by Carol A Westbrook
It’s been over 30 years since Randy Newman released his hit, “Short People,” singing, that they
“…. got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you every time
Well, I don’t want no short people
Most Americans recognized this song as a parody of racial discrimination. But few recognize the true significance of this song: short people are discriminated against, too!
You don’t think there’s discrimination against short people? Think again. I’m short, and I know. I’m at 5’2, below the average height for a woman (5′ 4.6″) and well below the average height for a man, (5’ 10.2″). In fact, half of Americans are below average in height. Yet they are expected to reach up to the top shelf of the grocery store, sit on chairs where their legs don’t reach the ground, drive cars in which they can’t reach the pedals or can’t see over the dashboard. Sometimes tall people don’t even see me, they just walk right past! Randy Newman had it down when he sang,
“They got little baby legs
And they stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello..
They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep…”
Newman’s song was a reminder that racism still exists, even though the Civil Rights Act had been passed 13 years before the song was released, and the Americans with Disabilities Act has been in effect for 4 years. Songs like “Short People” raised public awareness of ongoing prejudice against people who are different from ourselves, including people of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ. And it made a difference; America’s attitudes are recognizably changing, as we have accepted the fact that we are a recognizably diverse society.
In spite of these social changes, almost nothing has been done to protect the true victims of Randy Newman’s’ song: Short people! Thirty-two years have passed since Newman recorded his song, but only one state, Michigan, has a law prohibiting height discrimination in private employment! It doesn’t look like too many other states are going to follow suit. It’s about time we did something about this flagrant discrimination!
Terry Gross, a long-standing NPR commentator (and one of my personal heroes), said recently, “I’m wondering if [being tall] gives you more of a feeling of a sense of power. I say this from the perspective of someone who is under five feet, and I literally have to look up to everybody I talk to… I can’t see the tops of most shelves, I can’t reach things in supermarkets. “
I was shocked. Terry Gross, the self-confident, highly-respected radio star with the classic voice, is short? I pictured her as tall and svelte, with a commanding presence, and yet she is even shorter than I am! This, of course, made me realize that I, too, was prejudiced against short people.
What is it about short people that prompts us to think less of them — other than the obvious, that there this IS less of them?
Anthropologists have long recognized that taller stature is linked to increased social status, and this is true across cultures. Psychological studies have confirmed that this is probably because height is directly related to personal dominance. It’s not surprising that the two closely-related humanoid species that co-existed with our own species, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo floresiensis,were much shorter than their Homo sapiens contemporaries–that’s us–and are now extinct. Perhaps they were intimidated out of existence.
In our civilized, educated society, we believe we don’t succumb to these biological pressures. In our world, success is based on merit, ability, accomplishments, and leadership. But biological pressure unconsciously influences us, and height still has a lot to do with success in our society. Height impacts influences business, leadership, and even dating success!
There are many examples where height-impaired people get the short end of the stick. Studies have shown that people prefer taller dating partners. Politics? Almost every American president was above average in height. The tallest, Abraham Lincoln, was 6′ 4″. In a presidential election, the taller of the two candidates tends to prevail. Business? 90% of CEOs are above average in height, while less than 3% are below 5’7″. Short people are paid less than taller people, with disparities similar to those seen in the race and gender gaps.
Speaking of gender, height puts women at a disadvantage in general. An average woman, at 5′ 4.6″ is almost 6 inches shorter than an average man, at 5′ 10.2″ There is no question in my mind that the short stature of women puts them at a disadvantage when trying to keep up with men in jobs, leadership and salary. Although many men can’t break through the glass ceiling, few women can’t even reach it!
I’m only a little below average at 5′ 2.5″, and I’ve spent much of my life figuring out work-arounds. It gets annoying that I need a stepladder to reach all but the bottom shelf of my kitchen cabinets (why do tall men design kitchens for short women?). I drive a small sedan, and when I rent I have to request a small subcompact car if I want to stand a chance of seeing over the dashboard without having to sit on a phone book–if I can find a phone book. I have to ask someone to put my luggage in the overhead rack. And I pray that my feet reach the floor when I sit down at a restaurant; of course I avoid high-top bar stools. And so on.
What’s most frustrating, though, is the impact of my height on my career. In a professional crowd which is predominantly male, it’s typical for a woman to be overlooked–literally. Take for example, an informal get-together, such as a cocktail party at a professional meeting. Joining a conversation with a group of colleagues in this setting means most will just look over your head, and perhaps not even notice you’re there. They will talk down to you (literally), as if you’re their teenage daughter. You have a much better chance if you are all seated. And step up to the mike to ask a question at a seminar, and you might not even be seen; if you do get the floor you may have to stretch on your tippy-toes to reach the mike. No wonder you don’t get taken seriously! It’s frustrating, because you feel you should have an equal chance as a short person, because we’re all the same.
Yes, readers, it’s about time that we addressed the injustices against short people. We must take steps against height discrimination. All state should enact laws prohibiting height discrimination in the workplace, and perhaps also in kitchen design. I invite everyone to celebrate National Short Person Day, December 22, a day when we can all look down on our height impaired friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and treat them with the respect they deserve. We must plan a march on Washington, demanding equal rights for people of short stature!
Remember –half of all Americans are below average in height, but they deserve the same treatment as everyone else. As Newman sang,
Short people are just the same
As you and I
…All men are brothers
Until the day they die