short people

I am five foot six-and-a-half. That’s how tall I am. There are five feet, and six-and-a-half inches of Charlie Duncan in between the floor and the top of my head. That is how much me there is.

This has generally never been a problem for me psychologically. I was a bit put out by it as a boy, being a little bit less tall than the other boys, but I’ve always made up for it with a certain amount of intellectual confidence. I also try to be as pleasant a person as I can be, and I think on the whole people like me. Additionally, I’m good at what I do, and this helps. So my height is rarely an issue. Plus, I mean – I’m not even that short.

So, I’d like to say that was all there was to it.

Unfortunately it isn’t. Tonight, for example, I was invited by a friend – a good friend, I think, one I like and admire a lot – to come over to her house for the evening. She had another friend over, too, who was attractive and nice and apparently single-ish, and I got the impression that my friend was trying to get us to meet each other, at least partly to see if we would get on well.

The problem was that my friend kept on and on, over and over again, about me being short. As if it was a problem.

I have no idea why she did this, because this friend is a kind and brilliant person who has always been perfectly lovely in every other sense, and I know that she will be absolutely mortified to read this and realise she’s upset me at all. And I don’t think she meant it maliciously or intended it to be harmful. But it was still kind of uncomfortable.

At one point we were even doing the ridiculous childhood thing of all standing up and measuring our respective heights against each other to see how tall we were, with the result being that I was, by about three-quarters of an inch, not quite as tall as this girl I had just been introduced to.

We all got on quite well otherwise; but later in the evening, when this girl went to the bathroom, my friend whispered to me, “You really fancy her, don’t you?”

“Well, I don’t know…she’s quite attractive I suppose…” I said.

“You’re too short for her,” my friend said. And my heart sank.

It just went on and on, to the extent that, however funny and charming and nice I might have been, if her friend had ever had that kind of interest in me at all (and of course I have no reason to believe that she would have), she would definitely have doubted by the end of the evening that she might be able to get together with me without anyone’s height being an issue. I mean, it’s unlikely of course, but it’s not impossible that if we’d all just sat round a table and no mention of it had been made, this girl and I would have got on fantastically well and by the time she even realised I was an inch shorter than her it wouldn’t have mattered.

I guess I’ll never know, because my friend made it matter.

I was even naïve enough to think I’d got away from it at the end of the evening, with an interesting story from doing stand-up comedy. This is a good place to leave it, I thought, announced that I was leaving, and hugged my friend goodbye. “You’re so short,” she said, again. Which led to another conversation about height in which my friend said that the ideal height for a man was about 6”0, which prompted the girl I had been introduced to add that she guessed perhaps the ideal height for a man for her was maybe even 6”2, and at that point I decided to just cut my losses and get out.

The thing is, there are some things which are caused by what we might call chance of birth. We can’t do anything at all about them, however much we might like to. As well as height, those things include things like skin colour, biological sex, age, genetic disabilities, what kind of person we find attractive, the country we were born in, or how rich or poor our parents are. We might like or hate these things about ourselves, and some people have argued they should somehow be compensated for, but the point is we can’t really do anything to change them. Some of them can be hidden: we can dye our hair or change our gender, etc. But height can’t be hidden. It’s just…there.

Of course, the things that one can’t control include who one fancies, and I have no objection at all to people having sexual preferences and prejudices. Personally I have sexual prejudices against men, children, and the elderly. This is uncontrollable.

But I find it horrible that people would consciously take the piss out of someone for any of these things. It’s just so unnecessary.

I used to have a rule as a stand-up comedian, and one that I think I kept to quite well mostly, that I would happily take the piss out of an audience member for stupid things they consciously say and do, but I would never take the piss out of an audience member for anything about themselves which they could do nothing about. It isn’t fair.

And by ‘take the piss’, of course, I don’t mean to make an occasional fond joke about it with that person in private, if it’s totally clear that it doesn’t hurt them. What I mean is, repeatedly drawing attention to some aspect of them in a way which actually harms or undermines them – or is reckless about whether it might harm them – either personally or socially.

One might say that height is fair game for this, that it’s not like ethnicity or gender because it’s not really a bad thing. But someone’s height does have a real effect on people’s lives. A 2004 study at the University of North Carolina found that someone my height is likely to earn an average of $5,525 less per annum than someone who is six feet tall (after controlling for age, gender and other factors). This is actually not far off the pay gap between men and women.

The study also found that there is a self-fulfilling cycle at play: when smaller people are given less respect socially, it leads to them both being less confident and being given less opportunities, because an unjustly negative view of smaller people is perpetuated and then reinforced. Which is why taking the piss causes harm.

Of course, I can’t complain too much because my salary is pretty good. And I would never claim to be more oppressed than people who didn’t have the same lovely upbringing and educational opportunities that I’ve had, or people who face actual violence or abuse, which generally I don’t. But height discrimination is still a real cultural problem that inexplicably just isn’t taken seriously enough in relation to the real effects it has on people’s lives.

Perhaps this is because discrimination against height, like age discrimination, is so endemically pervasive in our consciousness that it is rare for anyone to question it. Or perhaps it is because height never had any actual legal limitations on voting or civil rights attached to it, which other genetic or biological differences did. When feminists and racial equality activists successfully had those legal limitations lifted they realised they hadn’t gone far enough, and turned to addressing cultural inequalities – but this never happened for height discrimination, and the culturally engrained discrimination continues unchallenged.

Either way, I felt hurt by my friend.

And I’m glad that she didn’t do some other things which she could, using the same logic, have done: she could have spent the evening taking the piss out of her slightly-taller-than-average female friend for being ‘too tall’ (after all, I imagine she probably has as many social limitations on the people she can ‘acceptably’ go out with as I do, although whether she chooses to accept those social limitations I have no idea).

Or perhaps my friend could have invited a black or Jewish or disabled friend over, introduced them to the new attractive friend, and told them they were too black or Jewish or disabled for her. (All of which, I should point out, she would never ever do).

My friend didn’t intend any of it in a malicious way, she is still my friend and she is also, in so many other ways, an impeccable example of moral virtue. She was just a bit reckless about it. So I’m not going to be bitter about it.

But I want her to know – and part of the reason I have written this blog is so that, even if she doesn’t read it, I can get my thoughts straight to tell her the next time I see her – that it isn’t okay to take the piss out of people about their height. In fact, the reason why you don’t usually hear me complaining about my height is because I tend to quietly eliminate people from my life who make an issue of it. I don’t want to eliminate this friend, which I why I’d like her to know this. And if any other friends of mine are reading this, who might have commented on my height disparagingly at any point, and then not heard from me for a few months afterwards…well, now you know why.

And, to speak more generally: if there is a feature of somebody you know, any feature, that that person can do nothing about – even if they seem okay with it, as I (mostly) am – It is not okay to take the piss out of them for it.

It just isn’t okay.

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Addendum:

It’s 9am the following morning, and I’ve just had a quite upset phonecall from my friend who has read this blog. She is, as I thought she might be, absolutely mortified to think that she had hurt me.

She also explained a bit about the context. Apparently the girl she was introducing me to had made a remark previously about how she thought she could only find tall men attractive; and my friend said she knew someone who could make her think differently about that.

Which is something of a compliment, I think, even if she was a little clumsy to then keep referring to it when we were being introduced. People are influenced by these things.

I just wish it didn’t matter at all.

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