The reason I lift weights is simple: nothing beats the feeling of true physical strength. Now, who is up for an arm wrestle?

Mim Kempson