“I’m going to punch you and kick you because you’re such a m*dget, you deserve it”. It was the kind of politically incorrect playground insult that a low-calibre 1970s British drama would have considered “good TV”. I was twelve years old when the classic playground bully said this to me. Fortunately, the punching and kicking never actually followed. But growing up as a short guy in the UK, I feel I haven’t had the easiest ride since.
Up until that incident, I hadn’t thought anything of being small – I hadn’t considered it much of an issue. Playing rugby at school, I got the nickname “bullet kid” because my short stature enabled me to shoot across the pitch and slip through tight gaps. What exactly was wrong with being short? It was only a temporary arrangement anyway, I thought. I brushed the comment off and didn’t think much of it.
When I entered my teens, I naturally became much more self-conscious. The growth spurt I had been promised never happened. It felt like everyone was getting taller and I was just staying where I was. And by sixth form, when all other guys around me were six foot and beyond, I found myself entering an unhealthy cycle of self-blame, the root cause of which I could always trace back to my height. Why did she reject my invitation? Why doesn’t this group get along with me?
The answer is my height, I would tell myself. The self-blame was pretty cyclic. At that time, it always stung when someone pointed out or joked about my height, like I was being distanced or made an example of through no fault of my own. Such incidents were infrequent enough for me to forget about it within a few weeks and resuscitate my self-esteem, but just frequent enough that my esteem was never fully healed.
Going to university in London was a chance to start again. I wore elevated shoes that made me an inch or so taller. It gave me confidence when going out. I drank a lot and went out as much as I could. I believed at the time that the combination of a little extra height and a lot more alcohol was making me a new confident person. On a good night, it gave me such a high. On a bad night, I’d end up comparing myself to the 6 ft plus guys in my group, and wondering why they had it so easy and not me.
I overcompensated for my lack of height by trying to sustain as many friendships and meet as many people as possible. I truly believed that feigning confidence in this way could make me a more likeable person. Still, every now and then when someone made a joke about my height or pointed it out, it was like a hole was being poked in a perfect painting I’d created for myself that I would have to patch over. What would happen when there were so many patches that the painting was unrecognisable remained to be seen.
Towards the end of first year, I still went out in search for the glorious highs, only to end up with more dozy night buses and an ice cream addiction. My new confident alter-ego began slipping from my clutches and eventually, after a long drawn out summer, I crashed.
As I spiralled into the lows of pessimism, I realised some things that seem to be undeniably true: our society privileges taller men. A recent sociological study at the University of Exeter found that the shorter you are, the less well-off you are and the lower status job you have. This is particularly true of men. It is also widely reported that around 90% of CEOs are above average height (and, of course, are male).
Taller people are perceived as being better leaders and more masculine. Being short in the dating world is a tough grind, too - there’s no shortage of statistics for the positive correlation between tallness and attractiveness. Some likely reasons for the plight of the short included low self-esteem, discrimination and the lack of development of social skills.
But what’s most offensive about it all for me is not the idea that I will never be the most effective height for socio-economic success, but that there is this widespread assumption that socio-economic status and masculinity are, and should be, determiners of a “successful” life. Realising how these problems had as much to do with society as they did the individual helped me stop placing the blame on myself.
My eureka moment happened when I did this: I gave up. I stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t. I looked inwards. I paid more attention to who I really was, the things I truly enjoyed and my course at uni. I rebuilt myself from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
Admitting I could sustain no meaningful new relationships by pretending to be someone I’m not, I realised that what I had previously thought to be my greatest weakness has in fact turned out to be my greatest bullshit filter and the people I could truly form great connections with were those who did not form friendships on the basis of appearances. I’ve never been so comfortable in flat shoes.