Heightism. It sounds like a contrived, politically correct buzzword, but it’s a real prejudice, one so embedded in our culture that we seldom realize we’re engaging in it. This bias is a low but steady hum in the background of our conversations, coloring the language we use to describe short people, their accomplishments, and their capabilities. We’re quick to label short children as dainty, sweet, or silly. Short women are cute and perky, while short men must be angry or suffer from a Napoleon complex. Like other forms of prejudice against specific body demographics, heightism shows our tendency to glorify specific “ideal” body types while viewing others as inferior.
The implications of height prejudice are broad and troubling.
In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration approved the prescribing of human growth hormone to treat idiopathic short stature in healthy kids. These children have no diagnosed medical deficiencies, but happen to be in the lowest percentiles on the growth chart. Physical stature is a genetically determined characteristic, and nothing more than a number that dictates the length of our jeans. Why has it become acceptable to treat a cosmetic issue with an extraordinarily costly medication, the long-term risks of which remain unknown?
The reason is this: We are part of a culture that prefers everything taller, from the lattes we drink to the oversized cars we drive to the presidents we elect.
In our appearance-driven society, height is a direct predictor of success, desirability, and potential. It’s a fact that taller people earn more money than their shorter counterparts. Height prejudice begins as early as elementary school when smaller kids regularly face teasing related to their size. In schoolyard games with their taller peers, they’re often relegated to the role of “baby,” regardless of their intelligence, maturity, or other personal qualities. Given these realities, it’s not surprising that many doctors and families are choosing to treat healthy children with growth hormone, with the hope of adding more inches. But the underlying perception — that shortness is a problem that requires fixing — is a damaging one.
I can intimately understand the worries that fuel the desire to make short children taller. In my family, size has always been a prickly issue. My husband and I are both short, and our two elementary school-aged children are the smallest students in their grades. Our youngest child has never made it onto a standard growth chart. When she started kindergarten last year, comments about her size became more frequent. This year, one of her schoolmates remarked, “You’re too small to be in first grade!” But most of the observations aren’t malicious; they’re usually some variation of, “Oh, isn’t she just the most adorable peanut!”
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I really don’t mind when people say my daughter is adorable. After all, I happen to agree! However, I am concerned that, over time, persistent comments about her height will steal the focus away from what truly matters. I want her to understand that physical size has nothing to do with her value and potential. How challenging will it be to instill this belief in a world that associates tall stature with greater success?
As I watch my daughter interact with friends on the playground, I imagine what life will be like for her as an adult, as she navigates through an ocean of people who will tower over her physically. I worry that she will struggle to be taken seriously in a culture where short women are too often labeled as bubbly, sweet, or perky rather than distinguished, tenacious, or strong.
Let me be clear: if my daughter wants to be bubbly and perky, I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with a societal bias that suggests this is all she can be.
Tackling a prejudice that’s as ingrained as heightism can feel like trying to unearth a stone from a bottomless pit of sand. But we can start by acknowledging that the bias exists and be willing to discuss it openly, whether in the workplace, in the classroom, or in our own homes.
While it’s unrealistic to expect that we won’t notice others’ stature, it is possible to reframe our language and shift the emphasis to more important qualities that are independent of height. Words matter, especially to young people who are facing an increasingly complex social landscape. Parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors can make a positive impact by being more deliberate in pointing out children’s skills or accomplishments that aren’t related to size. We might be surprised by how difficult this is at first. “You’re so cute and little!” just rolls off the tongue so much more easily than, “Look what an awesome job you did organizing your backpack this morning!”
If height bias has impacted us personally, it’s important to acknowledge that as well. As a child, I was usually the shortest person among my peers; as an adult, I’m still wary of how others may perceive me. When I go to get my car serviced, I wonder if the male auto mechanics are charging me more because I look small and non-threatening. When I speak up in a professional or business setting, I sometimes can’t silence a nagging voice that questions whether people are discounting my comments.
Maybe my fears are warranted; maybe they’re not. Either way, I’ve realized I do not want to transfer this attitude to my daughters. I know that the way I speak about my body impacts my children enormously. For this reason, I’m trying to make a conscious effort to remember that what each person brings to the table is in no way correlated with physical size.
Short stature might always be the first thing people notice about my daughter, but it does not make her — or anyone else — any less likely to be powerful, competitive, serious, or strong. It just makes her more likely to need her jeans hemmed. We’re all much more than what was predetermined by our DNA.