TSC: We are all products of our environment. And as heightism is a prejudice that is part of a pervasive social construct which says that shorter people are inherently inferior to taller people - we all start off subscribing to this cultural myth. When I was very young, I too assumed that shorter people were “not as good as” or “less than” taller people, and I simply accepted this in my thoughts and actions. It wasn’t something that bothered me, even though I was a short boy, because I regarded it as natural and I never framed it as a type of prejudice. Looking back, I was sometimes ignored or treated differently than taller people, but I wasn’t troubled by this fact - I would simply defer to taller kids even though I understood (on some level) that I was limited (if even slightly) because of my height. But again, I didn’t understand the concepts of socialization or stigmatization because they never taught things like that at my High School.
However, later I went to college (an intellectually rigorous liberal arts school) and was introduced to a lot of “new” ideas and ways of looking at the world. It was then that I first started looking back on my life and questioning things about height and society that I had taken for granted. Also, thanks to the internet, I was introduced to the concept of “heightism” for the first time.
But though a lot of things happened which confirmed my suspicions about heightism, I didn’t really fully “get it” until I was about to leave University. And ironically, it took a couple of tall guys to make me realize how limiting and degrading heightism could be.
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TSC: Congratulations to everyone who follows this blog and was brave enough to write a letter to this company. This is proof positive that your voices do matter. Though it might not be exciting or dramatic, simply taking a moment to enlighten the minds of others is the hallmark of modern social activism. This is what social justice looks like.
Also, let’s thank notonthehighstreet.com for being so reasonable. We have had other campaigns launched though this blog that have been much less successful. Here, the company responded in 24 hours (instead of months later) and they took the appropriate actions to maintain their reputation. So, cheers to notonthehighstreet.com as well.
TSC: I had to repost this letter which was written to Joe Mangano and posted on his site. Read the entire letter because it highlights just how closed-minded our society is when it comes to this issue. Apparently, the topic of heightism is even taboo within the halls of academia (where inquiry and free-thinking used to be encouraged). So know that we have a huge uphill battle in enlightening people to the social illness that is heightism. But, it’s worth the effort - if only for moral reasons.
This is why we fight.
I have just recently discovered your website and have so far listened to all of your podcasts. I am still working my way through all of the articles posted, but I think I will have all of them read soon.
I have tried to bring heightism awareness to others in my university, because I face discrimination due to my height on most days. Yet it does not seem like I get any positive reception or serious consideration by doing so. Other short men like myself get offended when I suggest that there is a heightism problem in society, and people who do not have short stature look at me like I’m an idiot for suggesting that heightism is morally abhorrent. My college campus is in Minnesota where much of the students have Scandinavian backgrounds, and as such the concentration of tall people is rather large.
As an example of heightism, today in my philosophy course we were on the subject of oppression. Our professor asked the question “What gives people power? How do we decide who is powerful or not?” Then he proceeded to give an example. “How is it that Kim Jong Il, and now his son, Kim Jong Un, both short, napoleonic, weasels of men…how are they able to command power from others?” A girl in the class shouted out “He has short man syndrome!” and then a lot of students started laughing. Then the girl looked over at me and said “Oh, no offense Erik!” which was followed by another round of laughter. I responded that I did not find any of it funny and since we were talking about oppression, discrimination and social justice, I asked why is it that whenever we talk about these subjects in modern society we always talk about sexism or racism but not heightism? And of course students got upset with me for trying to suggest heightist discrimination is a serious issue comparable with discrimination based on gender or race.
This is just one example of heightism that I faced. It feels absolutely awful, and it pains me to know that so many others face the same pain due to something that is not controllable. I sometimes feel like giving up in trying to defend myself over this issue because of how many people tell me it is all in my head, but your website really encourages me to keep fighting. After all, so many great men in history were told that they were crazy or couldn’t do something or other, but they fought for what they believed in. The progress we have made in social justice would not have been made if people had just given up when supporters of the status quo told them to. I hope more people follow your example and join the fight in heightism awareness.
TSC: One of the better discussions I’ve seen about heightism on the net. This website, which is apparently devoted to men issues from a feminist perspective, published a post decrying the acceptance of heightism in our society. The article is far from perfect because some aspects of hegihtism are trivialized in terms of impact and scope, but the opinion is fairly well reasoned. Plus, the comments after the article are excellent. A few people even rightly noticed that the title of the piece was biased in that heightism is hardly a “unconscious bias”. Height bigotry is fairly blatant and accepted.
Sociological Images brings us a video talking about implicit bias against short men. The scientifically valid tool discussed in the video, the Implicit Association Test, measures how biased someone is against a group, even in ways they may not know about: if the test-taker is faster and more accurate at sorting tall men and good things into the same category than tall men and bad things, the test-taker is biased in favor of tall men.
The IATs have shown a systematic bias against short men– in fact, the scientist interviewed in the video compares the magnitude of the effect to that of race or ethnicity. Even more interestingly, this is almost entirely a subconscious bias. After all, outside of dating sites (in which women often request men 6′ or taller, partially so they can wear heels around their partner without feeling like they’re emasculating him, and isn’t that a rat’s nest of kyriarchy), very few people think about height as a gendered axis of oppression at all.
And don’t get me wrong: it is gendered. I would be very, very surprised if short women experienced the same bias that short men do. Height is, after all, a symbol of power: if you loom over someone, if you’re bigger than them, you appear more powerful than them on a very primal level. In Western culture, we associate men with power, women with weakness. A short woman is merely doing what her gender requires (and may actually experience a larger dating pool and less worry about high-heel-induced castration complexes). A short man is, in a certain way, failing as a man.
It’s also important to note that these biases are all subconscious. No one wakes up in the morning and says “fuck, man, short men are idiots and pussies, I fucking hate short men and am going to try to make them drink at their own water fountain.” There are very few anti-short-man hate groups. Even those portions of the Internet which have the primary function of stewing in their own grievances against every person who is not exactly like their readers usually only hate short men casually and in passing.
But for a lot of people, subconsciously, a tall man just seems… more imposing. More attractive. More like he knows what he’s doing. More charismatic. More of a leader. More of a man. All those little, intangible, gut-level things that can make the difference between a hiring or a promotion and a dead-end career or a night shift at Starbucks.
You can be racist, or sexist, or classist, or ableist, or even heightist without knowing it. You can appear to yourself like you don’t have a kyriarchal bone in your body and still perpetrate the kyriarchy without meaning to. The process of unlearning kyriarchal conditioning is just that– a lifelong process. (This, incidentally, is why a lot of people support affirmative action. You’re already getting a leg up from all the subconscious biases people have, you might as well let the rest of us have a chance.)
Has anyone figured out how to answer this question in a casual conversation sort of way? I get this allot when meeting new people, mostly from women. Still till this day I have no idea how to answer this when its asked without any bad intentions.
TSC: Thanks for the question, Anon. To be honest, I’ve never had anyone say this to me but I can use my imagination. Depending on the context, it is possible that she thinks that you’re cute and she’s “testing you” for insecurities. But even if that’s not it, you are at an advantage here. This is apparently something that is said often enough to you that you can create a game plan. Few things make a person look or feel worse than being at a loss for words. And because heightism is so accepted, no one around you will blink an eye when this is said to you and so you have to have an answer.
So let’s get to work.
First of all, you’re going to want to respond as a proud short man. As a shorter man, you will already be negatively perceived by strangers. Before people know us, short men are generally regarded as less capable, less competent, less attractive, less mature, and more emotional than other men. So don’t play into those assumptions with your reply. In other words, DO NOT USE SELF-DEPRECATION. Contrary to popular belief, self-deprecation is an especially bad look on short men (but so is excessive bragging).
Second of all, don’t reply in a way that makes you look defensive. Remember that the Napoleon Complex myth is still very much part of our popular culture. Short men are perceived as emotionally immature and easy to anger at even the most subtle or imagined slight. So don’t fall into that trap either.
And finally, mirror their tone. If the person who asks you this question does so angrily then it is time to respond in kind. If the person is using a lighthearted tone, then respond with a joke (so long as it doesn’t violate rules 1 and 2). If the question was meant to be serious, then respond with a serious answer.
So, to re-cap:
(1) Short Pride (no self-deprecation)
(2) No Defensiveness
(3) Mirror the Speaker
Here are some examples:
reflect honesty: “Both my parents are short”
reflect humor: “This is an optical illusion”
reflect insult: “Because I wouldn’t have it any other way”
reflect honesty: “I guess that I was tall enough at [give height]”
reflect humor: “I’m short?”
reflect insult: “I don’t know, but I like it’
reflect honesty: “I ate more greens than protein growing up”
reflect humor: “It’s part of the package deal that comes with awesomeness”
reflect insult: “That’s like asking why I have brown hair”
What not to say:
reflect honesty: “what do you mean “so” short?” (rule #2)
reflect insult: “Why are you so fat?” (rule #2)
Be careful with the insulting questions because they are designed to throw you off and make you look like a fool. Don’t fall into that trap by getting defensive and playing into the stereotype. Brush those haters off.
TSC: Our main man, Berele, has really delivered some insightful information in this piece that he generously penned for The Social Complex. So without further delay, here is one person’s perspective of heightism as experienced after transitioning from an averaged height female (5’4”) to a short male (5’4”). Unedited and presented in its entirety.
So, by way of a caveat, I’ll just say that it’s pretty much impossible to really disentangle heightism from gender from sexuality from all sorts of other factors that impact how one is seen in the world (race, ethnicity, class, nation/region of origin, ability, etc.). Intersectionality is really important.
But, in general heightism impacts me far more now as a very short man than it did when I was perceived by most of the world to be a average/short woman. It’s not that I was greeted with warmth and kindness by people on the street or job interviewers or prospective dates before I transitioned - I did look like a queer, butch dyke, after all - but there’s a certain tone of condescension and/or a sense that I’m generally expected to be less competent than average that greets me now, which is a sure fire sign that I’m “passing” as male. As opposed to before transition, when on account of my presumed masculinity, I was taken extra seriously and assumed to be extra practically competent than gender-conforming women, regardless of height. So, on all sorts of levels, it’s that the reference point that I’m compared to (men vs. women) has changed, while my personality and skills (and height) have stayed the same.
The thing about structural oppressions - of which heightism is one - is that you can never tell when and to what degree they’re operating. For example, i’ve been only marginally employed for the past year and a half, working temp jobs while trying to finish up a grad degree. I’ve been turned down for a handful of more permanent positions after interviewing, but but each time I have no idea how the interviewers unconscious biases against short men (which are certain to be there; everyone has them) have impacted their decision. Statistically speaking, I can be sure that plays in somehow, but in any given scenario, it could be that I interviewed poorly or didn’t have some key qualification. Part of what heightism, like any other structural oppression, does is allow those of us impacted by it to blame ourselves as individuals rather than the broad social constructs. The same ambiguity is true if someone turns me down for a date or is uninterested in talking to me at a party or doesn’t want to fund my grant proposal, etc., etc.
I totally hear a lot of talk on this blog and elsewhere about the way that heightism impacts dating and finding partners. That’s definitely something I’ve observed among the straight people I know, but my experience as a queer man is a bit different. Finding dates and partners as a trans man, with a trans body that does not conform to several of the major expectations that most people have of male bodies, makes whatever trouble being short might cause me pale in comparison. I don’t say that to minimize what are totally legitimate feelings of anger and frustration among straight, non-trans men around finding partners, but just to speak to what feels true from my own experience. As bisexual man who usually dates queer-identified women and occasionally gay- or bi-identified men, I won’t say that heightism doesn’t impact me at all in that sphere, but the norms of who should date who just aren’t as rigid or as consistently enforced as they are in the straight world. There is a dynamic at play in the queer community in which trans men, especially early in transition, are sometimes fetishized (by both men and women) for their similarity to waifish adolescent boys. This is especially true for short and thin trans men. Personally, I don’t think it’s a healthy dynamic, and I’m grateful that my girth and broadness have let me escape the majority of that, not that the combo of being short and fat is a winner most of the rest of the time. [which incidentally is an intersection I would love to read about on this blog]
I certainly did think about heightism and height more broadly when I was going through the process of figuring out what I needed from a gender transition. It wasn’t like a pros and cons list with “I’d be a really short for a man” on the cons side, but more like something I knew would be a different kind of challenge that I should consider and try to prepare for. I talked to a lot of other trans men, both in real life and online, before I transitioned and I while I’ve heard a lot of feelings of frustration around height and heightism, I’ve never come across anyone who regrets transitioning because of their height.
TSC: One short man’s experiences with heightism. Part of his story had me scratching my head, but I’m posting it because we should experience a diversity of opinions and thoughts related to this topic.
Imagine that you are five inches shorter than you are. Wouldn’t make that much of a difference, would it? You wouldn’t think…
But then, you never did. You never thought. You don’t have to think. You’re not short, and you’ve never experienced Heightism. You’ve never been treated like a kid by other adults, never endured the so-called “gentle” chiding or the ceaseless self-consciousness at concerts and protests. You’ve never lived my life, never faced the assumptions, the constant applications of diminutive names… you have NO idea.
I used to pray (back when I believed in God and even long after I stopped praying, I still hoped) that one day I would be as tall as the average adult, but I was 16… 17… 18… at 21, I pretty much stopped growing. Well, now… I’m taller than most women I know, but I’m shorter than most other men, even men and BOYS much younger than myself and guess what. No one calls them “baby,” or “honey,” or “sweetie.” No… they get respect, not diminutive little cutesie nicknames. So fuck them and fuck the nicknamers, too.
Last summer I worked at a camp for autistic children. When we were transitioning the more severe kids onto the van to go to the pool twice a week, we would sometimes guide them with our hands onto the van. One day, as I was getting on the van, the lead counselor in the room I had been transferred to the previous week (this counselor and the other counselor in the Early Learners’ Room were bungling the job, so my supervisor, the camp director, put me in there to straighten them out since I worked with a lot of the same kids over the school year in the afterschool program) put her hand on MY back to guide ME onto the van. I said nothing at the time. I waited until one of our kids started tantruming violently on the van and attacking staff and peers; at that point, we turned around and I escorted the kid back in the building. My supervisor happened to be there and I told him about the incident, stating that “my personal space and dignity were violated”. He was pretty understanding about it. This lead counselor I mention, by the way, was taller than I was. She was a very unpleasant woman who would yell at me on the job until the day after the incident I just mentioned. I mentioned this to my boss as well. Then, the next day, I came to work a little early and confronted the lead counselor before the kids arrived. “You don’t get to touch me without my permission,” I told her. “You also don’t get to yell at me, especially not in front of the kids. It undermines my authority and creates a hostile work environment,”. She seemed pretty stunned, but accepted what I had said and apologized. It was a beautiful moment, a moment of power… in that moment I relished the power I held over her. It felt GOOD… .
TSC: I will say that the condescending attitudes are very common. It happens to me also and so you’ve got to decide how to handle them on an individual basis.
It’s most likely the case that the taller woman didn’t realize what she was doing when she used her hand to guide the author into the van like one of the children. She probably never thought about her actions because they came naturally to her. Often times, perfectly nice people will do things around short people that that they would never do around people their own height. They often don’t even notice what they are doing.
That’s not to say that he should have just remained silent. But, I don’t think anger is the answer in this situation either. Yes, a lifetime of these sorts of incidents starts to add up, but you have to remember that everyone is an individual; unrelated to the many other individuals who have disrespected you in the past. (And yes, I recognize that they don’t extend that same courtesy to us - they view us as a group - the next short person is like the last one, in a lot of their minds).
I am starting to really hate my life. I am 5’0” barefoot maybe 5’1” with my trainers and it is absolutely terrible. No one that doesn’t get to know me gives me any respect. I seem to have to work 8x as hard as anyone else to even be treated normally. I get called everything under the sun. Hobbit, oompa loompa etc. For this reason, I can’t stand going out in public. I have been to the club a couple of times and let me just say that me and a bunch of drunk *******s almost always ends up with me sitting there with an odd smile while everyone cracks jokes about me.
I recently started lifting weights and running to try and get more fit looking. But I have little to no motivation to do it because… no matter what I do I will still be short. Chicks more often than not don’t give me the time of day because of my height. If they got to know me I know they would like me. I have an amazing personality. Anyone who gets to know me has told me the same thing. Of course I can’t wear all of this on a badge lol. Idk I am just extremely depressed because it’s sort of like nothing else in my life is bad, except for this and this is something that I can’t change no matter what I do. Why does this exist where the guy has to be taller than the girl? Anyways I guess I just needed to vent a little.
TSC: And so the thread begins. Basically the conversation divides into three groups. The group that says height is no big deal and its all about “personality and confidence”. The group that says that his experience is a product of heightism (social stigma based on height) and that he has to find an individual way to overcome it. And the group that says that short men are inferior and no one cares about their problems.
(to be clear, I don’t put myself in any of these groups. I know that heightism is real, but I don’t think it can be overcome through individual behavior - only through group action and directly challenging the prejudice.)
But here is one part of one person’s statement that illustrates the value judgment people make in regards to heightism which allows them to perpetuate it in good conscious.
I meant NO ONE CARES ABOUT BEING SHALLOW OR HEIGHTISM. AS IN THEY DON’T CARE THAT THEY ARE HEIGHTISTS.
Not that there are no heightists. There are plenty and they are pretty damn proud of it. Who is really going to take them to task on it? It’s not like they’re being racist or homophobic. Bloody hell.
TSC: She is making a value judgment that height SHOULD convey social privilege or stigma. And she does it by illustrating the status quo. Not realizing that racism and homophobia are learned concepts which were developed by thinking people as a way to frame a social problem and give it a name so that it could be combated. At one point in the not-so-distant past, her grandmother would be saying the same thing about “homophobia” that she is now saying about “heightism”. We just need to fight to make it so.
TSC: I just received this e-mail from a tall gentleman (6’6”) who wanted to share his experiences as a very tall man in our society. He makes the point that even tall men face some level of social stigma once they become tall enough that their height is considered especially exceptional. He also points out that the social stigma is probably worse for short men, even though he has problems physically fitting into a world which seems to be engineered for shorter people. I think that this is the first entry on this blog dealing with heightism and very tall men, and I am glad to have been enlightened by his unique perspective.
The full letter starts after the TSC logo.
Though not often discussed, extremely tall men face height discrimination too (I’m 6’6”). Bear in mind as I write this that I’m mostly referring to men from about 6’5” on up: tall men of 6’0 stature enjoy many social privileges and practically no significant drawbacks. Tall drawbacks are magnified with each additional inch: at 6’6” I’ll admit that I don’t have it nearly as bad as men who are 6’8” or taller. Consider finally that height exaggeration warps public perception badly as many guys run around claiming to be 6’3 but are in fact more like 6’0. A legitimate, barefoot 6’6” at the end of the day means that I’m taller than virtually everyone I ever meet. I’m in Chicago and frequently go a week or more without seeing someone taller than me on the streets.
One of the obvious inconveniences involves the design of transportation, clothes, counter-tops, desks, and countless other everyday objects. Fortunately for shorter men, they still fall within the range of “normal” human heights including women so airplanes, cars, buses, etc are built to accommodate them. It’s annoying to rent a car only to discover that the metal roof obstructs your line of sight and that you need to slouch to drive safely. This of course presumes that your knees fit-an unlikely blessing. I suspect that the shortest of women face similar challenges as they are outliers on the human height spectrum, but only a tiny minority of men fall into that range. Silly things like showers, beds, doorways, office desks, bathtubs, dining tables all create inconveniences and hazards.
We are not immune to social discrimination either, although it’s different from what short men face. While short men are cursed by being overlooked and excluded, truly tall men are stared at, pointed at, and whispered about as we walk by. Strangers don’t hesitate to come up to me and crack jokes about my height, my diet, the weather up there, or any other inane thing that comes to mind as it pertains to my height. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not as bad for me as what a 5’2 man might face, but I’m merely at the cusp of the freak status range that comes with extreme height.
On the subject of women, some short guys feel that tall guys must be lucky. I would agree up to about a legit 6’3. Beyond that, height is very polarizing: it is the single feature about me that people notice instantly. It overshadows everything else: face, clothes, hair, anything. I’m definitely tall enough that most women would prefer someone shorter. Like short guys who get hurtful comments about being small, I’m described (not in a good way) as a “giant” or “intimidating.”
For balance I’ll talk about the few advantages that come with extreme height. The biggest one is that, if I’m interested, it makes it easier to break the ice with strangers. All I have to do is stand there and somebody will say something about how tall I am almost without fail. Normally these comments annoy me, but if I want to they can lead to conversation. If you like basketball or volleyball this height is good, but I prefer weightlifting and rock climbing so it’s a hindrance. It’s also easy for tall men to navigate crowds (although very hard to talk to or understand anybody in them because of the height difference).
I can imagine that some short men reading this might feel that my points are petty. On average short men are paid less, I would agree that women are probably harder on them than on extremely tall men (although once you hit 6’8” I think that’s less true), and being treated as invisible is probably worse than being treated like a novelty wherever I go. Trying to be impartial, I feel extremely tall men have greater physical challenges (regarding clothes/transportation/furniture etc) and short men have greater social challenges.