Studies have demonstrated an unconscious bias against short men and many tall women feel uncomfortable standing out from the crowd. In a world designed for people of average height, those that fall outside the norm can find life hard, writes Amanda Smith.
TSC: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently published an interesting radio piece about the way short men and tall women are perceived in society, as well as how those perceptions affect their respective lives. For the most part, the questions and conclusions drawn from the guests on this topic were fair and mature.
However, I do have some major criticism of the piece. I felt that the overall tone of the broadcast was inappropriate and the actual content was lacking in terms of people who could speak intelligently about heightism as a pervasive and harmful social phenomena.
At one point they interviewed Howard Goldberg, filmmaker of the documentary S & M: Short and Male, about heightism as it applies to short males and most of what he said was fairly accurate and mildly informative for those who may have never been introduced to the subject. However, Mr. Goldberg is far from an anti-heightism activist. In fact, if you listen to the radio program as it aired (which is archived in the form of a link in the article), you’ll notice that one of the last things said in the broadcast was a piece of ludicrous advice from Mr. Goldberg on how we should challenge heightism. That is, we shouldn’t challenge heightism. We should stick our proverbial heads in the sand because (as he puts it) “the best thing a short person can do is to completely forget about being short”. Imagine if NPR in the United States broadcasted an interview about racism featuring a black man who said “the best thing a black person can do is to completely forget about being black”. Or imagine what would happen if a show was done on sexism and they found a woman to say “the best thing a woman can do is to completely forget about being a woman.” What would such a statement have to do with racism or sexism? Likewise, what did Mr. Golberg’s statement (which seems to this author to be verging on a perverse type of self-hate) add to the discussion about heightism?
Unfortunately, to some extent, the Goldberg interview fit with the tone of the entire piece. There was even a segment in which a proprietor of a “shoe lift” shop was interviewed and at no point did the interviewer question whether or not promoting shoes which make people taller is a better route to take than actually challenging the social prejudices which make people want to become taller.
Additionally, there was no substantive statistics given about the level of wage discrimination shorter people face in the job market, their odds in finding a romantic partner or obtaining leadership roles, their increased rates of depression or suicides, or their decreased rates of self-reported “quality of life” arising from heightism and various types of microaggressions connected to height related body shaming.
Throughout the piece, there also seemed an implicit suggestion that much of heightism was a “subconscious” (a distinction with very little substantive meaning) and therefore blameless prejudice. And all of that before I even mention the background music selected for the piece. Ostensibly, the program was about social discrimination and body shaming - but, for some reason, they choose a generic uptempo salsa beat for the background music. It’s like “today we are going to discuss a serious social ill that very few people talk about because while it’s socially acceptable, questioning it is completely taboo… but first, the smooth yet spicy Afro-Cuban rhythms of José Alberto, ladies and gentlemen.”
I can sum up the section on tall women in one sentence: Sometimes tall women feel masculine because of gender norms but they have Tall Clubs where they can meet even taller men to compensate for these feelings. The End.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This broadcast was much better than most of what I hear about heightism in the media. The content and analysis was lacking, but the topic was taken fairly seriously and there was very little blame-shifting (until the very end). I would have liked to have seen a bit more information about how society regards short people instead of simply how some short people cope with social stigma. But, the fact that the topic was taken seriously at all (instead of as an opportunity to hurl short “jokes” and engage in body shaming) is a step in the right direction.
I highly recommend this broadcast to anyone interested in the topic of heightism. You should give it a listen at least once.
Short men have to deal with an enormous stigma when it comes to romance.
I wonder if passing on short men as potential romantic partners—really, if sexual attraction overall—borders on a moral issue. I always cringe when a person says something that rules out an entire category of people, especially when someone rejects another in a flippant, auto-pilot fashion. “Yeah, sorry,” you can imagine someone saying, “I’ve just never been attracted to short men.” While so many women report this preference, I rarely hear any of them self-monitoring as they do so. In fact, you’d think one would ask herself, Is that fair of me? Is that being mean? Could I be ruling out an entire group of men who could make great partners?
As a psychologist, I don’t believe it is mean to deny a romantic chance to entire categories of people, but I do think people should listen to their own reasons why and ask if that narrow window of preference marks the kind of person they want to be. For example, if you see yourself as an open-minded person, you should have an open mind when it comes to dating to the point that you would truly be open to dating a wide range of men: tall, short, funny, and so on.
Now, my personal belief which stems from my education as a psychologist, my clinical practice, and my own life experience is that people hide behind the belief that sexual attraction works in a prewired way. “I’m just not attracted to Asians,” a female social worker I work with said to me yesterday as I discussed my new article. ”It’s nothing personal,” she said flatly. (It didn’t seem to occur to her that her upbringing in the whitest, least Asian town in Connecticut had anything to do with it.)
A call to arms against the last acceptable dating prejudice.
TSC: Full disclose - I was actually interviewed for this article, but nothing I said made it into the final draft (except for maybe a link or two). However, the article turned out pretty good. It’s about the best she could have done on the topic when writing a piece for a men’s magazine.
Maybe I’ll post the full transcript of that interview one day.
Hi Geoff- I just came across this article on Slate detailing the enlistment criteria for soldiers in the Continental Army. I found it pretty surprising, presuming that men were quite a bit shorter back then than they are today. (click on this historical document to read the article)
TSC: This undated sheet, addressed to a “Col. Jackson,” issues instructions for the enlistment of men in the Continental Army. And even though we don’t know the exact date of the document, historians believe that it is addressed to Henry Jackson, a commander of various Massachusetts regiments from 1777 to 1784. According to this letter, “Neither Negroes, Mulattoes, or Indians, shall be enlisted in the Service of the United States. Every man under five foot six inches in height shall be refused….”
So apparently, to serve in the Continental Army (at least as a Massachusetts recruit), you had to be a White man who was 5’6” or taller. This seems especially surprising for those of us who proscribe to a more “regressive theory” of heightism (the idea that heightism is becoming worse over time as our culture becomes more shallow and focused on matters of less substance). I could find no reliable information as to the average height of Colonial American men compared to today’s average height. Some sources claim that the average height of a Colonial American man was substantially taller than his British Cousin at 5’9” (where today’s average height is 5’10”). Other sources cited the Colonial male height at 5’7”. I’m inclined to believe that Colonial men were quite tall, as the militia could apparently afford to automatically reject any man shorter than 5’6”.
One can almost certainly conclude that there could be no legitimate basis for rejecting 5’5” men from military service during the Revolutionary War. Could short men not hold muskets? Could we not charge up a hill back then? A pretty ridiculous question when one considers that the most decorated American Soldier during World War II was 5’5” (Audie Murphy). And, it’s especially ridiculous when one glances at the requirements for entry into today’s United States Marine Corps. In order to Join the Marines in the year 2013, you only have to be 5’0” tall.
So what’s going on here?
Perhaps this speaks to the fact that heightism is a social construct that will be manifested to different degrees depending on ones culture. Perhaps the origins of American culture, the individualistic spirit of Colonial America, was simply a little more hostile towards short men than other places and times. A European short man could equip himself with armor, join the Crusades, and swing his broadsword in the most horrid of close combat situations; but an American short man was forbidden to hold a rifle and stand in a straight line?
So I asked the person who submitted this bit of information about what he thought this means for heightism more broadly. He replied with this enlightening, if not depressing, response:
I’m pretty surprised. I also assumed that heightism was a recent phenomenon, but it looks like we may be wrong. From what I could dig up on the internet, average height for a British man back then was about 5’5”, so they were limiting their choice to less than 50% of the male population. [Geoff’s aside:not so, American Colonists were much taller than the British by 1776]. It seems ridiculous to maintain such a requirement when you’re trying to scrape together an army. I started to question the validity of the document in the Slate article, until I did a Google search for “continental army” “short men” and found a couple more tidbits…
Here’s an excerpt from a book called “America for Americans! The Typical American, Thanksgiving Sermon” by John Philip Newman:
"The Continental Army was an army of plowmen and artisans, poorly armed and poorly clothed. Baron Steuben, when he came to this country with Lafayette to organize our army, declared that the only regularity that he saw was, that the short men were put in front and the tall men put behind, and old Putnam gave him this explanation, that Americans didn’t care about their heads; they only cared about their legs; shelter their legs and they would fight forever."
"Baron Steuben" in this case refers to Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who was the inspector general of the Continental Army.
—Is he actually implying that the short guys were used as human shields to protect the taller men?!?
I’m both interested in and disheartened by this new development. Interested because I had never considered heightism to be a “historical” phenomenon before, just a modern pop culture-driven trend. It certainly opens another avenue of inquiry.
…and disheartened because it looks like heightism might be a lot more entrenched than we give it credit for.