Jessica McNellis: Hey, Tall Girl.

Hey, tall girl. What sport do you play?

As a woman hedging over six feet tall at age 13, this is the question I fielded the most throughout my adolescence and into my twenties. The answer evolved from, “I don’t play any sports,” which was received with such perplexity, the conversation often ended right there; to “I swim,” which was still met with dissatisfaction; to finally, the correct answer: “I play volleyball.”

My path to finding volleyball, or volleyball finding me, is a Cinderella story for another time. Nearly 30-years-old now, I have grappled with my relationship with my height, volleyball, and how it owns my identity. That ownership is rarely self-inflicted, but rather channeled onto me by absolute strangers. 

Hey, tall girl. What sport do you play? 

Not “do you play any sports”, but “what sport do you play?” And tied to that question, there are only a handful of acceptable answers. 

It often baffles me – short girls aren’t approached on the street to confirm whether they’re pursuing an Olympic gymnast career or an equestrian scholarship. Why is it such an expectation that my hobbies must include either basketball or volleyball, simply because I’m tall?

In the early days, I felt a ping of guilt for not having an appropriate answer. I liked to play piano and write and swim. Who was letting me get away with pursuing hobbies that so blatantly disregarded my 6’2” frame? I had what couldn’t be coached. I had the body. I had the height. I had a standing reach the envy of every girl who loved the sport and lacked the gene pool. 

In my volleyball years, I felt relief that I finally could answer, “Yes, I play volleyball,” and avoid the lectures on missed opportunities and wasting my height. Even now, I appreciate the satisfaction of being able to answer that I did, in fact, play college volleyball. I never thought of myself as someone who put that much clout in what strangers thought, but then again, I completely conformed to meet society’s expectation of me. 

For the record, I did really, really love volleyball.

Hey, tall girl. Why aren’t you more aggressive?

Once I was in the volleyball world, it still wasn’t enough. I wasn’t aggressive enough. I wasn’t loud enough. I wasn’t mean enough. How could I look so intimidating and not embody that on the court?

Coaches didn’t want a composed, thoughtful, quiet player in what is supposed to be a threatening position. I was so tall, how could I not be more aggressive? As if the two are genetically linked. 

Wearing a uniform went well beyond the jersey. Rarely did any coach try to enhance me as a player using who I was; all their energy was spent on pushing me to fit the uniform identity of who I should be based on my physicality. And I, trying not to lose the one thing that made me feel like I (physically) belonged, spent all my energy doing the same. I tried to become someone louder, someone meaner, someone more aggressive. 

Hey, tall girl. Are you going to play college ball?

The first, and perhaps only time I heard reassurance that didn’t have to fit a stereotype was on my first ever college recruiting visit. The coach shared an observation he’d made about his team. He kept his own scorebook to track performance throughout the week, strictly by the stats, and he often found that the quieter, less emotional personalities were outperforming those that vocalized their competitive nature and might appear to be the strongest competitors to the average spectator. 

He mentioned that was one of the reasons he was considering me for the team, because while I might not draw a lot of attention to myself on the court, he saw me as a silent competitor who had the potential to win before anyone recognized I was even a threat.

While I didn’t wind up going to that school, I finally felt understood and accepted for qualities that had always been positioned to me as downfalls. That conversation gave me permission to embrace my strengths as a player, even if it didn’t fit the typical mold.

I didn’t have to be loud to be a leader. I didn’t have to be mean to be competitive. I didn’t have to mimic my peers to be successful. I could instead use my unique strengths to be what no one else could be for the team. And I spent my entire college career reminding myself of that.

Hey, tall girl.

Almost a decade past my volleyball era, my “hey, tall girl” moments are largely reserved for strangers chasing me down the street to ask how tall I am, where I find pants, or if once upon a time I played a sport.

I have since grown comfortable chasing experiences where my height gives me a competitive advantage – like never having an obstructed view at concerts, or being the first pick for sand volleyball tournaments – but also where my height is a liability – like thinking I’m a good dancer (and not at all a replica of the inflatable tube men flailing outside of car washes), or trying to cram my oversized legs into undersized airplane seats to explore the world.

I guess the key takeaway here is, your physical characteristics don’t define who you should be or what you should be in society, despite pressures to conform. 

And also, stop chasing tall girls down the street to ask them stupid questions.

Jessica McNellis played volleyball at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois and graduated in 2013. She majored in journalism and has since created a career in Communications, Media, and Public Relations.