As I look down the barrel of sixty years of age and the ever solidifying prospect of a lonely old age beyond, I can no longer deny that bitterness blights my outlook on life.
Resigned to my fate? I think so. I'm tired of the struggle. I've tried on a wardrobe of philosophies - Buddhism, for example, shone great hope, at least for a little while - and seized on every form of mental tinkering that offered even a glimmer of relief: psychotherapy, meditation, visualization, self-hypnosis, cognitive behaviourism. But I'm beaten. I now accept that, contrary to what idealist might like to believe, the physical reigns over the spiritual; I'm ready to admit that being 'undersized' (5' 4") has been the bane of my life. The resultant neurosis has led me along a strange path - that of an outsider. I've been a bum, a misogynist, a drug fiend and a drunk, the obnoxious, pugnacious type, and have the scars to prove it. That's all behind me now, apart perhaps from some lingering ambivalence towards women, but the damage remains in my wake.
People see a small man and instantly look for the chip on his shoulder. In my case they wouldn't be disappointed. And why the hell not, after a lifetime of being discriminated against, rejected and being looked down upon? You've probably guessed it; I have a problem with anger, and I don't need to be reminded what a caustic, deadly emotion it is. Moreover, it unfortunately seems to be shared amongst a large number of small men. There may just be some kind of evolutionary reason for this; perhaps a small man easily forms the habit of getting angry just to be taken seriously, whereas a big man would probably learn early to curb his anger to avoid frightening people unduly when his size alone would be enough to intimidate.
There's nothing to say of course that life has to be fair. The evidence in fact appears to be weighted heavily on the other side: that life is manifestly unfair. The number of people born clutching a short straw would no doubt be legion. There are the blind, the crippled, the disfigured, the insane, the retarded, the sick and those that are just plain unlucky. God only knows how often I have dwelt on this little fact of life, hoping to put into perspective my own insignificant black cloud. Why doesn't it work? I think perhaps because I do not live the blighted lives of all those unfortunates. Boldly put, I do not feel their pain - as others do not feel mine. However insignificant it may appear to others, it is my pain. It is my own personal tragedy. "Come on now," I hear you say. "Getting a little overdramatic aren't we?" I once thought so myself, but how could the pale shadow of a life, rather than the life that could and should have been, not qualify as a tragedy?
It's a tragedy of Grecian quality: a fundamental flaw is seeded right at the beginning that will ensure a destiny that all the struggling against will not only not forestall but, on the contrary, will only facilitate. The flaw? A character flaw, I suppose - a weakness that precluded my triumphing over the adversity of small masculine stature. Others have triumphed, so I'm painfully aware that it is possible. Simple maths however offers some consolation. With any daunting challenge, the failures will greatly outnumber the successes. And of course there's the question of luck. Just a little bit of luck .
The phrase, "small masculine stature" may have been noted. What about "small feminine stature?" I am not unaware of the lament of small women: "we're not taken seriously, jokes are made about our size, we can't find clothes that fit ." I'm sorry ladies; there is just no correlation here, just as there wouldn't be between a bald man and a bald woman, the latter, although qualitatively similar, being a magnitude greater in consequence.
A small woman is 'petite'. A small man is a runt. A small woman needs protection (nothing unwomanly about that). A small man is seen as incapable of giving protection (unmanly). A woman's small stature would impinge only negligibly, if at all, on her allure and attractiveness to the opposite sex. A man's small stature all but obliterates his attractiveness to the opposite sex (even those of small stature themselves). Most small women will marry and have children. However, statistically, a disproportionate number of small men will never marry nor have children. Speaking as a statistic, it's only later in life that I've become fully aware of the magnitude of this deprivation - a disappointment to nature itself. Blinded by self-delusion, as a young person, I couldn't see this: "who needs a ball and chain anyhow?" But in ever widening circles, the extent of the loss becomes apparent: the calm haven of family life, the meaningfulness of procreation, extended family, relatedness, stability, rootedness, the transmission of a spark of myself through descendents, a social life stronger than the flickering candle flame of solitude amongst acquaintances...
It's in affairs of the heart that we really begin drilling into the nerve. Most of my life, I have vacillated between an awareness of this cruel fact and a type of denial that saw the root of the problem being in my own mind, that is, a lack of confidence engendered by my flawed perceptions of the perceptions of others. Or, to put it in psych-jargon, I was 'projecting' my own negative self-image into the minds of others.
This vacillation finally came to an abrupt halt on reading "Statue and Stigma: The Biopsychosocial Development of Short Males," by Leslie Martel and Henry Biller. The truth exploded and seared like a rolling ball of napalm. My lack of attractiveness to the opposite sex lay not in my imagination but in the opposite sex itself. Here was primal human nature reaching out from the mist of the human dawn. Pitted almost helplessly against a savage and malevolent world, the prime prerequisite in a mate for a woman was the ability to double as a bodyguard. (A good big man will always beat a good little man, the cliché goes, no matter that the corollary is that a good little man could probably rip the throat out of a mediocre big man.) With every gradation away from this physical ideal, the candidate was seen as less of a man until, upon hitting a certain arbitrary parameter, he became not even a 'real' man.
But here comes the real kicker; I didn't need this book to learn what I really already knew. How did I know? Get ready for an admission from a small man that you've never heard before. In contradiction of the accepted wisdom that one can never know what others are thinking, I'm claiming here and now that I do know what others are thinking - at least some of them, some of the time. How so? "There's Everyman in every man", goes an old adage. Therefore, it shouldn't be so surprising that I'm admitting to sharing in this perennial, instinctual prejudice. That is, I look on other small men with the same disdain as larger members of the species. I see them as somehow slightly pathetic. So it's not difficult to see how maintaining a healthy self-regard is so difficult. I'm looking into a mirror and I don't like what I see. I see reduced capability, weakness, lack of confidence and courage - the whole stereotype.
This is a phenomenon I've pondered for a long time - a question to which I've relentlessly sought an answer. The only answer, as unsatisfying as it may be, is this: the stereotype, similar to one of Jung's archetypes, is buried in the collective unconscious - rooted in the human condition. It is there, just as, however much we might want to deny it or root it out, an antipathy, or at least a suspicion always has existed, and always will exist between the different races. It is instinctual, primal and inescapable.
As I say, I'm now pretty much a defeated man. To be fair, my small stature hasn't been my only enemy - it has had allies, all interrelated. The allies, without the central power though, I'm sure could have been defeated. Early trauma, for instance, caused a life-long insecurity. I was not only an undersized child, but weak, timid and sickly into the bargain. Moreover, I was born into the socio-economic basement of society in a time that it was much more class-bound than it seems to be today. These factors may have acted in synergism. For example, academic achievement, which was within my capability, may have been a way out. However, the crushing sense of inferiority engendered by my unimpressive stature permeated my entire being. In spite of the evidence, I did not want to believe in the quality of my intellect - it had to be second rate as well. Besides, being born into the working class at the time I was, one simply didn't entertain the idea of higher education. Instead, the factory, shop-floor or, at best, an apprenticeship beckoned.
This, in spite of a well remembered visit to a vocational guidance counselor when I was fifteen. After doing some aptitude tests and an interview, I was informed a career as a teacher, lawyer or journalist would be well worth considering. The idea though of a being of my physical stature filling any of these roles seemed absolutely laughable. My lack of what I didn't know then to be termed "presence" was felt as painfully as a toothache. Who, for example, would want to hire a 5' 4" lawyer?
Instead, for my first job, I became a shelf-stocker in a supermarket. The extra incentive that was added to my urge to leave school as soon as possible and begin earning money was the need for an equalizer or a compensator (which, over forty years later, I still believe I have) which at the time manifested itself in the form of a car - just about any car would do, as here was a modern version of the horseman's superiority over the pedestrian. In my case however, the superiority which in my adolescent fantasies was afforded by the car, would just about bring me up to par. Wouldn't any girl be just as attracted to a small man with a car, as a tall man without one? Needless to say, it didn't work.
It may seem strange that so many years beyond teenage silliness I still see the need to compensate for my lack of physical impressiveness. By qualifying this, I may be able to provide a way for younger men to profit from the insight I've gained over long, not so sweet experience.
I don't in any way allude to material things such as the car I stupidly saw as my Excalibur, although the trappings of wealth don't seem to do any harm. Rather, what I would advocate is harnessing any feeling of inferiority as drive towards accomplishment. Achievement, success in recognizing and using oen's talents, fulfilling one's potential ("self-actualisation" as Abraham Maslow termed it) does make a difference. To believe otherwise is to dwell in the land of the fairies.
"Keep interested in your own career, however humble", advises the Desiderata. Better not make it too humble though. The combination of small, male stature and menial, low-paying work is about as appealing to women as being chased by an angry mouse.
It's well known that men, much more so than women are defined by the work they do - by themselves especially. Their work becomes inextricably entwined with their sense of identity. Bearing this in mind, it would stand to reason that a man could, at least up to a point, create himself by the work he chooses to do. If as a byproduct of that work, prestige, status and power are produced, the man performing it will be a completely different man than the one lacking these fringe benefits, in his own eyes as well as the eyes of others.
An experience I once had as a member of a live TV show audience well illustrates my point. A man of almost identical build and height as me was moving about the studio. Initially, I took him to be a fellow audience member arriving late and trying to find a seat. Upon later reflection, I was unconsciously dismissing him as an irrelevant, undersized nobody. However, before I had taken my eyes off him he had moved in behind a TV camera, donned a pair of earphones and was commanding the camera with cool professionalism. The moment he did that and became identified with the exotic and magical world of television, and the exulted breed of people who populate it, I'll swear that before my eyes, the man grew at least ten inches in stature. In that same instant, I also had the weird feeling I was seeing him as though through the eyes of a woman. I'm sure, if I had have been a woman sitting in that audience, I would have been able to overlook the one shortcoming that women apparently find so difficult to excuse: shortness.
In the same vein, Dustin Hoffman (who invariably plays the part of a short man) once confessed that when he was in college, no woman would even look at him. It's fairly certain that, even with advancing age, that wouldn't be the case now. That's not to say though that a short man needs to make it as big as an international film star to have an even chance of finding respect and love. But he definitely needs an edge.
If I had it over again, finding that edge would definitely be the strategy I would be adopting as a way of overcoming the handicap of being small in a world where big is better. Why shouldn't I have my place in the sun. Then again, perhaps I'm not quite beaten - not just yet anyway. I still have some time, and where there's life there's hope. It's just a matter of following my own advice.