Heightism and unattainable beauty standards: The tall and the short of it

Conventional beauty standards do not promote health, they rather create the false narrative that there is only one ideal body type, and we unquestioningly subscribe to this

Reesha Ahmed | 04 November, 2021, 01:00 pm | Last modified: 04 November, 2021, 01:10 pm

Although body-shaming has become a popular topic of discussion in our society, there is another aspect of body-related prejudice that we turn a blind eye to. This is none other than heightism – the discrimination against individuals based on their heights.

This phenomenon affects multiple aspects of life in contemporary society, including but not limited to job prospects, romantic relationships, media portrayal and athletics. Unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards objectify human beings, reducing them to their physical characteristics alone. When it comes to height ideals, men bear the brunt of stigmatisation.

"I do not understand why short men think they can talk to me", a 22-year-old woman expressed this sentiment to her friend in a conversation about their preferences in men. The "conventionally pretty woman meets a conventionally handsome man" trope that we are accustomed to seeing on screen has undeniably played a part in perpetuating this discrimination.

When was the last time TV showed you a romantic relationship between a tall woman and a shorter man? The dearth of diversity on screen reinforces these stereotypes, resulting in the attractiveness of men being judged as proportional to their height.

Countless social science surveys have delineated the role played by mass attitudes in the institutional privileging of tall people. The public uncritically attributes positive traits such as intelligence, likeability, dependability, and leadership to tallness.

According to Arianne Cohen, author of "The Tall Book", men who are taller get promoted more, paid more and are considered better leaders than their shorter counterparts, not because they are more deserving, but because, "They've sort of gotten a halo in the society at this point", she says.

A study conducted by Andrew Leigh, an economist at the Australian National University, found that men who are 6-feet tall had annual incomes nearly 1,000 dollars more than men only 2 inches shorter, simply because taller people are perceived to be more intelligent and powerful.

Unsurprisingly, these advantages are conferred partly because taller people tend to exude confidence and leadership.

Eamonn Crowe opens up about the bullying and name-calling he faced at a young and impressionable age in his feature for the University of Exeter's student newspaper. He remembers being referred to as "vertically challenged" by a teacher in a classroom full of students.

"When I was younger, I often included a plea to be taller in my night-time prayers and I remember researching surgeries that claimed to make you taller online", he recalls. Those of shorter stature are conditioned to believe their height is a disability.

Eamonn confesses that growing up, he was conscious of his height, "I saw it as hindering my ability to be cool, attractive or masculine." Even though he has managed to overcome this insecurity later in his life, the account of his hardships is a testament to the fact that the shame many men experience throughout their lives because of the toxic male stereotypes that have been forced upon them.

So it is of little wonder that they do not have soaring confidence. Tall people have their fair share of struggles (discomfort in airplanes or cars, stooping down to talk to people), but these difficulties do not have the "systematic nature of oppression."

The oppression of short people is characterised by the negative view of shortness bound up within the myth of tallness. But discriminatory attitudes change according to gender. That is not to say that women are not discriminated against for not conforming to ideals.

However, in the context of heightism, men suffer the height of prejudice. Within the myth of tallness, tall and short are codes for masculine and feminine respectively. Since women are expected to possess "feminine" traits, it makes sense to society when they are short. Already the downtrodden sex, they fit neatly into patriarchal expectations and eventually are marginalised and disenfranchised on the basis of height and gender.

But patriarchy is a standard that entraps everyone, men and women alike. So, let us have a look at masculinity in the eyes of the patriarchy. Masculinity is defined by a set of immutable characteristics. Being tall, domineering, and imposing, all connote manhood.

The big macho tough guy is the epitome of toxic masculinity, and any man who fails to adhere to these constraining and potentially dangerous societal standards will be ostracised, excluded, rejected, and held up as an object of ridicule.

Humans come in a variety of heights and with the exception of hormonal conditions, overall, there is no way for one to increase one's height. Each person is born with genes that determine how tall he or she becomes. Height becomes an unattainable beauty standard once adult size is reached.

Setting a "normal" acceptable range for something that is beyond human control, and subjecting those who do not measure up to these absurd standards to discrimination and predjudicial treatment are nothing short of outrageous.

Ideal beauty has consistently been unattainable, and has led many to suffer through anxiety, depression, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and even death. Crushed by the weight of the feeling of not being worthy, valid, enough, some are pushed to the brink of suicide.

In 2000, Robert Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist at University of Oxford, UK, pointed out the correlation between the stature and social acceptability of men. His research showed that shorter men not only earned less but were also less likely to marry and have children.

"Because you never quite catch up if you start small, so all your life you find yourself at the bottom of the social pile. One could imagine that this might give rise to suicidal tendencies eventually," says Dunbar.

The global news publication Insider combined medical data to calculate the mean height for each of the 25 shortest countries in the world. Bangladesh ranks 9th on the list. The average Bangladeshi is 5 feet 1.92 inches tall, and the average Bangladeshi man is around 5'5.

One may conjecture that the bias against short men is nonexistent in a country where being "short" is the norm. But this is far from the truth. Heightism is just as pervasive and entrenched in our society as in any other.

In our culture, it is unacceptable for a woman to marry a shorter man, and if she goes against the crowd and dares to do so, she will never hear the end of it. Moreover, Bangladeshis, too, have a propensity for cruelty. Shorter people find themselves on the receiving end of teasing and name-calling at school, at work, and even at home.

The effects of short-shaming are multidimensional, culminating in irreversible damage to one's mental health. We must recognise that body-shaming in any form or shape is more than just cruel words. We must ask ourselves why aesthetics are more important to us than kindness.

This is when body positivity comes into play. Some argue that body positivity enables those who are complacent and lazy, and neglect taking care of themselves. This is a common misconception. This argument is rendered invalid by the fundamentals of body positivity.

Conventional beauty standards do not promote health, they rather create the false narrative that there is only one ideal body type, and we unquestioningly subscribe to this. This is damaging for people who do not fit these criteria. On the contrary, body positivity is founded on positive psychology, which focuses on respecting and appreciating one's body, whilst taking care of it.

Self-love and self-care are not mutually exclusive. People are sometimes shamed for physical features which cannot be altered, such as height. A body positive society has no room for bullying. Those who still call body positivity an excuse for being lazy are perhaps just looking for an excuse to be cruel.

For men with a low centre of gravity to have high self-esteem, we need to reevaluate what it truly means to be a man. Viewing something as superficial as a man's physical stature as a measure of his masculinity is one of the many problematic practices that we have to unlearn.

The word "manly" can denote courage, kindness and strength: the courage to stand up against injustice, kindness for all, especially those in need, and the strength of character to flourish even in the face of adversity.

It is imperative that the height hierarchy, beauty stereotypes and conventional expectations are dismantled so that people can take ownership of their authentic, multifaceted selves and understand that they are worthy, valid, enough just the way they are.

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I agree with you 100%


Where are the feminists’ outrage on heightism? Why aren’t the streets clogged by thousands of women wearing pussy hats demanding the end to this form discrimination? Why is it that feminist have absolutely no issue with demonstrating for equal pay, or against sexism or racism? But heightism? Not a word. How strange that women, who actually have total control of this form of discrimination, remain silent on it and do nothing to stop it, and some are actually vocal proponents of it.

Proof of this is easily found. All one needs to do is visit any online dating site and read women’s personal ads. Height requirements of men are listed openly and proudly so. No attempt to hide this discrimination what so ever. But if a man were to state his size preference of a woman’s breasts, hips or weight in his ad, it would be pulled from the site, immediately. This man would be lectured by women telling him that women of all sizes, shapes and colors are beautiful. How strange that women don’t apply that to men of all sizes, shapes and colors? Why doesn’t a man who is 5’2” get the same respect from women as a man 6’2”? This from the sex that demands equal treatment at every opportunity.

Any woman who mocks, insults or demeans a man based upon his height, is as much responsible for imposing oppressive norms of toxic masculinity onto men as a man who does the same to other men. If toxic masculinity exists, it is imposed by society and society means people of all genders, not just men. This toxic oppressive gender norm is controlled 100% by women, for women have established the height standards for society, not men. BTW. Why isn’t this behavior by women considered bullying? Wouldn’t female bullying be defined as Toxic Femininity? Women are just fine with this mistreatment of men and their lack of words and actions show how hypercritical and shallow they are.

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