A new book, John Schwartz's Short: Walking Tall When You're Not Tall at All is aimed at vertically-challenged teens. So is human growth-hormone. And the fact that Thurgood Marshall nicknamed clerk Elena Kagan "Shorty" is not incidental to this discussion:
There's a part of the new indie Breaking Upwards where Zoe, the heroine, vents to her boyfriend about being a short woman in a tall person's industry. Zoe Lister-Jones, the actress, is beautiful and obviously accomplished, and it's hard to believe that her height could really be that much of an impediment. Yet, any small person could totally understand how she could feel that way. I recently showed one of my closely-guarded high-school pictures to a friend. It showed me, looking approximately 10, next to a friend of the same age, who looked like my babysitter. "So, wait," said my companion. "You were the tiny kid?" Yes, I was the tiny kid. Not merely "petite" or short, but miniscule, child-like, diminutive. My brother, for his part, was the tiny kid in his grade. We were famously small. He is now the size of a grownup man (although everyone we went to school with thinks of him as being 4'6"); I stayed small.
It's not supposed to be hard for a woman to be little; she's "dainty" and "petite." And while I can imagine it's even tougher for a guy in a world that's constantly trumpeting the great height of our commanders-in-chief and making small men the butt of cheap jokes, being little is no picnic for a young girl trying to come into her own. I'm not talking tailoring here or always forming the end of any group-picture semicircle; the challenges go deeper. (Although for a litany of such quotidian indignities, check this out.) Rather, it's very hard to be taken seriously; you're "cute" and almost novel. In a sense, you're hyper-feminized, but also not treated as an adult. Forget about being seen as a sexual object; people tend to regard you, often, as a sort of asexual perma-child, patting you on the head, handing you the children's menu and always, always assuming you'll just be delighted to perch on someone's lap when the car's full. (When my mom questions my impractical foot-wear, I tend to invoke this. She, five inches taller than I, doesn't know from patronizing.) It's already easy to feel invisible as a young girl- taking away the inches doesn't help.
This isn't a grass-is-greener thing; I know the challenges tall women face are unique and difficult (a hyper self-conscious visibility, perhaps, as opposed to that feeling of being unseen): all of us have to deal with expectations of femininity that are only heightened by any departure from the average. But I only know first-hand what I know, and that's being short. (Although, walking with my 6'4" friend in high school - frequently to the conveniently close "Tall Girl" and "Petite Sophisticate" outlets at the mall - we attracted unwanted attention and plenty of hilarity.)
As to the book, says the Times, "the idea that "short kids have social problems," as Mr. Schwartz puts it, is largely a myth, eagerly embraced by makers of human growth hormone." I remember being furious in high school that my parents hadn't plied the drugs and forced a few extra inches on me; I also remember yearning for one of those operations in which the shin-bone is lengthened with a titanium rod (until a friend pointed out that then my arms would be disproportionately short.) I remember thinking that, if I could only crack five feet (which I ultimately did, at 17) all my problems would be over. The boy I loved would see me as a woman instead of a precocious child; volley-ball wouldn't be an exercise in humiliation; somehow being a teenager would not be painful. (I have mixed feelings about the increasingly adult children's clothing out there; on the one hand, no kid should be sexualized. On the other, it would have been nice to have had options other than Gap Kids' elastic-waisted unisex jeans at 15.)
Of course, that's ridiculous: it's hard for anyone. The piece's author makes the point that, as a result of her small size, she was forced to become more assertive. Certainly, we read enough about the fabled Napoleonic complex. For my part, I wonder if, had I not been "the short girl," I would feel less invisible walking into a room, or more attractive walking into a bar. It's impossible to say; it's also an easy thing to point the finger at - because it's visible. But if a book like this makes any teenager feel more worthy, well, that's work well done. But is height ever incidental? Supreme Court Nominee "Shorty" Kagan will have to let us know.
Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan Has Charted Careful Path To Washington [New York Times]
Short? No Worries: Just Ask This Texan [New York Times]
Tall Tales About Being Short [New York Times]