There are very few things that fill me with blind, foaming-at-the-mouth, let’s-burn-some-cars, hey-did-you-bring-the-kerosene, no-I-left-it-in-my-other-pants rage. At the very top of this short list is the depressing and indeed pathetic lack of solidarity among short men. The real problem facing short men is not that we are often looked down upon by the rest of society. The real problem is that short men routinely sell out other short men.
Most of you know that short people have it rough in a society like ours. In affluent countries, tall people live longer than short people. Tall people also earn more than short people, and they tend to have more prestigious jobs. Why might this be the case? About a decade ago, Nicola Persico, Andrew Postlethwaite, and Dan Silverman offered a provocative hypothesis: What really shapes adult earnings is not one’s current height, but rather height in one’s teenage years. They found that controlling for height in one’s teen years essentially wipes out the effect of adult height on earnings for white men. This suggests that it is not so much discrimination that is holding short people back, rather it is the way our adolescent experiences shape our life trajectories. For example, being tall as a teenager could make you more socially confident, which in turn will translate into making you more likely to pursue educational opportunities that will redound to your benefit later in life.
More recently, the economists Anne Case and Christina Paxson offered a more sobering take: The main reason height and earnings are so closely related is that height is positively associated with cognitive ability. That is, the taller you are, the smarter you are (on average). This is a bit of an oversimplification, as what really matters, according to Case and Paxson, is whether you’ve had access to the resources you need to reach your full growth potential. If you were destined to be as tall as the professional basketball player Hasheem Thabeet, who stands at 7-foot-3, yet you’re only as tall as Hakeem Olajuwon, who is a mere 6-foot-10, there’s a good chance that you didn’t get the nutrition and the good vibes you needed to flourish as a wee babe. But if you were always going to max out at 5 feet and you make it to that size, you’re in solid shape as far as cognitive development goes. Even so, it’s not crazy to assume that, on average, the taller among us had early development advantages over the shorter among us. So should short men rage against mustache-twirling capitalists because we fare less well than tall men in the labor market? No, I don’t think so.
It’s also true that short people, and particularly short men, tend to be disfavored in the mating market, as Ann Friedman has noted. I don’t see this as a grave injustice either. While it’s true that many women might profit from giving short men a second look, since awesome short men are less in-demand than their taller counterparts—I call this “shortbitrage”—it’s also true that short men are generally less likely to kill a woolly mammoth for you. This is not to say that short men can’t do amazing things. Speaking only for myself, I can recite every line from Ghostbusters and I can make a pretty decent origami velociraptor. But it is easy to see why women might prefer men who can defeat other men in hand-to-hand combat, and this is an area where short men tend not to excel.
What is troubling, however, is that short men do not act as a unified bloc. Some years ago, Gallup surveyed American men on their attitudes toward height. They divided their sample of men into three groups: those below 5-foot-8, those between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11, and those above 6 feet. When asked if they’d prefer to be taller or to remain at their current height, 78 percent of men in the tallest third said that they’d remain at their current height while only 19 percent said that they’d like to be taller. Among men in the shortest third, in contrast, 54 percent said that they’d prefer to remain at their current height while 45 percent said that they’d prefer to be taller. As I read these numbers, a deep sadness came over me. With so many short men eager to be taller, it’s no wonder that we fail to hang together in the face of a hostile world.
As I go through life, I will occasionally say, “well, as a short person …” before making some observation. And I’ve found that my interlocutor will often interject something to the effect of, “Hey, you’re not that short,” as if to reassure me. But why would this be reassuring if there were nothing wrong with being short? This is the root of the problem. I come from a long line of fierce and proud short people, who proved resilient in the face of all manner of natural calamity. My ancestors had small bodies that were tailor-made for sweating, which allowed them to work long hours in sweltering heat in South Asia’s swampy marshlands. The notion that being short is something to be ashamed of strikes me as deeply wrongheaded.
One result of this deep-seated prejudice is that short men often lie about their height. Perhaps you think that adding a half-inch or so is entirely innocent, as all you’re doing is rounding up to the nearest even number. Others go even further, adding an inch or three in the hope that they will escape the stigma of shortness. Given the long odds facing short men, I understand the logic behind this kind of deception. Has it occurred to you that this practice leads people to discount self-reported height, for the good and obvious reason that self-reporting of height can’t be trusted? You’re not fooling anyone.
Yet I wonder if short men as a whole might benefit from a different deception, namely a collective decision on the part of slightly short men to round down rather than round up. The next time someone asks you, 5-foot-8 guy, how tall you are, tell them that you are 5-foot-1. If your response is met with disbelief, tell your nosy friend that you use an elaborate system of levers and pulleys to create the illusion of stature, or that you’ve been performing a series of exercises designed to reduce your stature over time in an effort to reduce your carbon footprint. Think of this as a teachable moment, in which you can explain how smaller people consume fewer resources, whether in the form of food and nutrients (we eat less), energy (we’re lighter, so we can travel further per gallon), or fabric (we need less of it to fully clothe our bodies). Rounding down is a way for the slightly short to convey that they reject heightism, and that they are willing to sacrifice some of their privilege to build a better, fairer world.
To be sure, rounding up is not the worst thing in the world. I’ll tell you what is the worst thing in the world. It is that short men who have internalized heightist attitudes are more likely to stand by as those shorter than them are casually mistreated. In our culture, men who are 5-foot-8 don’t see men who are 5-foot-1 as comrades. They treat their shorter brothers as strangers, or perhaps even as objects of pity or contempt. In the 2003 film The Station Agent, the protagonist, Finbar McBride, a dwarf, retreats into rural isolation in part to escape the constant gawping and the cruel taunts he experiences as a city dweller. Where were the slightly shorter-than-average men who might have said something? Chances are that at least some of them were doing the taunting themselves, or laughing right alongside the taunters.
To the short men among you, I’d like to ask: Have you ever poked fun at someone for their size? Have you done so to delight your taller friends, and to establish that you are truly one of them? If so, I’d like you to think hard about the place in hell that is reserved for your ilk. If you have no fear of hell, consider this: Do you think that your chums respect you more or less for selling out one of your own?
It is those men who hover within spitting distance of the average height who have a special obligation to stick up for short men as a whole. When other short men are getting pushed around, it is these men who must speak up. Is someone making fun of “midgets”? Now is the time to get in their face. When presented with the opportunity to seamlessly blend in with average-sized or tall people, it is these men who must reject it, and to assert the importance of treating all people fairly and humanely, regardless of their size. And if the time comes when discrimination against short people intensifies, it is these men who must join the general strike that will bring the entire architecture of anti-short-people oppression to its knees. My credo is simple: Stay short. Stay strong. And when you see a short brother in need, do something about it.