Friday, March 23, 2012

Issues: Gulliver’s Travels


I’m very lucky to have traveled abroad extensively—to Central America, Western and Central Europe, and the Middle East. I’m struck every time I leave the U.S. by how unusual I am as an exceptionally tall woman—not just by U.S. standards, but also by the standards of countries with much lower average heights.

I studied abroad in Spain for a semester in college and my host mother’s apartment was beautiful, but I felt like I was living in Lilliput. My bed (with a head and foot board) was too short, the kitchen chairs were too narrow, and my little mamá only came up to my shoulder. I had a wonderful time in Madrid, but I was simply living in a world not built for someone my size.

The story was much the same in Turkey and Jordan, though I felt singled out more often because I was not only tall, but also a Western girl. This photo of a young woman, taken in Istanbul by the incredible Scott Schuman—the man behind The Sartorialist—pretty much sums it up:


There was some occasional awkwardness, but by and large the Turks were friendly and accommodating and tried hard to project an image of progress and open-mindedness. In Jordan, however, I was catcalled and sometimes felt threatened on the street. I think that I was considered an outsider because of my nationality, gender, and style of dress, not so much because of my height, but being tall made it much more difficult to blend in in public.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love to travel and a few tense moments won’t stop me. Nor do I regret being who I am (a tall American woman) when I’m out of the country. Don’t shy away from the opportunity to explore the world because you might stand out or have to face some physical or cultural discomfort. But I do think it’s important to start a dialogue about the obstacles that women travelers (and all travelers) face abroad.

What are your thoughts?


  1. I love this photo -- it really provokes memories for me. When I was a student in France, back in the day, I found it impossible to find shoes that fit me (and I was a size 10 then). Clothing was also a big challenge – sleeves and hems weren’t long enough and the overall cut of most garments was too slender for my build. Fortunately, the pension where I stayed for the year had a sewing machine I could borrow, so I made alterations on the clothes I had brought and some I had purchased. Also, hemlines went WAY up (to miniskirts) during that year, so my roommates and I had a lot of hemming on our hands. I finally found a seamstress in the town where we lived who was able to make a couple of things for me at a fairly reasonable price. I managed to get by, but it was frustrating to be in a place where fashion is regarded so highly and not be able to return to the U.S. with a fabulous new wardrobe! Even though the current younger generation is taller now, I don’t think the disparity between the heights of Americans and Europeans had changed all that much. By the way, I found more options in shoes sizes when I visited Italy. The wonderful leather goods there put more focus on quality footwear, so that helped a little. I found a gorgeous pair of very tall (over the knees) boots that I wore until they fell apart.

  2. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Femme.

    I've traveled Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, and I can say that--even at a mere 5'8"--I often find that I'm on the taller side of the spectrum. And, as a size ten woman, it wasn't always easy to find clothes in, say, Thailand. I did have great luck finding shoes in Bangkok, however, and found a rockin pair of silver stilettos in just my size (8.5 ladies').

    Better yet, some styles (the lavalava, from Micronesia, and the sarong, from Indonesia) wrap around at the waist for a custom fit, so it doesn't really matter what your dimensions are...they will still make you look fantastic!

    I think the shopping around while traveling is worth it. Not only are you supporting the local economy, you will also get to enjoy the visual feast of the marketplace. What's more, you'll find great prices--which put American prices to shame--and the styles, which can add some flair to your everyday wardrobe.

  3. Thank you so much Carolyn and Megan for your thoughtful comments! Frustrating though it was to shop for clothing and shoes in Europe (and elsewhere), I dove in and found some gems at chain stores like Zara and Mango and at El Rastro - Europe's largest flea market, held every Sunday in Madrid. Talk about a visual feast! Having access to a sewing machine helps immensely when it comes to taking in that second-hand dress or raising or lowering a hemline, but unfortunately it won't do much when it comes to shoes and lingerie. In Spain, shoes are simply not sold above a size 9 or 10, even today, and a C cup is on the extreme end of the bra-size spectrum. It doesn't make sense for manufacturers and retailers to stock large sizes in a country where the average woman's height is 5'5", so we'll just have to keep in mind that shopping abroad (like the travel itself) is something of an adventure!