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Why I’m so short
Thoughts about heightism
From time to time I burden you with some personal stuff, based on my belief that our values begin with who we are and where we came from. Besides, I’ve been writing this daily letter to you for almost two years, and you have every right to know a bit more about me.
So today I want to get very personal and tell you why I’m so short — a condition that led to lots of bullying and ridicule when I was a kid, which in turn helped shape who I am.
Starting when I was around six years old, my mother and grandmother told me not to worry that I was at least a head shorter than other kids my age, because I’d “shoot up” when I got to be 13 or 14 years old.
What did they mean, “shoot up?” I pictured a magic beanstalk. One morning, I’d wake up and be 6 foot 10, towering over everyone.
But by the time I was 15, the magic still hadn’t happened. I remained an inch under 5 feet. And never got any taller.
Soon after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, when the whole country seemed to be bubbling with optimism, my optimistic mother took me to see a doctor in New York who specialized in bone growth. He took a bunch of measurements, asked questions about the heights of my grandparents and great-grandparents (they were all normal), did some X-rays, drew some blood samples, and three weeks later phoned to say he had no idea why I was so short.
Reluctantly, I gave up waiting to shoot up.
By that time I wasn’t particularly worried about being bullied or ridiculed. But being a very short man was not especially helpful when it came to dating. A few years later, I attended an all-male college that seemed comprised almost entirely of big young men able to swoop the inhabitants of women’s colleges literally off their feet. (When I swooped in, they seemed to flee.)
That’s where things stood — as it were — until some 20 years later, when my wife (about five inches taller than I) and I contemplated having children. Medical science had advanced considerably over the two decades, because there was an answer to why I was so short.
I was a mutant. More specifically, I had inherited a mutation called Fairbanks disease, or multiple epiphyseal dysplasia — a rare genetic disorder that slows bone growth. (The actor Danny DeVito also has this condition.) Normal bones grow when cartilage is deposited at their ends. The cartilage then hardens to become additional bone. But my cartilage didn’t work that way.
Not only were my bones short, but the experts predicted I’d also have pain in my joints. I’d often tire. Have problems with my spine. Arthritis, all over. I’d waddle when I walked.
They were partly right. I have had problems with my hips, and in my late 30s had to replace both. And a bout of grand mal seizures around the same time, which neurologists couldn’t explain. And various aches and pains, which there’s no need to bore you with.
But the geneticist explained that the odds of passing this mutation to my children were very small. And even if they had it, the odds that it would slow their bone growth or cause any other irregularities, or be passed on to their own children, were miniscule.
We decided to have kids. And our sons turned out perfectly normal.
But what’s “normal” anyway? And why is normal so important?
I’ve had a wonderful life. I have a loving family. I’ve had good friends, work that I consider satisfying and important, reasonably good health except for the above-mentioned problems. So what if I’m very short?
From time to time, worried parents of abnormally short children phone or email me, seeking reassurance. I tell them what I’ve told you, just now.
I also tell them that if they or their children are desperate, they can resort to limb-lengthening surgeries, growth hormone treatments with unknown and potentially dangerous side effects, humatrope, and a wide variety of homeopathic or crank remedies.
But I gently urge them not to do any of these things. I tell them to love their short kids. Inundate them with affection, and they’ll be okay.
So many parents seem to be worried about their child’s height these days. Adda Grimberg, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says, “20 years ago, families were focused on health. They came in with a child who was not growing right and wanted to know if there was an underlying disease. Now, more and more, they’re focused on height. They want growth hormone, looking for a specific height. But this is not like Amazon; you can’t just place an order and make a child the height you want.”
David Sandberg, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, did a study of hundreds of children in the Buffalo area and found no real problem with being short and little benefit to being tall. In fact, height didn’t affect the number of friends those kids had or how well they were liked by others, what others thought of them, or even their own perception of their reputation.
Yet when psychologists Leslie Martel and Henry Biller asked several hundred university students to rate the qualities of men of varying heights on 17 criteria, short men were assumed to be less mature, less positive, less secure, less masculine, less successful, less capable, less confident, less outgoing, more inhibited, more timid, and more passive. In another study, only two of 79 women said they’d go on a date with a man shorter than themselves (the rest, on average, wanted to date a man at least 1.7 inches taller).
Heightism has even infected our language. Respected people have “stature” and are “looked up to.” People are more likely to make disparaging cracks about short people because nobody gets pulled up short for doing it. Except for Randy Newman, who went too far with his “Short People (got no reason to live)” song, which he has apparently regretted ever since.
When it comes to choosing leaders, our society is exceptionally heightist and seems to be getting more so. My dear friend and mentor, the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, was 6 foot 8. He once said that favoring the tall was “one of the most blatant and forgiven prejudices in our society.” (When we walked around Cambridge together, chatting away, people stared at us as if we were a carnival act. We laughed it off.)
When I ran for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, it seemed that the only attribute that reporters wanted to cover was my height. Regardless of what I said in my speeches, the Boston Globe ran photos of me standing on boxes so I could see over the podium. The right-wing Boston Herald even ran a headline on its front page charging “Short People Are Furious With Reich” because I had joked about my height on the campaign trail.
None of it helped me with that election. But I didn’t lose because of my height. I lost because I was a lousy campaigner.
Research shows that voters do prefer taller candidates. A paper published in 2013, by psychologists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, analyzed the results of American presidential elections dating back to 1789. They found that taller candidates received more votes than shorter ones in roughly two-thirds of all elections. And the taller the candidates were relative to their opponents, the greater the average margin of their victory.
Among presidents who have sought a second term, winners have been two inches taller, on average, than losers. The authors conclude that height may explain as much as 15% of the variation in election outcomes. Presidents are becoming taller relative to average Americans (as measured by army records of recruits of the same age cohort). The last president shorter than this average was William McKinley, elected in 1896.
Why are voters so heightist? Probably because of some genetic trigger in our brain that told early humans they needed the protection of very big men. Other things being equal, large males are more to be feared and longer-living; an impulse to defer to them, or to prefer them as mates, thus makes evolutionary sense.
In Size Matters, Stephen S. Hall writes that in the 18th century, Frederick William of Prussia paid huge sums to recruit giant soldiers from around the world, thereby giving tangible value to matters of inches and revealing “the desirability of height for the first time in a large, post-medieval society.”
Despite all this, I still advise parents of short kids not to try to boost their height, but instead to try giving them the inner security that comes with acceptance and love.
Hey, I’m okay with being protected by giant soldiers. Or big security guards. Or massive first responders. A trigger in my brain tells me that I don’t want to do these sorts of jobs, anyway.
I’m fortunate to have grown up (or at least grown upward) in a society that, more and more, values brains over brawn.
There are still bullies in the world, of course. But in a civil society, those bullies can be stopped with words and ideas.
At least, that’s been my faith. That’s how I’ve tried to compensate for my short height.