Five Challenges Short Women Face
By Ellen Frankel, LCSW
Heightism, the bias
glorifying the tall and stigmatizing the short,
is the last acceptable societal prejudice. There
has been increasing attention given to the perils
short boys and men face, but less focus on the obstacles
short girls and women confront. Here are five challenges
short females face living in a heightist culture.
1. It is often said that it is harder to be a short
male than a short female. In this society, short
boys and men face a very public struggle.
On the one hand, they are subjected to the stereotypes
that go along with being male in this culture including:
being powerful, strong, respected and taken seriously.
These are the opposite of the stereotypes associated
with being short in this culture: being powerless,
weak, less respected, and taken less seriously.
For short boys and men, the struggle is public because
they are up against opposing stereotypes of what
it means to be male and what it means to be short.
For girls and women, the struggle is less obvious.
The stereotypes associated with being female in
this culture include: being less powerful, weaker,
less respected, and taken less seriously. These
stereotypes are consistent with the characteristics
of being short. On the surface, females have an
“easier” time being short, but that
is only because girls and women already occupy a
second-class citizenship despite gains they have
made, and being short simply feeds into these expectations.
All people, males as well as females, short as well
as tall, hunger for power and respect.
Short girls and women face challenges similar to
short boys and men but the struggle is typically
private and on an internal level because it is unseen
by the public. The prejudice against short people
is seldom acknowledged or taken seriously, and this
is especially so for females.
2. Heightism is either invisible or ridiculed, and
this is doubly so for short females. The prejudice
against short people is seldom acknowledged or taken
seriously. Yet research has shown that height prejudice
exists in politics, business, dating and sports.
While the emphasis on these areas of study has mostly
dealt with short men, short females face obstacles
that are given little, if any, attention. They are
often omitted from serious study.
For example, research has shown that height prejudice
impacts earning potential, with tall men earning
on average $789 more per inch than short men. While
we know that women in general earn 79 cents to the
dollar, there is a lack of research looking at how
women’s stature affects income.
Though the assumption is made that short females
have an easier time than their male counterparts,
short women had the added burden of first having
the reality of heightism ignored, and second, having
the plight of their gender dismissed as important
when heightism is finally discussed in a serious
manner, such as in employment discrimination and
pay differential. How much more might their income
be compromised by being short along with being female?
Short women also have to deal with subtle and not
so subtle challenges at work; they report being
taken less seriously, being treated in a childlike
manner, and offered less respect than taller workers.
For example, short women report being patted on
the head by colleagues, being ridiculed about their
size and being talked down to (literally and figuratively),
and even being physically picked up. When short
women give voice to their discomfort about such
treatment, their protests are often ignored or they
are told that, since no harm was intended, they
shouldn’t be so sensitive. Short females are
denied even their experience of being victims of
prejudice. The added notion that it is easier to
be a short female than a short male exacerbates
the difficulty in bringing awareness to the plight
of short women who are striving for equality, power
3. Short females face body image issues in response
to their height. Many short girls and women report
that comments about their body size are made freely
from strangers and friends alike, as if their bodies
are public property. Just like short males, short
females have been called shrimp, munchkin, and midget
and have been pointed to and laughed at. But short
females have had the added pressure of being told
that if you are short, you better stay petite. “Good
things come in small packages,” they are told.
The emphasis on thinness in this culture, especially
for females, is high. Short girls and women are
repeatedly told that because of their short stature,
they much be vigilant about their weight.
They are told that a few pounds on a tall person
are hardly noticed, but on a short person, every
pound shows. Eating disorders are related to issues
of power and control. The short female is already
facing the power struggle of being female in a society
where men hold most of the power, and being short
in a culture where the tall are associated with
Short females also must contend with the fact –
as do short males – that their height cannot
be controlled. These factors may contribute to short
girls and women engaging in eating disorder behaviors
as they strive to conform to half of the idealized
cultural image of being “tall and thin.”
Already feeling like they don’t “measure
up,” many short girls and women become obsessed
with their weight as one area where they can exert
some control, as they struggle to conform to the
demands of being “short and petite.”
4. The characteristic that go along with being short
and female may constrict behavior and healthy development.
The expectations of girls and women in general and
short girls and women in particular are to be nice,
acquiescing, and childlike. The familiar “short
and sweet” supports this notion. Many short
females report feeling stifled in their impulse
to speak their mind, offer an opposing view or to
show anger, power or drive. Behavior is curtailed
to meet societal expectations, but in the process,
the fullness of that girl or that woman is reduced.
The truth is that boys and girls, men and women,
short and tall have opinions, experience a range
of emotions, long for expression and for power and
respect. When stereotypes of gender and body size
work to inhibit such expression, there is a price
to be paid. Because society fails to acknowledge
the real difficulties short females face, it is
difficult to bring awareness, much less find solutions
to the many ways short females have learned to constrict
their behaviors and desires in the face of heightism
in general, and its invisibility in short girls
and women in particular.
5. Short stature and its relation to gender is political.
The fact that 75% of the healthy, short children
receiving human growth hormone (hgh) injections
in an effort to make them taller are wealthy, white
boys speaks to the power issues imbedded in heightism.
Our culture wants its males big at any cost. In
2003, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved
the use of Hgh for healthy short children in a quest
to add inches to height. This practice, of turning
the victims of a social prejudice against short
stature into patients in need of treatment, is troubling
on many levels. But the fact that 75% of those receiving
the treatment - which entails administering 6 shots
per week over an average of 5 years at a cost of
$20,000-$40,000 per year where at most 1-1 ½
inches are added to height, if any extra inches
are added at all - has become political in nature.
The majority of the recipients represent those who
are expected to hold power in this culture: wealthy,
white males. It speaks to the expectations of male
versus female, rich versus poor, and white versus
non-white. What we need is education for those who
discriminate against short people in general and
to challenge the myth that short females are immune
to height prejudice.
Heightism is a social problem, and the response
must be a social solution, not attempts to change
the victims of this prejudice, male or female, with
medical interventions in an attempt to change their
physical traits. The expectation for all growing
children should be that they become strong and healthy
adults regardless of gender and size. True stature
cannot be measured by the inches of a tape measure,
but by the size of the heart and mind that continues
to grow long after physical height is reached.
Increasingly, people are talking about short males,
and the issue of heightism has been raised in books
and on the news. This is useful, and that effort
is to be applauded. But short females have all too
often been omitted from this story. Both short males
and females face pressures and challenges as a result
of living short in a world that favors the tall.
Each voice deserves to be heard. The questions isn’t
really about who has it tougher - short males or
short females – but rather, how can people
of both genders and all sizes unite to confront
prejudices of all kinds, including heightism.
(Ellen Frankel, LCSW is the author of ‘Beyond
Measure: A Memoir About Short Stature and Inner
Growth’ (Pearlsong Press 2006). You can visit
her website at: www.beyondmeasureamemoir.com/)