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Not just about the heels

Being a tall woman can be a challenge but it is important to face life’s challenges one TEDx speaker tells THEO PANAYIDES

 

Christina Smith leans across her desk at the British High Commission, the better to emphasise her point: “It’s not about the heels,” she says firmly. The heels, you might say, are a symbol – and in fact she said so last month, at the TEDx Nicosia Women event where she gave a talk entitled ‘The Challenge of a Woman’. Christina leans back, her point made. The wall behind her is bare, except for two things: a jokey sign reading ‘Keep Calm, We Still Have Oil’ and a photo of Arsenal players Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, autographed by the players themselves.

She’s 45, with a patient expression; she talks slowly, punctuating her sentences with many a “yeah” and “actually”. I can’t see the high three-inch heels (she’s sitting down) but I assume she’s wearing them (she always does). I do note her fingernails, painted in a quirky way that initially seems random but clearly isn’t, each finger lavished with a different combination of glitter and polish (the ring finger on each hand has no glitter at all). “I do something different every time,” says Christina airily, casting a quick glance at the nails. “My husband goes ‘Don’t have anything odd’, so I always come up with something odd!”.

Her husband Ian is English (she’s London Cypriot), and somewhat older; he’s been awarded an OBE for his work in securing the human rights of people in police custody – which explains indirectly how they met, not because Christina was in custody but because she’s been dealing with the police all her professional life, before her current job as Vice Consul at the High Commission. She worked for local authorities in Barnet and Camden, then moved north and rose to become Director of the Greater Manchester Police Authority, a watchdog overseeing the work of the police – which is where the heels come in, because one day she was walking down a corridor with a senior police officer, on their way to a meeting. “He was making comments about my height,” she recalls, “and queried why I wore heels. So my response to him – because a lot of the TEDx talk was about women having the courage to respond, and not feel threatened or demeaned in some way – my response was: ‘Only a small man would comment about the size of my heels’.”

profile2-Christina giving her Ted talk

At this point, one should probably pause to acknowledge that Christina’s experience (the “challenge” she mentioned in her talk) was by no means the worst possible case of sexism in the workplace. She was never denied her rights, or fell victim to overt discrimination like women in many poorer countries. Even by First World standards, she was never harassed to the point of having to file a complaint; she’s never taken anyone to court. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that a man in the same job would’ve faced the same amount of tension (albeit expressed in different ways): the police were understandably wary of having their work scrutinised and inspected by an outsider. “I think, though, the fact that I was young and dominant – and tall! –”

Dominant in terms of how she did her job?

“Dominant in terms of personality,” she replies, with a sly laugh. “That, I think, was what was a challenge to them. Their kind of perception of me was” – her face crumples into an impression of a nervous and unhappy copper – “‘Oh my gosh, yeah, there’s Christina again, she’s going to say something…’”

Sometimes, as with that senior officer in the corridor, it may have been a case of professional tension getting channelled into inappropriate remarks. (He, by the way, was only about five foot three – her “small man” retort was intended to sting – and “never made personal comments ever again”.) Other times, however, her experience might’ve been the experience of any woman in a managerial position – like the time when she was giving a training session on diversity to a roomful of cops, all men.

“So the first three police officers arrive,” recalls Christina. “They come up the stairs, walk towards me and say: ‘Can I ask you where the toilet is, and can you make me a coffee?’. And I said: ‘My coffee-making skills are really good, and I can direct you to the toilet, but actually I’m the Director!’.” The assumption, she notes with a sigh, was that “as the only woman in the room, I must be there to make their coffee for them … For me, it’s a perception thing. I don’t want people to look at me and think ‘She’s just a woman’.” That’s why “the being tall thing is important,” she adds – and that’s why she now wears heels all the time, deliberately.

Why?

“OK, I like wearing heels – but also, since the altercation with the short police officer, I thought ‘Actually, if that’s going to irritate you, I’ll just do it all the time!’. So I’ve got used to wearing the heels, and now actually I wear them with pride – because actually, when I was young, I used to be bullied at school for being tall. I went to a girls’ school, and the small girls would permanently laugh at me because I was tall”. Christina reached her full adult height (about five foot eleven) at the age of 12, and endured many a playground taunt of ‘Jolly Green Giant’; her height was a source of shame and unhappiness then – “but now, actually, I’m very proud of the fact. I’m proud that I’m tall, I’m proud that I can wear the heels and walk around and people are like ‘Oh gosh, you’re tall’. Great! I know I’m tall, that’s fine!”.

Oddly enough, I didn’t notice. Driving up to the High Commission, I was too unnerved by the tight security – my car inching forward at a snail’s pace through the double gates – to notice anything unusual about Christina when she came out to meet me. After the interview, however, walking back to the car, I did discern (now that the subject had been raised) that she is indeed quite tall – and maybe that’s the point, that experience is all about self-image. Once you’re conscious of something, once you’ve learned to view yourself in a certain way, social interaction gets reflected through the prism of that image. It’s not about being tall, it’s about being perceived as tall. Like she said, it’s not about the heels; it’s about what the heels represent – the knowledge that people must be staring at the tall woman who chose to wear heels instead of flats, and getting to a point where you just don’t care.

Being a woman – especially a woman in a male-dominated world like the police – is a similar problem (Christina’s talk was called ‘The Challenge of a Woman’, but it might’ve been called ‘The Challenge of Being a Woman’). It’s something one is conscious of, like being tall or wearing heels, a part of oneself that’s never quite forgotten when dealing with others, and explodes into focus when a chauvinist cop asks you to make his coffee. Being a woman comes with caveats, and implied preconceptions. “I’ve always been outgoing. I’ve always been confident,” she tells me. “But, as a Greek Cypriot-origin person from the UK, I was always told it was good for young women to be good young women, and not really speak their mind so much.”

Hers is a classic London-Cypriot background: dad owned a café, having emigrated from Cyprus in the 50s (“Sometimes I imagine my mum and dad are still in 50s Cyprus!”). Christina’s the middle child, and the older of two girls; her folks were strict, and she still lived at home when she went to university. “We were taught that we had to study hard, do the right thing, get a degree, get a good job, that kind of philosophy”. She was raised not to challenge her parents, unlike the way she raises her own kids (she and Ian have a boy and girl, now 14 and 10) – yet her work has been based on challenge, whether challenging police misconduct or challenging those who couldn’t see past her gender.

The example she gave in her talk was of one occasion when the Greater Manchester Police Authority investigated how the police dealt with prostitutes – only to be told that two officers were “using their services in the back of a police van”. A report was made, and the two men ended up in jail for dereliction of duty – and of course there were cops who resented this meddling woman, and tried to scare her into backing off. “So that was a real challenging time: to be faced with phone calls from police officers who would ring and put the phone down, and you would know that it was their colleagues, and that’s quite intimidating. If you’re not strong, it can be intimidating.

“So, for me, the purpose of that TEDx talk was not to tell them about ‘Look at all the things I’ve done’, that was not the purpose. The purpose was ‘What have I learned from all these experiences that I’ve had in the UK?’. And I’ve learned that actually there are times when not saying what you think, and not challenging, means that people get away with behaviours that are inappropriate”. It helps that she’s naturally confident, admits Christina – “but if you feel passionate about something, if you feel strongly about something, my message was ‘You know what? Don’t be afraid to’” – she hesitates, trying to put it as broadly as possible – “‘to do those things that make you feel better about a situation’. You know? Don’t sit back and let life happen to you”.

We’re interrupted by a phone call. A young teenage girl has come to Cyprus from England, on a vague promise of work; she arrived late last night and now finds herself alone in a mountain village, feeling very lost and scared and homesick; her worried parents in the UK called the High Commission – so Christina sets about organising transport to find the girl and take her to the airport, part of her duties as Vice Consul. It’s a reminder that she challenged the status quo – her own status quo – in a subtler way as well, by walking away from her top job in Manchester, packing up the family and moving to the village of Skarinou (her parents’ village) and a mostly administrative job at the High Commission.

After her talk, she admits, many people wondered ‘Why did you leave that job?’ – “and I said ‘You only have so many fights in you’. You only have so much that you can give before you say ‘Actually, some things are a little bit more important’.” She had two kids, and barely saw them; she left home at 7am and came back at 8 in the evening, often including weekends. She could’ve kept working – could’ve sat back and let life happen to her – but she chose to make a change. Maybe that’s also part of being a woman, muses Christina, “wanting to nurture your children is partly in your brain all the time. All the time you’re doing your job you’re also thinking, trying to make arrangements for where the children are, how will they get from A to B, does the baby need picking up…” She still gets up very early – she leaves Skarinou at 6.20, to beat the traffic – but is generally home by 4pm, leaving time for “normal family things”.

Christina Smith seems like a fun person – she even paints her nails in quirky ways! – yet she’s worked in the grim world of law enforcement, and never shied away from a challenge. Some might say she even challenges clichéd ideas of femininity itself. Her big passion, after all, is the traditionally male enclave of football – that Arsenal photo on the wall is no accident – and in fact she worked for nine years as a “loggist” in the Arsenal control room, driving down from Manchester on weekends to “go and watch my football team”. And of course she’s very tall, for a woman – though in fact lots of women are tall, and they all flocked around her after that TEDx talk. We’ve never had the courage to speak our mind or wear heels, sighed these young women, telling her how much her account had inspired them. One of them specifically said “I’m going out tomorrow to buy myself a pair of heels!”, relates Christina with a satisfied chuckle. It’s not about the heels, though.

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