In 1977, Randy Newman told the world that “short people/got no reason to live.” Certainly, Mr. Newman crooned in jest, but the stigma of being a short man undoubtedly can sting. Let’s take, for example, Danny Devito, whose five-foot stature attracted media bullying when he made his Hollywood break in the late 1980s.
Over at Genders Online, Michael Tavel Clarke highlighted these three insults leveled at the actor:
Newsweek: “DeVito has…becom[e] one of Hollywood’s hottest—and most unlikely—success stories. In a town of pretty-boy leading men, he has triumphed despite being typecast as five-foot and fiendish.”
People: “The odds against a short, balding actor being more sought after than Mel Gibson can make a guy feel like a lucky star.”
TIME: “Not, you might say, Hollywood’s idea of a leading man, unless for a Muppet remake of Rumpelstiltskin.”
For a more contemporary pop culture example, how many media jokes have we heard about the height different between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? Answer: I can’t tell you because I’ve become immune to them. Rock on in those heels, Lady Holmes. Same goes for French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who stands 5’5”, and his wife Carla Bruni.
But the short stigma is even more pervasive—if subtle—in everyday life. For while studies and surveys about women’s perceived attractiveness and height result in a muddled mix of preferences for statures diminutive and statuesque, things aren’t so fluid for men. Research repeatedly indicates that, statistically speaking, tall men enjoy certain benefits. And for that reason, I’d argue that height is physical trait, a beauty standard of a sort, which affects men more acutely than women.
Quick science lesson: On average, males grow 5.1 inches taller than females thanks to later onset puberty that allows for an extended period of bone development. Testosterone also triggers these cellular growth spurts, explaining why we culturally associate greater heights with masculinity.
Now back to sociology class: Is this just an example of evolutionary biology coming back to bite us, or could this be an issue of Western cultural priming, since average heights shift with latitudes and longitudes? After all, it’s culture, not biology, that heaps on the baggage of gendered traits associated with the masculine and feminine. For instance, a 1992 study finding that people automatically characterize taller men as more dominant and assertive than their shorter counterparts. On the flip side, we associate shorter men with anger and jealousy.
Economic researchers have even calculated a monetary value for height discrimination in the workplace. Specifically, when corrected for variables like age and gender and weight, an inch of height is worth $789 a year in salary. That means that a person who is six feet tall, but who is otherwise identical to someone who is five foot five, will make on average $5,525 more per year. (Personally, I still don’t buy that my five-foot nine-inch height will magically close the gender pay gap in my paycheck, but that’s another post for another time.) This isn’t just a Western phenomenon, either; systematic height preferences for employment also have been reported in China.
The National Bureau of Economic Research also found that men who were an inch or more above the national height average of 5’11” demonstrated higher levels of happiness and satisfaction with their lives. Maybe that potentially fatter income has something to do with it? Or maybe it has something do with this: taller men tend to have more sexual partners and are less likely to be single and/or childless in adulthood. (Again, we’re talking in statistics and averages, so this isn’t to say that no one finds shorter men sexy and that they’re all destined to die poor and alone.)
At the same time, the short stigma also manifests as stereotypes about Napoleon complexes and negative emotions, which is arguably just as flawed as judging people—male, female, transgender, intersexual—for their weight, appearance, disability, and so forth. These negative stereotypes obviously have gotten into our cultural psyche, too, as demonstrated by data culled from OKCupid. Why else would men who are 5’8” consistently round up their height two inches on average, in a similar pattern to women on the dating site rounding down their weight? As I’ve said before in this series (and I’m sure I’ll say again): different standards, same lies.