Maurice Tillet: October 23, 1903 - September 4, 1954
Originally published September 3, 2015.
When you’re always the biggest person around, you learn that the world will always treat you a little differently. I was over 11 pounds at birth. I was always the tallest kid in school, and outweighed most of my classmates. As a kindergartner, I was frequently mistaken for an older child. I grew taller than my older brother by the time we were teens. I was taller than most of the adults I knew by the time I could drive, and unlike most gangly teenagers, I was neither lean nor lanky. In high school, I need a helmet big enough to cover my size 8-1/4 head, which my high school was able to borrow from the state athletic association – because nobody else was using it. In the entire state. Of Illinois. And as I became an adult, I grew used to kids staring at me everywhere I went. I got used to people always commenting on my size everywhere I went. I got used to smaller men picking fights all the time. I got used to the good-natured jokes and even the passive-aggressive ones. When I met my wife in my late twenties, she couldn’t understand why I was so uncomfortable with my appearance but after a few years of everyone mentioning things she didn’t think of as atypical (“He’s really tall!”), she came to understand how being almost constantly singled out can eventually lead to a skewing of self-perception. And certainly, being singled out for being overly tall or overweight aren’t nearly as damaging as people singled out for their race or for their gender or for a disability. But there is a similar process at play, because part of the assumption about me is not just that I look different, but that these looks indicate something specific. After years of hard work in my career, I have found a certain amount of credibility as a thought leader. I’ve published a few things, been used as a resource for a couple of other books, and I’ve spoken at a number of industry panels. But I find that meeting people in person changes the dynamic. They almost seem taken aback, as if they shouldn’t be taking advice from someone who looks like me. And it has limited my career. As I get older and it happens with more frequency, I find myself more and more hesitant to leave the house and meet people. When you physically resemble Shrek, as I do, facing people’s perceptions of you is rarely kind. Even less so, I would imagine, if you were Maurice Tillet - the inspiration for Shrek.
So I think of Maurice Tillet as I contemplate the next phases of my life, each one requiring me to embrace parts of myself that have been ignored or lie dormant or withered from neglect. And I remind myself what it means to be different, and to prepare myself for what backlash that might create. And I hope that when the time comes, I’m strong enough to be who I want to be. I’m a giant man, but I hope I’m strong enough.