Heightism is a form of discrimination based on height. In principle it can refer to unfavorable treatment of either unusually tall or short people.

Heightism and bullying

Research shows that shorter people are more likely to be victims of bullying. Because bullying during childhood and adolescence often undermines the victim’s self-esteem, some researchers speculate that the lower levels of achievement of shorter people (particularly men) in later life may be partly or largely explained by this lower self esteem rather than by discrimination.

Heightism in employment

Some jobs do require or at least favor tall people, including some manual labor jobs, most professional sports, and fashion modeling. U.S. military pilots have to be 64 to 77 inches (163 to 196 cm) tall with a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches (86 to 102 cm). These exceptions noted, in the great majority of cases a person’s height would not seem to have an effect on how well they are able to perform their job. Nevertheless, studies have shown that short people are paid less than taller people, with disparities similar in magnitude to the race and gender gaps.

A survey of Fortune 500 CEO height in 2005 revealed that they were on average 6 feet (183 cm) tall, which is approximately 2-3 inches (7.5 cm) taller than the average American man. Fully 30% of these CEOs were 6 foot 2 inches (188 cm) tall or more; in comparison only 3.9% of the overall United States population is of this height. Equally significantly, similar surveys have uncovered that less than 3% of CEOs were below 5′7″ in (170 cm) height. Ninety percent of CEOs are of above average height.

Some epidemiological studies have shown that intelligence is positively correlated, albeit very slightly, with height in human populations (see Height and intelligence). This does not imply that many short people are not highly intelligent, or that changes in physical height have a direct effect on cognitive ability. Intelligence is believed to be influenced by many different factors. Individuals with a wide range of intelligence can be observed at any given height. It may be that good childhood nutrition tends to result in greater adult height, and good childhood nutrition also tends to result in higher adult intelligence. A recent study using four data sets from the US and UK found that, after controlling for differences in cognitive test scores, there was no detectable independent effect of height itself on adult earnings. It did indicate that intelligence influences earnings. Taller people, on average are more intelligent because environmental factors such as nutrition during childhood, also influences intelligence. The study concludes that on average, taller people do not earn more just because of their physical height.

Others believe that height has a significant independent impact on economic success, pointing to specific instances of height-based discrimination. Surveys of attitudes do reveal that people both perceive and treat people of shorter stature as inferior, and that economic differentials exist which may be the result of height discrimination. The relationship between height, cognitive ability, and discrimination based on height remains a subject of debate.

Heightism in politics

Taller candidates have the advantage in electoral politics, at least in the United States (where statistics are available for study). Other countries may be different, such as Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is 5'5" (165 cm) and the newly elected President Dmitry Medvedev is only 5'2" (157 cm). Of the 43 U.S. Presidents, only five have been more than an inch (2.54 cm) below average height. Moreover, of the 54 U.S. presidential elections only 13 have been won by the shorter candidate, and only 11 times has the shorter candidate received more popular (as opposed to electoral) votes. Quantitative studies of U.S. Senators and Governors have shown that they are on average several inches taller than the U.S. population at large. During the 2004 election, some anti-Bush artwork and political cartoons depicted him as much shorter than he actually stood, favoring Kerry, who was taller.

Non-electoral politics are more difficult to study, as outcomes based on height are more difficult to quantify. Nevertheless, a number of powerful dictators have been below average height. Examples include Engelbert Dollfuss (4′11″; 1.50m), Deng Xiaoping (5′0″; 1.52m), Kim Jong Il (5′3″; 1.60m), Nikita Khrushchev (5′3″; 1.60m), Francisco Franco (5′4″; 1.63m), and Joseph Stalin (5′5″; 1.65m). Contrary to popular impression, Napoleon Bonaparte at 5′8″ (1.73m) (taller than the average Frenchmen at the time) and Adolf Hitler at 5′8″ (1.73m) were both within the average height range for their times and places.

In the United Kingdom, the influential Spitting Image satirical television series depicted David Steel as a midget. This was credited with undermining his political career When the French president Nicholas Sarkozy made a state visit to the UK in March 2008, the British press was uncommonly united in passing comment on the fact that he is a short man and in carrying a closeup photograph showing the sizeable heels on his shoes in contrast to the flat shoes of his taller wife, Carla Bruni.

See also Napoleon Complex and Heights of United States Presidents and presidential candidates.

Heightism and conflict

Heightism is cited as one of the underlying causes of the Rwandan Genocide, in which approximately one million people were killed. It is believed that one of the reasons that political power was conferred to the minority Tutsis by the exiting Belgians was because they were taller and therefore (in the eyes of the Belgians) considered superior and more suited to governance.

Heightism in dating and marriage

Heightism may also be a factor in dating preferences. For most women, the height of a man is a major factor in sexual attractiveness.

The greater reproductive success of taller men is attested to by studies indicating that taller men are more likely to be married and to have more children, except in societies with severe gender imbalances caused by war. Quantitative studies of woman-for-men personal advertisements have shown strong preference for tall men, with a large percentage indicating that a man significantly below average height was unacceptable.

Conversely, studies have shown that women of below average height are more likely to be married and have children than women of above average height. Some reasons which have been suggested for this situation include earlier fertility of shorter women, and that a shorter woman makes her partner feel taller in comparison and therefore more masculine.

It is unclear and debated as to the extent to which such preferences are innate or are the function of a society in which height discrimination impacts on socio-economic status. Certainly, much is always made in newspapers and magazines of celebrity couples with a notable height difference, especially where a man is shorter than his female partner (for example, Jamie Cullum, five inches (12.7 cm) shorter at 5'6" (168 cm) than Sophie Dahl, though the difference is often exaggerated).

Heightism in the media

In the media, heightism can take the form of making fun of short men in ways that would be unseemly if directed at skin color or weight (especially female weight). Examples of characters whose short stature is exploited for comic value are:

The portrayal of short men in the media is in general negative. Short men are either ridiculously unsuccessful in regards to career and/or romance (e.g. Spence Olchin and Bud Bundy) or they are unlikeable tyrants in need of compensating for "something" (e.g. Lord Farquaad). Notable exceptions are roles played by Michael J. Fox (especially Mike Flaherty from the TV series Spin City, where a short man is portrayed as an attractive and likable person, who is successful both in romance and career), and Kevin Connolly's portrayal of Eric "E" Murphy in HBO's television series Entourage (Connolly is 5'5" (168 cm)). Similarly, although the actor Daniel Radcliffe was cast in the role of Harry Potter as a young child, the fact that he has reached an adult height of only 5'6" (168 cm) means that the Harry Potter film franchise now also effectively provides a positive portrayal of a shorter male hero. When Daniel Craig was announced as James Bond in 2005, intense criticism of the casting decision (made by EON Productions) included the notion that the actor was too short to play 007, even though at 5'10" (178 cm) Craig is above average height for a white British man.

In 1987 the BBC comedy series A Small Problem imagined a totalitarian society in which people under 5 ft. (152 cm) tall were systematically discriminated against. The programme attracted considerable criticism and complaints which accused the writers of reinforcing prejudice and of using offensive terms; the writers responded that their intention had been to show all prejudice was stupid and that height was chosen randomly.

The "Archaeology Today" sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus deals with heightism in which an interviewer humorously admits to assessing his subject’s credibility based on their height.

In a 2006 cartoon episode of Family Guy, the second coming of Jesus is depicted, with Jesus very obviously being much shorter than the (modern) crowd he speaks to. In the show, this causes uncertainty and surprise among the crowd. In the cartoon series Invader Zim, the alien race of the Irken had a class system based entirely on height, the empire being ruled by those of the greatest stature, literally referred to as the Almighty Tallest.

Similarly, shorter men are often denied leading roles. Although some famous cinema actors such as Alan Ladd and Tom Cruise have been short in real life, in their fictional depictions they have been presented as taller. Randy Newman's song Short People deals with heightism in a satirical, light-hearted manner as a protest against bigotry in general. Nevertheless, some people find this song offensive.

On the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, Richard Hammond's height is usually mocked by the other presenters, particularly Jeremy Clarkson.

Height discrimination legislation

Currently, there is one state in the United States of America, Michigan, that prohibits height discrimination. There is pending legislation introduced by Massachusetts Representative Byron Rushing which would add Massachusetts to the list. Two municipalities currently prohibit height discrimination: Santa Cruz, California and San Francisco, California. The District of Columbia prohibits discrimination based on personal appearance. Ontario, Canada prohibits height discrimination under the human rights code. Victoria, Australia prohibits discrimination based on physical features under the Equal Opportunity Act of 1995.

Examples of successful legal battles pursued against height discrimination in the workplace include a 2002 Chinese case involving highly qualified applicants being turned down for jobs at a bank because they were considered too short; a 2005 Swedish case involving an unfair height requirement for employment implemented by Volvo car company; and a 1999 case involving a Kohler Company informal practice not to consider women who applied for jobs unless they were at least 5 feet 4 inches (162 cm) tall. Height requirements for employment which are not a bona fide occupational requirement are becoming more and more uncommon.


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