A Man's Guide to Being Short
by Michael Calwell
October 2001


Table of Contents

Introduction
1: Pride and Prejudice
2: A short history of prejudice against short men
3: A short guide to dealing with prejudice
4: Beware - Short Men at work
5: Blinded by Height
Endnote


Introduction

You are in a pub, having a discussion with a group of strangers. The topic of conversation is one in which you are an expert. But it seems that everyone else, no matter how little they know about the subject, knows more than you.

You walk into a party. In the corner are some women. Without even knowing your name, or what you do, you can almost hear them looking at you and thinking 'Nah!'.

You may be courageous and cultured. You may be strong, sophisticated and intelligent. You may be fit, capable, generous and funny. But sometimes the most important thing in the world seems to be the fact that your head is a few inches closer to the ground than the average man's.

It can be frustrating and emasculating, depressing and tiring. But more than anything, it can be baffling. You know who you are and what you are capable of. You know you are normal, and have as much to offer the world as the next person. But sometimes others don't see it that way. Why?

If you are short, this is a daily problem. But like all problems, if you can understand it, you are half way to solving it. You may not be able to eradicate the problem, but at least you can be comfortable knowing what you are dealing with, and you can develop strategies to minimise the impact of it.

It is the aim of this essay to explain the problem as I see it, in the hope that others might be prompted to think about it for themselves. It is for men who are short, and those who have short men in their personal lives. It's not a self help guide. It doesn't promise the secrets of wealth or women. Rather, it's like picking apart an algebraic equation. We have a problem, and we need to understand it. When we understand it, we can all, each in our own way, deal with it.


1: Pride and Prejudice

What is prejudice? Let's consult a dictionary.

prej·u·dice

n.

    1. An adverse judgement or opinion formed beforehand or
      without knowledge or examination of the facts.
    2. A preconceived preference or idea.

  1. The act or state of holding unreasonable preconceived judgements or
    convictions. See Synonyms at predilection.

  2. Irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, or religion.

  3. Detriment or injury caused to a person by the preconceived,
    unfavourable conviction of another or others.

(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)

In other words, prejudice is a preconceived and irrational judgement about someone's qualities. The definition above is accurate, but a definition is not an explanation.

Prejudices are cultural preconceptions. Prejudices that are held in one time and one place are not held true in another time and in another place. Prejudices shift, because they are rarely based on absolute human truths. For example, in modern western society, fat people are often perceived as lazy and incompetent, but in many eastern cultures, the ruling elite pile on the pounds.

Today, emaciated girls are seen on the covers of glossy magazines, but the sort of women idealised by Gaugin or Renoir in the last century would be considered disgusting today. Today in Britain, Irish people are seen as witty, sophisticated and great to have at parties, but only fifty years ago, landladies hung signs outside their doors telling them to stay away.

The negative reaction to shortness is a prejudice like any other. It is irrational, and its consequences are irrational. Height discrimination is a peculiarly modern, western phenomenon. For example, studies have been conducted on women's preferences in height in men. The studies have shown that more American women consider height to be a factor than British women. British women consider height to be more of a factor than French women. And women of the Indian subcontinent consider height to be almost irrelevant.

So the commonly held idea that all women are programmed to have an overriding preference seems largely, if not completely, fallible, simply because one would expect to see consistency across the sample range. Whilst there may be some truth in the idea that women naturally desire men who happen to be tall, there is indisputably a powerful cultural factor at play that cannot be dismissed. There is a big difference between proclivity towards one thing and prejudice against another.

Similarly, if we go back in time, we find a curious absence of height references in literature. The Bible doesn't tell us how tall Jesus was, or any of the other main characters. Medieval literature does not ascribe virtue or gallantry to great height, or lack of it to shortness. And if we want to pick out arguably the most successful 'man' of all times; in terms of the armies he led, the countries he conquered, and the children he fathered, we would have to select Alexander the Great, an ugly, half-blind five footer.

How does all this fit into being a short man? Well, the implications of this are important. As a short man, you are not inherently inferior or genetically flawed. You are no less likely to be a great artist or businessman. You are no less likely to be a good father and husband. You have no reason to think that your children won't be fit, strong and intelligent. In other words, when you encounter prejudice because of your height - you must see it for what it is - nothing, absolutely nothing, personal, in the sense that it is not really about you.

This is the key to unlocking the problem. When the problem is abstracted it becomes clear, and the wood can be seen for the trees. The 'depersonalisation' of this prejudice is important, because it enables the short man to see himself for who he really is. Many short men do suffer from an inferiority complex, because they are made to feel inferior. But the truth is, they're not. Of course, there are short men who are inferior, because they are ignorant, thoughtless and weak, but that is not because they are short, it is because they are like other men of any height.

This is where pride comes in. A man should be proud of his strengths, his successes and his achievements. He should be proud of himself as a good man, or a strong man, a loving man and a capable man. He should also be aware of his weaknesses. But has no valid reason to count being short as one of them.

This understanding is not only reassuring, it is also useful. Confidence comes from within, and confidence is the greatest asset a man can have. Self doubt compromises and undermines a man's confidence, and ultimately limits his horizons - the expectations he has of himself, and the reflected expectations others have of him. As a short man, you should not let your height be a factor in your confidence.


2: A short history of prejudice against short men

It is not the scope of this essay to go into depth about causes of the modern prejudice against short men. They are strange and obscure, and merit a book in their own right. Briefly, however; whatever the original reasons, the mass media has a powerful influence. Is it any co-incidence that Americans are the most height prejudiced, and also watch more TV than any other nation?

The media stereotypes of short men are varied; from the comical, through the ineffectual, to the sadistic psychopath. Height discrimination in the media was partially bred in Hollywood, where images of masculinity and femininity needed to be represented clearly, hence we find caricatures being posed as ideals. The tall man needed to dwarf the meek, submissive woman. Thus the counterpoint; the fall guy or bad guy, easily visually identified as opposite to the ideal, was born.

We only need to watch M.A.S.H. to see Radar, childlike and falsetto, struggling to make himself heard amongst the superior conversations going on above his head. In Fresh Prince of Bel Air, we enjoy the spectacle of Will Smith lording it over his short, stupid and embarrassing cousin with a rapier wit and another head of height.

In 'The Spy who Shagged Me', we encounter Mike Myers making a joke of the idea that a short man wearing spectacles might possibly have sex with an attractive woman. In the classic British sit-com 'Some Mothers do 'Ave em', we see the short, frail, Michael Crawford, making a mess of everything he attempts, and failing in every venture he undertakes. A dose of laughter every week for the British television watching public.

Additionally, the advertising industry has for years generated stereotypical ideals of body type in order to sell their products. Ironically, it is a situation generated by men in which both men and women suffer. Millions of young girls in the west starve themselves in the name of self image, just to be thin, and to fit the cardboard cut-out that cosmetics industry trades in. Many more mutilate themselves with plastic surgery when there's nothing wrong with them. Perversely, it is men in advertising who have also defined the monolithic stereotype of the 'perfect' man, setting in motion a vicious circle of hopeless aspiration and desire in which they are the only winners. In order to sell their products, they first have to sell homogeneity.

And so the myth goes on, and is reinforced. In this context, it is completely understandable that people are prejudiced. People are vulnerable, easily influenced. They take their cues as to what is and isn't acceptable from what they see and hear, often substituting and confusing those false experiences for and with real experiences.

However, because people are easily influenced does not make them bad people. It simply makes them human - fallible and flawed, and no person on earth is not fallible and flawed to some degree. But, as a short man, how do you deal with the prejudice you encounter?


3: A short guide to dealing with prejudice

When faced with prejudice, individuals face a number of choices. If they are weak, they will do one of three things. Firstly, they may conform to the stereotype that society has projected upon them. If they do so, they will not only fail themselves, but they will reinforce that stereotype. Secondly they may become bitter and resentful, also failing themselves and reinforcing that stereotype. Thirdly, they may overreact and overcompensate, to the detriment of themselves, depriving themselves of a normal and stable life. Either of these three options is self destructive, and counter productive.

There is an alternative approach. The key lies in tolerance, understanding and patience. If you can approach a given situation with the recognition that people hold prejudices against you through no fault of their own, you have a better chance of helping them overcome those prejudices using patience and understanding, rather than impatience and intolerance. There is of course an irony inherent in this. So often in life, the short man really has to be 'bigger' than 'bigger' men, more tolerant, more understanding and more forgiving.

How does the short man realise this in practice? The truth is, it is difficult and complex, but hope must be held that both the prejudice holders and the prejudiced against will mutually benefit. It is difficult, because some people may be reluctant to give up those prejudices, perhaps because those prejudices afford them structure and meaning in dealing with the world around them, and because they are incapable of independent thought. Some may simply be people who enjoy the feeling of superiority that they have by being prejudiced against people who seem different, because they are inadequate themselves.

But the rewards of helping even some people overcome their prejudice outweigh and overcome those obstacles. And surely it is the duty of all of us to attempt to rid the world we encounter of all kinds of prejudice, in whatever form it takes. All journeys begin with, and are composed of, small steps.

The practical challenge lies in simultaneously bearing in mind that people might be prejudiced against you, and not yet not being preoccupied with it. It lies in the ability to maintain self awareness, whilst being able to forget yourself at the same time. It is a balancing act involving both self control and self expression.

Arguably, you have to start by making it easy for people to begin to overcome their prejudice. Neither an aggressive attitude nor a submissive attitude will help that process. The former will prevent any progress by putting up a brick wall, and the latter will simply disable you from helping them, because no prejudice has ever been overcome by inertia.

But before even attempting a strategy to deal with it, something must be borne in mind. You must not be prejudiced yourself. Do not presume that all people will make assumptions about you based on your height. Many genuinely won't care. Many people only care about what you have to say and the real things you have to offer. So do not default to suspicion or descend into paranoia. If you do you will defeat yourself.

Ultimately, each person's approach will be different, depending on the situation they find themselves in and depending on the people they are dealing with. However, a good general approach is a confident humour and a relaxed attitude, which gives people an opportunity to know they are being heard and to hear you. Prejudice is both a weapon and a fortress; you have to be prepared to be disarming and pull down walls at the same time.

In a relaxed context, the process of undermining that prejudice can begin. Let's rewind a bit and redefine prejudice. If you are dealing with people who are prejudiced against you, they are simply people who have made negative judgements about you based on spurious information. The only weapon you have against this is truth. Truth shines brighter than any light, and banishes the shadows of lies.

The analogy of light is a useful one, because it can be used to describe some of the pitfalls that face the short man overcoming prejudice. Light is good, but too much light can be blinding. Given the opportunity to reveal the truth about yourself to people, you should not reveal too much of yourself or overpower them with your personality. That can be very off-putting, and can cross the boundary into unsocial behaviour.

A small, constant light will burn longer and will be more acceptable. Be yourself, but be like others. Neither dominate through force nor retreat into a cocoon. In each situation, find a comfortable middle ground and define your own territory, whilst not encroaching on other's. Allow the situation to flux and shift, but do not allow yourself to be excluded. Paradoxically, you have to be someone working hard at overcoming prejudice, whilst not making it obvious that that is something you are consciously trying to do. At all times, maintain your inalienable dignity as a person, but balance that against not taking yourself too seriously. Always be patient; it can be a long, slow process. But don't forget that hard work can be rewarding.

It won't always work. Rome wasn't built in a day. Height prejudice remains one of the last prejudices not to have any formal or legal recognition. It is the prejudice that dare not speak its name. Never forget that it is not yet socially acceptable to voice the opinion that someone is treating you differently because you are short. If you are a woman, or black, you can voice the opinion that you feel prejudiced against without fear of rebuke, and people will listen. If you say that you think people are treating you differently because you are short, you will be lucky if you are ignored - many people will simply laugh at you. This observation is not intended to put you off, but to make you more skilful and successful in your efforts.

Ultimately, however, there is only so much one man can do in one day or in one situation. If your patient efforts to overcome prejudice in one individual or one situation fails, you owe it to yourself and to others to desist. For example, if you meet and like a woman who you know finds you attractive but who cannot overcome the perceived social reaction of accepting you as a partner, you are legitimately entitled to question her long term suitability for a relationship. You should gracefully move on, having done your best, accepting her humanity and susceptibility, as you would hope people would accept your own. You should hope that, through your continued efforts, and through social change in a more enlightened society, a woman in a similar situation in the future will not struggle so much, and miss out on a similar opportunity for equally irrelevant reasons.


4: Beware - Short Men at work

Not least of all is the issue of how the short man should approach the subject of work. If there was ever proof that irrational prejudice has manifest itself in discrimination, it is in the office and the boardroom. The idea that the capacity to do a given piece of work , the amount you should be paid for that work, or the ability to make and take decisions is linked to your height is farcical, and if it wasn't so hurtful, laughable.

Many studies have been conducted that link height to pay, responsibility and promotion, and time after time they conclude that once all other factors have been accounted for, the short man is, on the whole, discriminated against. Short men also tend to hit a 'glass ceiling' in the organisations in which they work. Sadly, most of these studies conclude with the sentiment 'Hey, that's life!'.

No it isn't. It is never acceptable that competent, personable people do not move up the ladder as rapidly as their counterparts for reasons unrelated to their ability. It is not acceptable that the colour of your skin or the place of your birth should militate against a promotion. It is especially easy to become angry at this form of discrimination, because your employer really has no excuse at all.

But if the short man shouldn't accept it passively, how does he approach this difficult subject? This is tricky. We are dealing here with 'institutionalised prejudice', which generally requires institutional acknowledgement before formal safeguards are put in place. And only when the state acknowledges a problem will corporations begin to follow. Furthermore, the workplace is often a fragile balance of personalities and politics in which people are afraid to speak out for many other reasons.

The last thing you want is to be is labelled a troublemaker, or worse still, accused of having a chip on your shoulder. Both these labels stick more easily to the short man for some reason, so you have to be careful. It is probably more effective to be confident in your own abilities, and to build a calm and rational case that you feel you are not being paid enough, or promoted as quickly. If you explain that you can't understand why you aren't, you put the onus on your employer to come up with a valid explanation, and to reassess their stance.

One of the difficulties of this is information. If you can only speculate that you are paid less than your colleague who is less competent than you, you have a difficult case to prove - not least of all because you might not be the sort of person who likes to go around shouting 'I'm better than him'. But in the private confines of an assessment session with your immediate superior, you should not be afraid to voice your grievances. This is about perception. If you present yourself as an equal, who is being unfairly treated for no clear reason, rather than a short man fighting against discrimination, you are more likely to win hearts and minds. People often expect in you what you expect in yourself.


5: Blinded by Height

All men, at some point in life, get hurt. The majority of men get rejected. Most men get turned down by women, or left by women. Most men get rejected by a potential employer. All men struggle, at some point in life, in some way, irrespective of their height. Life is a struggle. Chances are however, if you are a short man, your shortness will be the reason you attribute to every attempt that you fail, and every hurt that you feel. The reason for this is simple. At some point in your history, your height was the reason that something went wrong. And after that, it was the easiest thing to blame. It may have stopped you asking the real questions that you should have been asking yourself. You were blinded by your height. But you were crippled, helpless, because your height was the one thing you couldn't change.

People who feel helpless cannot help themselves, because, well, they are helpless. They are isolated, alone. And the short man, faced with this predicament, in a world in which he cannot speak about his problem, can become his own worst enemy. Introversion and self doubt set in. The short man can find himself locked in a prison, largely of his own making, though not through his own fault. The short man can only start the process of self fulfilment, and of liberation, when he can face the fact that other factors may have been involved. Bizarrely enough, he may have to start questioning himself on many other, more legitimate levels.


Endnote

It can take a long time for the short man to realise quite why life treats him the way it sometimes does. This is because his 'condition' is one of the last taboos remaining in society. We pretend it doesn't exist, so it continues unchallenged. Thus, the short boy growing up will never be made explicitly aware of himself in the way that a blind or deaf child will. His parents are as likely to pretend there's nothing different about him just as much as his schoolmates are likely to tease him. This can be quite a confusing experience, and without concrete self knowledge, the young short man does not know if and how he should approach life differently. Hopefully over time, once the taboo is eroded, this will change.

We can live in hope, or in despair. If we assume the worst, the chances are, it will happen. But through the work of other groups in other societies, we can see that attitudes can be changed, and prejudices can be conquered. One day, the cultural stereotype of the short man being inferior and the tall man being superior may become as tawdry and anachronistic as the black or Irish man being inferior and subordinate, or the woman locked to an ironing board, denied a fulfilled intellectual existence. One day, the majority of people may come to find it unacceptable, irrespective of their own height, just as white people have fought racism, and men have fought the sexual exploitation of women.

Having discussed height and height prejudice at such great length, it is important to put a qualifying remark in at this point. You should not let your height be your preoccupation - far from it. There are few things more tedious than a single issue person. In twenty seven years of life, this is the first time I have written down anything about my height, and I've written down lots more about other subjects.

Ninety percent of the time, I'm ninety percent unconscious of it. In the company of family, close friends, colleagues and girlfriends, I forget about it completely. That's when I'm truly alive. But there are times when I am painfully aware of how it has limited me, and limits others, which is partly why I wrote this essay. But there are other subjects and issues that are infinitely more important, and it's important to be conscious of that. Short men in western societies do not know the meaning of suffering or prejudice next to many groups of people around the world. But that does not mean that there is not an important social advancement to be made in eradicating it. A big injustice does not overshadow a smaller one.

Copyright © 2001 Michael Calwell
If you have any feedback on this short essay, I'd be keen to hear it. Please contact me at
michael.calwell@btopenworld.com