On the Flip Side: What Do You Mean I’ll Always Be This Short?

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On the Flip Side: What Do You Mean I’ll Always Be This Short?

By Thea Gonzales

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I’m 17 years-old, and at the apex of my natural height, I tower 60 inches above the ground. “Cute,” some of you may be thinking as your brain dings and you successfully convert inches to feet. But over the years, this unsolicited genetic “gift” has given me more issues than “awws.”

Like the average high school student, sometimes I have the ego of a baby butterfly. That means that if Jamie won’t go to homecoming with me or Mrs. Smith gives me back my test with a frowny face, I will maybe re-evaluate every one of my life choices for the next 10 to 40 business days. You know what hits self esteem with a brick harder than a hoco proposal gone wrong? Thinking that people don’t treat you seriously.

Forgive my cliches for just a paragraph. As teenagers, there’s always going to be some Breakfast Club or Holden Caulfield-esque mindset that posits that we are forever misunderstood. All we want is to be part of the world, but adolescence is some alien period of time wherein neither children nor adults can relate to us. Think Britney Spears’ album: Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.

A lot of things go into perfecting your image to the outside world: communication skills, etiquette, integrity. And then the most dreaded yet often the most quickly judged attribute. That’s right: appearance.

A few weeks ago, fourth grade classes from Thomas Edison Elementary visited our prairie (that little old thing behind the fleet of rumbling buses– maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of it) and were given a tour from APES students. All sorts of cool stations were set up: prairie plant bookmarks, mural making, and even arthropods (insects with exoskeletons, segmented bodies, jointed appendages, and no backbones) in buckets for observation.

I had the exciting “backyard prairie” station where I explained different types of native plants that could be incorporated into gardens at home. With a partner who decided to ditch me and only an Erlenmeyer flask of native plants (some fake) to aid me in my presentation, I was the star of the prairie… not.

Throughout my presentation, kids would walk away from me, hide in the prairie, and constantly interrupt. Some even tried to steal the fake birds that were in the display! It was ridiculous, but I knew I had to patient because they were younger than me; I didn’t feel so bad until I asked other students in my APES class how their kids acted. To my surprise, no one else had any other problems with the fourth graders. In fact, every senior I asked told me that their kids were well-behaved and interested in what they had to say. This left me dissecting everything about my image: what was I doing that was making these kids not take me seriously?

Now, maybe I was a little too hard on myself because fourth graders aren’t necessarily known as the most conscientious of age groups; their age absolutely affects their maturity, and that’s no one’s fault.

But as president of choir board, that insecurity crept into other areas of responsibility in my life. All of a sudden, I was asking myself questions like “do they think I’m mature enough to be in this position? Should I be wearing practical heels and pleated slacks and working on my flowchart for the next 10 years?” You may be thinking that it’s irrational to believe that my stature affects my presidency, but there’s no denying the evident correlation between appearance and respect in positions of leadership.

4-foot-8 freshman, Caleb Throop, has experienced this disrespect from strangers and even people younger than him.

“If people are my age, I feel like I’m taken seriously; younger kids on the other hand… it depends on how young they are. If they are 0-4, they usually listen to me. But if they’re older, not so much. They ask me how old I really am and they tell me how short I am and how I must be lying that I’m my age. One example was in 8th grade. I was [a] bus patrol so I was in charge of taking the 2nd graders to their buses. There was this one tall 2nd grader and he was as tall as me…. And he never listened to me, and when the other kids saw him not listening to me, none of them did. It was utterly humiliating,” Throop said.

Especially when operating in the workplace, a disrespectful environment can greatly affect a person’s performance level and self esteem.

“I work with kids and they’re all practically taller than me so they kind of equate height with authority. They have more fear towards [taller employees]. They look up to them literally and figuratively, so they obey them more often. Taller equals older, which equals scarier,” 5-foot-1 senior Elizabeth Witt said.

This is not an attack on appearance– not by any means. I am not blaming anyone for the way they are treated based on the way they look. Of course that’s something you can’t control.

But for vertically challenged people, there’s always the underlying fear that people aren’t taking us seriously. Some of us can’t pass for seniors and most often get “adorable” in place of “beautiful” or “handsome.” Why is that?

“Just the other day, me and a friend of mine who’s around my height were going into the cafe and the lady who swiped our cards looked at us and laughed. I asked her what was so funny and she said, ‘you guys can’t be college students, can you? You look so young!’ Peeved but curious as to how young she thought we were, I asked how old she thought we looked. She replied, ‘oh, 13, 14 at most.’ She then laughed again when we looked angry at her and gave the usual remark of ‘oh you’ll enjoy it when you’re older.’ That phrase is SO OLD,” 4-foot-10 alumna Sarah Schierbeek said.

Assumptions made by strangers about age is closely tied with height and can quickly grow frustrating.

“Because I was so short, the waiters and waitresses at restaurants would always ask me if I wanted a kid’s meal,” 5-foot-2 sophomore Anthony Ty said.

Unconsciously, when you approach a tall person, you think several things: maturity, strength, dominance, and sometimes even “please don’t take my lunch money.” When you approach a short person, you can guess what impressions you inherently form: childishness, weakness, and incompetence.

“Shortness is associated with femininity and femininity in this society equals weakness. I feel like we are never seen as authoritative because when you picture a CEO, you picture some tall boss man in a suit or a tall lady in heels,” Witt said.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re most likely laughing. Why am I making such a big deal about how others treat shorter people? They’re just jokes, bla bla bla.

Jokes can be great; if you know anything about me, you know that I enjoy a good laugh. But the harm lies in the repetition of these constant put-downs. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but that’s probably because you haven’t had to deal with this. What sounds like jokes to one group of people are actually targeted snubs toward another. For shorter people, persistent digs on height aren’t funny: they have a significant role in self-respect and confidence.  When your features are constantly made fun of through jokes, your mind starts to make connections between “short” and “lesser than.” In time, you begin to feed your own insecurity because you’ve been conditioned to associate your height with power.

In a study from Oxford University published in December of 2013, 60 women wore headsets that allowed them to virtually experience a ride on the subway– the catch was in the modification of heights. After  “riding” the train for 6 minutes at their regular heights, participants repeated the program again; this time, the only thing that changed was the reduction of each test subject’s height by 25 centimeters (roughly 10 inches). After the height reduction ride, participants reported feeling a loss of power. They felt “more vulnerable, more negative about themselves, and had a greater sense of paranoia.”

As a short person who has had to deal with veiled insults her whole life, Sarah Schierbeek is no stranger to short jokes and has specific advice for all the giants in the world who continue to treat others’ appearances as entertainment.

“Every short person has their limits. I don’t care in moderation, but when a short person tells you to stop, you stop. It’s not funny when you go too far. I have friends who do that and it pisses me off– which fuels their desire to make more [short jokes],” Schierbeek said.

So how should you be treating your “pint-sized” pal? Try being more sensitive when making jokes and comments about how tall they are, for starters. No one’s asking you to walk on your knees and apologize every time they can’t reach something from the highest shelf, but a little sensitivity goes a long way in ensuring that your friends feel respected for who they are and what they bring, not dismissed for something that cannot be controlled.

“A lot of times, people don’t take me seriously. One example was I was at Panda Express and I went up to order, and the lady looked over me and started talking to the next person behind me. And I tried saying stuff and she kept ignoring me until I pulled a chair out, stood on it, and started talking. So I don’t know if she didn’t see me or what… strangers always– and I mean always– think I’m four to six years younger than I actually am. Even in the hallways, people will ask me if I’m actually a freshman. Then when I say yes they ask me how many grades I skipped. When I am in stores buying things and I’m in line, the cashiers will think I’m the child of the person behind me because they’ll start talking to them instead of me,” Throop said.

Regardless of how far you are from the ground, honor your power, shortstack. When people don’t take you seriously, it’s because they’re letting your appearance speak in place of your actions. Ignore them and continue to do your job with the mindset that you are competent and in that position for a reason. With that attitude, it won’t matter how far you are from the ground; you’ll be reaching new heights.