The Economist, December 23, 1995
[Like most Economist articles, this was published anonymously.]
WHEN George Bush was America’s president and Daniel Ortega was Nicaragua’s, Mr Ortega threatened to cancel a local peace deal that the Americans had painstakingly brokered. Hearing the news, an enraged Mr Bush grasped for an insult worthy of the offence. “That little man,” he snarled repeatedly, dripping contempt. “That little man.”
Actually Mr Ortega is 5 foot 10 inches (1.78 metres) tall, which makes him a fraction of an inch taller than the average American–and not that much shorter than Mr Bush, who is 6’2″. Yet when Mr Bush was searching for an atomic but not obscene insult, it was stature that he immediately seized upon. In that respect, he was not being presidential: merely, rather, primate. For the primateHomo sapiens tends to sort its males by height.
Every boy knows, practically from birth, that being “shrimpy” is nearly as bad as being a chicken, and closely related at that. Call a man “little”, and he is understood to be demeaned. When Mr Bush called Mr Ortega “that little man”, his primate-male cerebellum knew what it was doing. It was engaging in what may be the most enduring form of discrimination in the world.
The bias against short men hurts them. It is unfair. It is irrational. So why is it not taken seriously? A serious question: especially if you happen to be short.
First the bad news
On the advice of our lawyers, we pause here for a mental-health notice. Tall men are invited to forge on, as are women (for whom it is weight, not stature, that is life’s bane–but that is another story). Short men, however, proceed at their own peril. What follows will depress them.
Height discrimination begins from the moment male human beings become vertical. Give 100 mothers photographs of two 19-month-old boys who resemble each other closely, except that one is made to look taller than the other. Then ask the mothers which boy is more competent and able. The mothers consistently pick the “taller” one. As boys grow, the importance of height is drummed into them incessantly. “My, how tall you are!” the relatives squeal with approval. Or, with scorn, “Don’t you want to grow up big and strong?”
Height hierarchies are established early, and persist for a long time. Tall boys are deferred to and seen as mature, short ones ridiculed and seen as childlike. Tall men are seen as natural “leaders”; short ones are called “pushy”. “If a short man is normally assertive, then he’s seen as having Napoleonic tendencies,” says David Weeks, a clinical psychologist at Royal Edinburgh Hospital. “If he is introverted and mildly submissive, then he’s seen as a wimp.”
Dr Weeks is 5’2″, so he may have an axe to grind. But he can prove his point. Turn, for example, to the work of two American psychologists, Leslie Martel and Henry Biller, whose book “Stature and Stigma” (D.C. Heath, 1987) is especially useful.
Mr Martel and Mr Biller asked several hundred university students to rate the qualities of men of varying heights, on 17 different criteria. Both men and women, whether short or tall, thought that short men–heights between 5’2″ and 5’5″–were less mature, less positive, less secure, less masculine; less successful, less capable, less confident, less outgoing; more inhibited, more timid, more passive; and so on. Other studies confirm that short men are judged, and even judge themselves, negatively. Several surveys have found that short men feel less comfortable in social settings and are less happy with their bodies. Dustin Hoffman, that 5’6″ actor, is said to have spent years in therapy over his small stature.
The western ideal for men appears to be about 6’2″ (and is slowly rising, as average heights increase). Above that height, the advantages of extra inches peter out, though very tall men do not, apart from hitting their heads, suffer significant disadvantages. And medium-sized men do fine (though they typically will say they would like to be taller, just as women always want to be thinner). The men who suffer are those who are noticeably short: say, 5’5″ and below. In a man’s world, they do not impress. Indeed, the connection between height and status is embedded in the very language. Respected men have “stature” and are “looked up to”: quite literally, as it turns out.
One of the most elegant height experiments was reported in 1968 by an Australian psychologist, Paul Wilson. He introduced the same unfamiliar man to five groups of students, varying only the status attributed to the stranger. In one class, the newcomer was said to be a student, in another a lecturer, right up to being a professor from Cambridge University. Once the visitor had left the room, each group was asked to estimate the man’s height, along with that of the instructor. The results are plotted in the chart above. Not only was the “professor” thought to be more than two inches taller than the “student”; the height estimates rose in proportion to his perceived status.
It is little wonder, then, that when people meet a famous man they so often say, “I expected him to be taller.” If you still doubt that height matters, look around. At the palace of William III at Hampton Court, London, you will see door knockers above eye level: the better to make callers on the king (who was, in fact, decidedly short) feel, literally, lowly. Or sit across from your boss in his office, and see who has the higher chair.
Now the worse news
Perhaps heightism is just a western cultural prejudice? Sadly not. In Chinese surveys, young women always rate stature high among qualifications for a future mate. Indeed, the prejudice appears to be universal.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas Gregor, an anthropologist at America’s Vanderbilt University, lived among the Mehinaku, a tropical forest people of central Brazil who were amazed by such new-fangled gadgets as spectacles. Among the Mehinaku, attractive men should be tall: they are respectfully called wekepei. Woe unto the peritsi, as very short men are derisively called (it rhymes with itsi, the word for penis). Where a tall man is kaukapapai, worthy of respect, the short one is merely laughable. His lack of stature is a moral as well as physical failing, for it is presumed to result from sexual looseness during adolescence.
“No one wants a peritsi for a son-in-law,” Mr Gregor writes. By many measures–wealth, chieftainship, frequency of participation in rituals–tall men dominate in tribal life. They hog the reproductive opportunities, too. Mr Gregor looked at the number of girlfriends of Mehinaku men of varying heights. He found a pattern: the taller the man, the more girlfriends he had. As he explained, “the three tallest men had as many affairs as the seven shortest men, even though their average estimated ages were identical.”
He went on to note that the Trobriand Islanders of the Pacific, the Timbira of Brazil, and the Navajo of America were among the many other traditional cultures that also prize male height. “In no case have I found a preference for short men,” he said. Among anthropologists, it is a truism that in traditional societies the “big man” actually is big, not just socially but physically.
It is not hard to guess why human beings tend instinctively to defer to height. Humans evolved in an environment where size and strength–and good health, to which they are closely related–mattered, especially for men. Indeed, they still matter, albeit less than they did. 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 good evolutionary sense. Perhaps the impulse is softened in a modern industrial society. But how much? Consider six aspects of a supposedly advanced culture.
Politics. In all but three American presidential elections this century, the taller man has won. By itself this might be a coincidence. And of course some short politicians thrive (examples include France’s Francois Mitterrand and Britain’s Harold Wilson). But the pattern is still clear, and is also found in:
Business. A survey in 1980 found that more than half the chief executives of America’s Fortune 500 companies stood six feet tall or more. As a class, these wekepei were a good 2.5 inches taller than average; only 3% were peritsi, 5’7″ or less. Other surveys suggest that about 90% of chief executives are of above-average height. Similarly for:
Professional status. Looking at several professions, one study found that people in high-ranking jobs were about two inches taller than those down below, a pattern that held even when comparing men of like educational and socioeconomic status. Senior civil servants in Britain, for instance, tend to be taller than junior ones. Shorter people also have worse:
Jobs. Give job recruiters two invented resumes that have been carefully matched except for the candidates’ height, as one study did in 1969. Fully 72% of the time, the taller man is “hired”. And when they are hired, they tend also to earn rather more:
Money. In 1994 James Sargent and David Blanchflower, of America’s Dartmouth College, analysed a sample of about 6,000 male Britons whose progress was monitored from birth to early adulthood. Short teenaged boys made less money when they became young adults (aged 23) than their taller peers–even after other attributes, such as scores on ability tests or parents’ social status, were factored out. For every four inches of height in adolescence, earnings went up more than 2% in early adulthood. Another survey, of graduates of the University of Pittsburgh, found that those who were 6’2″ or taller received starting salaries 12% higher than those under six feet.
Not only do tall people grow richer, rich people grow taller. They enjoy well-nourished childhoods and better health. The stature-success nexus further bolsters the social preference for height. And that preference is expressed in a coin that is even more precious than money, namely:
Sex. Mating opportunities are, at least in evolutionary terms, the ultimate prize of status. And here is the final humiliation for short men. When 100 women were asked to evaluate photographs of men whom they believed to be either tall, average or short, all of them found the tall and medium specimens “significantly more attractive” than the short ones. In another study, only two of 79 women said they would 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). “The universally acknowledged cardinal rule of dating and mate selection is that the male will be significantly taller than his female partner,” write Mr Martel and Mr Biller. “This rule is almost inviolable.” For short men, the sexual pickings are therefore likely to be slim.
So why don’t you care?
Is there, then, no good news for short men? No: there is none. And if, having read this far, you do not believe that height discrimination is serious, you are no doubt a tall person in the late stages of denial. Or, perhaps, you cringe at the thought of yet another victim group lining up to demand redress. Surely the notion of SHRIMPs (Severely Height-Restricted Individuals of the Male Persuasion) as an oppressed social group is silly, and the idea of special protections or compensatory benefits for short men preposterous? Actually, no–unless all such group benefits are equally dubious.
In general, the kinds of discrimination worth worrying about should have two characteristics. First, bias must be pervasive and systematic. Random discrimination is mere diversity of preference, and comes out in the wash. But if a large majority of employers prefers whites, for instance, then non-whites’ options in life are sharply limited. And second, bias must be irrational: unrelated to the task at hand. If university mathematics faculties discriminate against the stupid, that may not seem fair (not everyone can master set theory); but it is sensible.
In politically correct terms, people who share an unusual characteristic that triggers pervasive and irrational aversion have a strong claim to be viewed as a vulnerable minority group. Is the discrimination against SHRIMPs, then, pervasive? Plainly so. Is it irrational? Except in a few rare cases in which height might affect job performance, obviously. Is it hurtful? Just ask any of the parents who clamour to put their little boys on growth hormones. Will it disappear of its own accord, as people become more enlightened? Be serious. Try to imagine that a century hence, when genetic engineering allows designer children, parents will queue up for shorter boys.
In some respects, indeed, SHRIMPs have it worse than members of ethnic minorities. Jews, Asians and other ethnics often favour each other for jobs, marriages and the rest. If they are disadvantaged within the majority culture, they may at least be advantaged in their own. But short men are disfavoured by more or less everybody, including other short men. If they want to flee, they need to find another planet.
Yet no country seems to have any anti-discrimination protections for SHRIMPs. America now has laws that ban discrimination against 70% or more of its population, including women, the elderly, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific islanders, Aleuts, Indians, and the handicapped–extending to people with back problems or glasses. Britain bans discrimination against women and nearly every ethnic or cultural group, Rastafarians excepted. But SHRIMPs? The whole issue, if it ever arises at all, is simply laughed off.
What accounts for this peculiarity? America’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees the anti-discrimination laws, now boasts a man who has given the subject some thought. He is Paul Steven Miller, who is 4’5″ tall. To be exact, he is an achondroplastic dwarf. Medically speaking, a dwarf has a recognisable genetic condition marked by short limbs, average-sized trunk, moderately enlarged head, and so on. This is regarded as a disability in America, and is legally protected against discrimination.
Mr Miller favours protections for such little people. But he opposes extending protections to the “normally” short–men like America’s labour secretary, Robert Reich, who is 4’10” and hears no end of it. (Bill Clinton, looking at a model of the White House made from Lego, commented: “Secretary Reich could almost live in there.”) Why protect Mr Miller but not Mr Reich? Because, Mr Miller says, one cannot protect everybody. “It would be totally unwieldy to let everybody in.” Quite true. But convenient, too, to draw the line so as to include him but exclude a raft of other claimants. Convenience is not a principled reason for leaving short men to suffer their fates.
Indeed, it is hard to find any principled reason. Most of the obvious excuses for excluding SHRIMPs from the list of disadvantaged groups do little but show how arbitrary is the concept of any “group”. For example, one might argue that there is no obvious line that demarcates a man short enough to be a SHRIMP. True enough; but in a world where blood mixes freely, there is equally no clear way to distinguish, for instance, a “Hispanic” from an “Anglo”, or an American Indian from a “white” man.
Perhaps a “minority group”, then, must be an ethnic or hereditary grouping? Plainly not. If women, homosexuals and people in wheelchairs may be minority groups, then surely short men can qualify. American Hispanics have nothing in common except the “Hispanic” label itself (they are mostly identified solely by their names). At least SHRIMPs are all detectably short.
In the West, the past quarter-century has been an era of awakening group consciousness. Blacks and women, Asians and indigenous peoples, homosexuals and the disabled–one by one, all have come to embrace group-based identities and protections. The obese are now reaching for group status; and, in truth, they too have a case. So why not short men? Logically, there seems no way out.
Wee men of the world, unite!
Accordingly, The Economist demands that the European Convention on Human Rights grant SHRIMPs the protections that other disadvantaged minorities have already won. The United Nations should hold global conferences on the status of SHRIMPs. American federal contractors should be checked for height, to see that SHRIMPs get their fair share. Employers should bend over backwards to recruit and promote SHRIMPs, and should be fined for allowing workers to disparage them. Elite universities should make sure that they include sufficient numbers of SHRIMPs among their students and faculties. Not least, newspapers that snidely refer to short men as “SHRIMPs” should be subjected to long lawsuits, and the authors concerned should be sent for sensitivity training (even if they are only 5’7″, and write anonymously).
Then again, perhaps not. Knowing that short young men earn less money than other young men is, certainly, interesting. Knowing that only 9% of American Hispanics, as against 24% of non-Hispanics, hold a university degree is also interesting. But what do such facts imply? One does well to remember that they are mere statistical compilations, averages that blur together individuals who have virtually nothing in common. A “Hispanic”, for instance, is a mere Spanish-sounding name masquerading as a human being. A SHRIMP, similarly, is no more than a mark on a tape measure. To convert adjectives into nouns–as in “a SHRIMP”, or “a black” or “an Asian” or “a homosexual”–is to seize upon a single element of a person’s make-up and cast into the background everything else. This kind of thinking may be useful as a tool of social analysis; as a basis for public policy, however, it is treacherous.
For centuries, short men have shrugged their shoulders and carried on. They, at least, still see themselves, and are seen by others, as variegated individuals, not as a monotonal social group. That may be the best approach to all such human characteristics.