Short people of the world, unite!
My wife and I are having breakfast one morning at a local restaurant. In this establishment, you stand in line and place your order at the cash register. You take a number, find a table, and wait for your food. We’re here early. The restaurant is full of men. It’s the power breakfast hour.
While we wait for our food we watch more men come in, many of them dressed in summer business casual. A couple tables over, two guys with a laptop talk in hushed tones. At the table next to us a guy leans over a legal pad, checking his notes. He’s wearing a black and white gingham shirt, jeans, and running shoes. He’s got serious, shiny, freshly-combed-back Gordon Gecko hair. In a couple minutes he’s joined by another guy in jeans. Their meeting begins.
I’m spreading jam on toast when a new arrival catches my attention. He’s on the short side, maybe 5’ 5”, wearing gray dress slacks and a blue long-sleeve Oxford shirt open at the neck. And shiny oxblood loafers. And no socks. I might not notice this last detail if it weren’t for the fact that his pants are a half, maybe a full inch too short.
I look at my wife, nod in his direction. “That’s unfortunate.”
“That guy there,” I say, “with his bare ankles exposed.”
She tells me to lower my voice.
“Look at his pants,” I whisper. “I don’t know how he expects to get ahead in the world with pants like that.”
She turns back to her egg sandwich. “He looks like he’s doing all right.”
“He looks funny.”
“A short man in short pants,” I say, “is shooting himself in the foot. I can’t bear to look.”
It’s partly her mother’s fault.
My mother-in-law was trained in Italy as a tailor. For years she altered my pants for me. I’d bring them to the house, change into them in what used to be my wife’s bedroom, and stand on a stool in the family room while my mother-in-law, with three or four pins pinched in corner of her mouth, talked to me in Italian as she pulled the inseam, measured and marked the hem. The same way she fixed pants for my father-in-law, who was about my height, and for her brother, who was also about my height. Perfect. The right amount of break. Just the right length. My pants never looked so good.
“Just watch,” I say, “when he sits down. ”
“Eat your breakfast.”
I take a bite of toast, tell her a short man ought to know better.
Along with sexism and racism, heightism is a fact of life today. Heightism cuts across race and gender. It’s not a just a man’s world, it’s not just a white man’s world. It’s a tall white man’s world.
Researchers at Harvard University, in Project Implicit, look at heightism as a naturally occurring implicit bias, shaped by “thoughts and feelings outside conscious awareness and control.” And really, this bias is evident from birth forward. We marvel at big newborns. “He has such long legs!” We congratulate children for being tall. Tall boys rule on the playground, are at an advantage in sports, and are regarded by girls as more attractive, more desirable than not-tall boys. A tall boy can swing both ways, dating tall and short girls, unlike a not-tall boy, way down there on the left end of the bell curve, confronting the grim reality of standard deviations. In their adult years tall men will earn, on average, up to $5500 a year more than a not-tall man. Tall men will rise to positions of power, become presidents and CEO’s. In the 1988 presidential debate, behind his lectern next to George H. W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, 5’ 8” tall, stood on a box to appear presidential.
“We see a tall person,” Malcolm Gladwell writes, “and we swoon.”
Granted, some of history has been made and written by not-tall men. Aristotle was 5’5”. Alexander the Great was a modest 5’6”. Voltaire and Beethoven rose to 5’3”, while James Madison and Mahatma Gandhi, towering political geniuses, measured just 5’4”. Joseph Stalin, who was 5’5”, murdered millions. Frodo Baggins is a mere 3’6”. Of course, Tom Cruise also comes to mind as well. He is a measly 5’7” and exploits all the magic of film-making to appear taller than he is. Lately he is Jack Reacher tall on screen, whereas the Lee Child character is 6’6” in the novels. Like Michael Dukakis, Cruise’s shortness, in the view of film-makers, and no doubt in his view, needs to be fixed.
To be not tall, and I mean radically not tall, two standard deviations (six inches) or more below the mean (5’10”), is regarded as an illness. It has a name: idiopathic short stature (ISS). These days that illness has a cure—recombinant human growth hormone, affectionately known as rhGH. Dr. Juan F. Sotos, a pediatric endocrinologist at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, observes in a study published in 2010, “Growth hormone treatment significantly improved the adult height of children with ISS, sometimes with an improvement of up to 4 inches.” Four inches? At the age of fifteen, what I would given for a pitcher of rhGH, a life-improving elixir.
There is no ITS (idiopathic tall stature). If you are two standard deviations above the mean, you are probably just considered a born leader. The tallest man in history, as far as we know, was Robert Pershing Wallow, born in Illinois on February 22, 1918. He grew to be 8’11” tall. In Rotterdam, a statue was erected in honor of Rigardus Rijnhout, who was 7’ 6”. The Dutch, statistically the tallest people on earth today, decided to commemorate the life of Rijnhout, “the Giant of Rotterdam,” whose life, it must be noted, was not without difficulty and who died at 36.
At carnivals and amusement parks, next to some rides there is a height scale. You must be at least this tall—24”, 36”, 48”—to ride this ride. That scale, or one like it, is encoded in our genes, deeply submerged in our consciousness. If you are this height—one or two standard deviations below the mean—wherever you go, whatever you do, you should probably be accompanied by a tall person.
Some years ago I bought a bad bottle of wine at a local shop. Around this time I had undertaken a project. Get to know wine. Learn to like it. My approach was to concentrate on California wine, reds only. It had sort of worked. After a couple years of practice, I could select Cabernets for $10 that I liked. Some days I flexed my muscles and spent $12. I whiffed corks. I swirled and tasted and said things like, “This wine has great legs.” Or “This wine is full bodied.” I began to feel confident. Foreign wines remained intimidating. I couldn’t pronounce the names on the labels, didn’t know the grapes or the geography of those countries.
One day, for some reason, I had decided to go to Spain.
Home from the wine store, I set the bottle on the counter. My wife looked at me. “What’s that?”
“It’s something or other,” I said. I didn’t try to say the name. I yanked the cork, squeezed it between my thumb and forefinger, suggested we let the wine breathe.
Outside, the grill was hot. I tossed meat on it, to follow a dish of pasta and accompany a few vegetables. When the meat was done, we sat down to eat.
The first sip of wine, I had questions.
“Do you think this tastes good?”
“What’s it supposed to taste like?
“Spain, I guess.”
“I agree. It tastes strange.”
“Would you say ‘corky?’”
“What does cork taste like?”
“Do you think it tastes old? past its prime? like maybe it wasn’t cellared properly?”
My wife looked at the bottle. “Do they cellar a wine that costs twelve bucks?”
While we were talking our neighbor came through our yard walking his dog. I invited him to taste the wine. He swirled it in a clean glass, held it up to the light. He asked me, Didn’t I find the color brownish? He smelled the wine, took a taste, executed a shallow gargle, and swallowed. “Bad,” he said. He poured another taste, repeated the process. “Bad,” he said again. “I’d take it back.”
I’d never taken a wine back before, but it seemed like it would be a pretty common occurrence. On television and in the movies, people sent wine back all the time. I figured, What the hell.
Next day I handed the guy at the wine shop the bottle, half full, plugged shut with its questionable cork.
“I think I got a bad bottle,” I said.
He was tall, portly, bearded. I think his specialty in the store was cigars. I shopped there once in a while. I wouldn’t say I was a regular customer, a known customer. There was another guy, smaller, slimmer, more alcoholic looking, who I usually talked to. He wasn’t there that day. The bearded guy lowered his glasses to the bridge of his nose, squinted, and read the label. Then he pulled out the cork and examined it.
“If the wine was bad,” he said, “why did you drink half of it?”
Oh no. I felt the tops of my ears warm with embarrassment. I told him the story, my wife and I trying it, then the neighbor, who thought it looked brownish.
Bearded guy lifted the bottle. The glass was dark brown. You could barely make out the contents. He sniffed at the top of the bottle. Then he smelled it again.
“There’s nothing wrong with this wine,” he said.
“It tastes bad,” I said. “It’s the taste.”
He smelled it a third time, shook his head. “There’s nothing wrong with this wine.”
We talked for a minute. No, I didn’t have a receipt. Yes, it was most certainly their wine, I said. I’d checked the shelf. I told him it seemed like bad business: it was an inexpensive wine to lose a customer over. Maybe because it was an inexpensive wine, he didn’t mind losing a customer.
“Well,” I said finally, “all right.” Leaving the wine on the counter, I walked out of the store, seething. The customer is always right.
The not-tall customer is also always right.
Maybe this wasn’t heightism at work. Maybe that internalized height scale (you must be at least this tall…) had nothing to do with what happened. Maybe bearded guy was just having a bad day. Maybe he was a really nice guy; he was just a nice guy, as Garrison Keillor said once, to other people.
I never went back to that store.
Somehow that didn’t seem like enough.
In 2010 the National Bureau of Economic Research published a study entitled “Short Criminals: Short Stature and Crime in Early America.” Examining data from the Pennsylvania prison population between 1826 and 1876, the study concludes: “Consistent with a theory in which height can be a source of labor market disadvantage, criminals in early America were shorter than the average American, and individual crime hazards decreased in height.” Oh, really?
This correlation was seen by researchers in Sweden as well. Published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, their study examined a pool of 760,000 men between 1980 and 1992, men who, in lieu of jail sentences, were required to serve in the military. The study concludes: “The shortest of men were twice as likely to be convicted of a violent crime as the tallest.” Many of these men, the researchers suggest, were also stupid.
There are, it should be noted, benefits to being small. I fit in a bed. I have a low center of gravity, which means as I age, I will be less in danger of falling than a not-short person. Short people look younger and tend to live longer than not-short people. On a hot day, I can stand next to a not-short person and use him for shade.
When I was six years old, a mere speck of a human being, I got to visit the set of the Professor Von Clobber show. My brother, two years older, was in Cub Scouts. His pack car pooled with a couple moms to the WNEM studio, where the afternoon kids’ show was broadcast live. I remember being mildly terrified. The set was small and brightly lit. It smelled of dust and electric power chords. The Professor was a tall, unpleasant man who seemed bored and grouchy, a man, any kid could sense, who did not like children. I was a tagalong that day, the smallest in the group. One of the mothers seated me in the front row, so I could see.
Not long ago I took a long ride on an airplane. Next to me in coach, in the window seat, was a very genial fellow from Atlanta. He was tall and thin, I’m guessing 6’4”or more. I told him about my work, he told me about his. We commiserated about the inconveniences of air travel. He squirmed and folded and unfolded his long limbs. He asked to get up 2-3 times. By the third time, I felt like he had begun to make a pest of himself. Eventually I was able to put him out of my mind, shifting my seat back and stretching out, feeling lucky, at 36,000 feet, to be less miserable.