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Small minded

Short people say the perceived advantages of being tall are the height of folly

By Alison apRoberts - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PST Saturday, December 16, 2006

The short people of America are standing up to those who would overlook them.

Among their demands: Refrain from picking them up when you are introduced, and stifle the Munchkin and Napoleon jokes. Those are just small instances of what many call a pattern of towering -- and unquestioned -- "heightism."

With new books and a fledgling advocacy organization, the short of stature are dedicated to knocking our tall-is-best mind-set from its pedestal.

The most forceful of the assaults comes from Stephen S. Hall in his new book, "Size Matters: How Height Affects the Health, Happiness and Success of Boys -- and the Men They Become" (Houghton Mifflin, $26, 352 pages).

Hall, who is 55 and stands 5-foot-5 3/4, grew up answering to all the usual small-minded endearments: shrimp, runt, peewee, pipsqueak, peanut, bug, mouse, gnat, Mr. Peabody and squirt.

"I don't feel small now, but it was something I'd obviously thought about. I sometimes call myself an involuntary expert in this," Hall says by phone from his home in Brooklyn.

Hall has outgrown the sting of those early years, but becoming a parent made him look at the topic anew.

"What did it for me was having children myself and hearing them really obsess about their physical size compared to their peers," he says. He has an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son with his wife, who is 5-foot-9. His children are average size, he says.

Making dollars and sense

Among the looming assertions Hall takes on in his book (as well as in an essay recently published in the New York Times) are the headline- grabbing studies that find taller men earn more money on average than their shorter counterparts and that they are smarter, too. It's true, but it's not quite that simple, Hall argues.

The correlation of inches to money is considerably stronger with the height of boys at age 16 rather than as adults. The explanation lies, Hall and some researchers argue, in the effects of size socially in the jungle of adolescence. The social and athletic skills that taller boys enjoy at 16 may translate into confidence and leadership skills that give them an edge in adulthood.

Also, in looking at any of these studies ascribing advantage to the tall, Hall argues that you must look behind the data to discover which of those who are short are so because they were not genetically capable of being taller, and which of the short are shorter because of environmental deprivation or disease. In other words, tallness can be a marker of good health and nutrition, but not always.

Hall's book takes the measure of these as well as more personal, historical and scientific issues of height and what he calls "the altocracy." He writes poignantly about visiting with the one boy who was smaller than him on the playground, and whom he therefore gladly bullied, as well as the development of growth measurement, particularly in adolescence. He covers past fixations with height, including the obsession of Frederick William, king of Prussia, who was determined to have an army of the supertall in the early 1700s.

He moves on to the current -- and heated -- debate engendered by the Food and Drug Administration's approval in 2003 of human-growth hormone therapy to treat short but otherwise healthy children to give them an inch or two.

The book has garnered the science writer widespread attention he wasn't expecting, including an interview on NBC's "Today."

"It really seems to have touched a nerve," Hall says. "I think it suggests our physical size is a big part of who we are and who we think we are."

Beyond discouragement

Ellen Frankel, who is 4-foot- 8 1/2, found her youthful dreams of who she might become crumble, particularly when she was told she was simply too small to become a rabbi.

"Being short isn't a problem, but how the culture is looking at it makes it a problem," Frankel says, speaking by phone from her home outside Boston.

Frankel, 45, grew beyond the discouragement to become a clinical social worker and has just written a book, "Beyond Measure: A Memoir About Short Stature and Inner Growth" (Pearlsong Press, 264 pages, $18.95).

"I think for people who struggle with their stature, a lot has to do with how it's dealt with in the family," she says. She remembers her mother "constantly" measuring her. "I have never put a tape measure to my kids," she says.

Frankel, whose husband is 5-foot-10 ("I didn't marry him because he's tall," she says), has two children who are short. Her 17-year-old daughter is 5-foot-1; her son, 15, is 5-foot-2. She says her children have not been shortchanged by their size. Her daughter has played field hockey and avidly competes in mock trials. Her son is on his school's varsity soccer team and also plays lacrosse.

"Neither of them have ever said they would want the growth-hormone shots," Frankel says. She, like many advocates for the short, finds the use of growth-hormone treatments on healthy short children downright "creepy," with its implicit designation of shortness as a disability deserving a cure.

"The question isn't, 'How can we make short kids taller?' " she says. "The question is, 'What can we do about size prejudice?' "

Social pressure for more height fuels sales of everything from lifts for shoes to human-growth hormone therapy (which can cost more than $20,000 a year for a height gain of one or two inches) to surgeries to lengthen the legs.

Site long on information

Steve Goldsmith is a healthy but short 5-foot-2. At 49, he has had to battle bias in the workplace for years. He works as a systems engineer and lives in Toms River, N.J.

"I was a midlevel manager, and I had a hard time getting through, having people listen to my contributions," he says.

He adapted as he could: "When I needed to start a business relationship, I would start it by phone; first impressions are incredibly important."

When Goldsmith looked online for short-support groups or organizations and found nothing, he decided to step up and, in 2000, started a Web site, www.shortsupport.org, which includes all manner of height information, from abstracts of scientific research to discussions of cultural bias.

About a year ago, he became an officer in a new advocacy organization, the National Organization of Short Statured Adults.

He says that every week, he receives 20 to 30 e-mails from people who are distraught about being short. About 70 percent are from men, and some are not even from those of below- average height.

"I get some e-mails from people who are 5-foot-10, and the goal is 6 foot," Goldsmith says. "That is the magic number."

His advice for those who are short -- or just feel that way -- is simple.

"I try to tell them to pick one thing that they're very good at where height doesn't matter at all and dedicate themselves totally to that," he says. "They grew up with people putting them down, and success is a way of attaining self-esteem."

Hall suggests that maybe some of those earnings-and-height studies should be rethought, discounting money as the prime measure of success.

"This is a very narrow bandwidth of human value," he says. "You can also ask, 'Who has dinner with their family every night?' "


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