Heightism: 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 and respect.
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 power.
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/)


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