Today’s news featured a Canadian explaining what it’s like to be a short man in today’s society. Facts state plainly that shorter individuals in places like Canada, USA, and some European countries do not fare as well in the job market, on salary scales, and in society generally. How so?
That shorter people are ‘inferior’ is not a new idea and it is no surprise that the word derives from Latin īnferior / īnferus meaning low, lower, nether, and underground.
In 1595/6 Shakespeare explored the notion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two pairs of lovers get caught in the crossfire of a fairy kingdom quarrel and a spell leads to altered love interests and jealous rages. The young men are both bewitched into loving Helena while spurning the other, Hermia. Helena believes that the other three are mocking her, and Hermia cannot understand why they are all now against her.
Helena and Hermia, best friends since childhood, have a fiery scene in which height issues (Helena being tall and Hermia short) become central to the spat.
With thanks to The Bard here are some extracts:
HELENA (reacting to her friend’s innocent surprise at the turn of events)
Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet, you!
HERMIA (suddenly realising not all is well, she rails at Helena)
Puppet? why so? ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
HELENA (addressing the two young men)
You perhaps may think,
Because she is something lower than myself,
That I can match her.
Lower! hark, again.
She was a vixen when she went to school;
And though she be but little, she is fierce.
‘Little’ again! nothing but ‘low’ and ‘little’!
Why will you suffer her to flout me thus?
LYSANDER (once the lover of Hermia, now besotted with Helena)
Get you gone, you dwarf;
You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn.
Just over 350 years later similar sentiments were levelled at me albeit obliquely. When I was fifteen I studied the play at school. I was 5’ ¾” – one of the smallest in the class. I was always chosen to read the part of Hermia while Hazel, one of the tallest, always read Helena. On the face of it this should not have been a problem, and some may say it was my own paranoia. But we were only reading the play in class and our stature should not have determined who read what part. The form tutor did not like me and that was so obvious that even the Headmistress knew; and Hazel was her favourite.
What about terms in common usage?
- Teacher’s ‘pets’ are usually small and it’s a term that is often derogatory. Helpful, studious, or courteous taller pupils are seen as just that and even if they are singled out for praise they are rarely (never) labelled ‘pet’. Shorter pupils acting the same way are much more likely to be considered kowtowing, trying too hard to please.
- Someone that’s ignored or doesn’t get recognition? We say they’re being ‘overlooked’ – ‘looked down on’ – ‘talked down to’
- Giving encouragement? ‘Stand up for yourself’ – ‘Rise to the challenge’
- Someone who’s better than the rest? Well they are ‘Head and shoulders above the crowd’
Back to today’s article: people refer to ‘short man syndrome’ and again it is not flattering. If you assert your rights or try to get a point across forcefully you are deemed irritating and confrontational – those of average height and above are seen as intelligent and self-assured. Men in top positions in large companies are statistically likely to be taller than the average, and those of shorter stature will have more difficulty finding a partner.
What about women?
The article did expand on these findings and suggested that the difficulties women have in the workforce are as much to do with height issues as with gender.
A very interesting idea.
I have considered the notion of ‘heightism’ for many years and I certainly believe it exists. Those who deny it and even have the temerity to say that we imagine it are usually above average height themselves. In order to placate us we get told ‘but you’re so cute’ which is a tremendous insult in so many ways. Unless you are a child, or a puppy, or a kitten. To an adult you might as well say ‘you are insignificant’, ‘you wouldn’t understand’, ‘you are an irrelevance’.
I wrote this poem in 1995:
In proclaiming me short
are you rendered superior
intelligence enormous, ability stupendous, sensitivity extensive?
In proclaiming me small
are you no longer narrow-minded
vision restricted, reasoning stunted, perception diminished?
The deficiencies of others is a poor yardstick.
Paranoid? Perhaps. But ask yourself ‘Why?’.
Maybe it’s something you said.
Do you have any thoughts on this? Perhaps you have experienced negativity because you are considered too tall? Please join the conversation.