‘You’re so much less intimidating in person’

The first comment I hear from almost everyone I meet who’s read my work is something along the lines of ‘you’re so much less intimidating person’ or ‘I thought you’d be taller.’ They’re intriguing statements to me, and worth unpacking, because they reveal interesting assumptions and attitudes; and I unpack them not to pick on people who make these comments, or to single them out for attention, but because I think it’s fascinating that I get these responses almost every time I meet people, and I have some theories about why they happen.

I’m pretty open about the fact that while I’m stocky to plump, I’m short. I barely top five feet, and even in heels, I’m obviously shorter than the average person of any gender in the US. That’s something that can be hard to pick up in pictures unless people know the scale of the objects around me; and what people say is that I project a large and forceful personality, so obviously I must be tall. But, more than that, people say I’m less terrifying or aggressive than they expected, and I think that has less to do with my height than it does with my gender presentation.

When I’m meeting people in formal environments, I’m often presenting in a very femme-leaning way. I’m wearing a nice dress and jewelry and heels, my hair is vaguely under control, many of my tattoos are not visible, and I look, to the casual eye, like a woman dressed nicely for a conference, dinner, or other meetup. And this, I think, is why people find me so nonthreatening. I look like a nice, average white lady, doing nice, average, white lady things; it’s this guise that allows me to slip through many environments without being noticed because I don’t stand out.

And when people think of people who are ferocious, who are intimidating, who are forces to be reckoned with, they don’t think of people who look like me. They think of people who are taller, yes, but they also think of people dressed defiantly, displaying markers of the counterculture in their clothes and on their body. They think of people who dress and present ‘aggressively,’ by which they generally mean ‘in a masculine way.’ People with large breasts and dresses need not apply.

At the same time I’m bemused by people who express surprise when they meet me, there’s also a tinge of sadness for me. Because I’m often meeting people in spaces dedicated to social justice, to challenging attitudes about gender and presentation, to asking what non-normative bodies look like and questioning assumptions. The people inhabiting those spaces talk in virtual space about the importance of recognising diversity in gender identity and presentation, about not judging books by their covers, about rethinking their view of the world, but in person, these attempts at structural change break down in the face of cultural conditioning.

It’s funny; I can walk into a room and people supposedly eager to meet me don’t recognise me because I don’t look like what they expected. And when I press them on what, exactly, they mean, they stammer and look at the floor, saying they can’t quite define what they mean. And maybe that’s true, in some cases. But in others, what they want to say is ‘I wasn’t expecting you to look like a girl.’ They seem surprised that I’m often soft-voiced and courteous when meeting people for the first time, expecting me to come out of the gate swinging, apparently.

Those who spend more time around me quickly learn that I’m noisy, and aggressive, and deeply socially awkward, and domineering, but those traits don’t come through in an encounter that lasts only a few minutes because that’s only part of my personality. And when I’m meeting people, whether in a social or professional context, I don’t actually want to terrorise them on our first encounter, because that’s hardly going to establish the foundations of a functional and lasting relationship. Prepping with panelists in a greenroom, for example, being a dick from the get-go is a sure way to get the other members of the panel pissed at me and working against me, rather than getting them interested in having a nuanced conversation.

It’s uncomfortable for me to occupy a position on a pedestal, to be anyone’s hero. I know that many people think of their heroes not just as people who can never fail, but also people who are larger than life, who occupy more space than the rest of us, as giants. When they meet their heroes and find out this is not the case, they feel deceived or let down in some way by the fact that we aren’t what they were expecting, when we are in fact exactly what we advertise: ourselves. In my case, myself is a short and sometimes plump person with a femme presentation who likes to be nice to people when meeting them because I was raised to be polite. I may be socially reserved, as a general rule, but I strive to not be actively hostile unless the other party starts it, in which case I can give as good as I get, and then some.

The passion, the drive, and ethics, the core beliefs are all there; I’m the same person you know in print, I promise.