Releasing The Shame of Being a Short Man: Standing Up to Societal Oppression

I’ve been short all my life. From the time I started school I was the shortest boy in my class. My mother told me not to worry. “Your uncles are tall, I’m sure you’ll grow to be tall like them” Both she and my father were under 5 ½ feet tall and even in college my mother was still telling me that my promised growth spurt might still be ahead of me.

            She didn’t tell me that at 5’5” I was just fine as I was, and she certainly didn’t tell me that as I got older I might actually lose some height, but I’d still be just fine. She did tell me I could be anything I wanted to be, even the President of the United States. She didn’t tell me that most all candidates are taller than average and usually well over 6’ tall. She didn’t tell me that taller men earned more money or that they were considered more dominant, healthy, and intelligent. She didn’t need to tell me because she was sure I would grow tall like my uncle, not grow to my God-given height like my mother and father.

            My mother and father were divorced by the time I was six years old and my mother began dating a man who was very tall. “I’m six one or six two,” he told me when I asked. “I’m not really sure exactly.” It was clear that my mother, like most women, preferred tall men over short men.

            I didn’t have to wait until college to experience the shame of being short. I was always seated in the front row because I couldn’t see over the heads of the taller boys and girls. When we played games after school, I was usually picked last for teams. It was clear that the girls I was attracted to weren’t interested in the shortest boy in class. They were drawn to the taller boys.

            By the time I was in junior high I found that I was picked on and bullied by bigger kids. I learned to fight to protect myself and found I garnered some added respect from the boys but didn’t receive any greater interest from the girls. On top of being short, I was shy and retreated into sexual fantasies and movies about unrequited love.

            I learned early that I couldn’t do anything about my height or about my big nose and large ears. What I could do was to become “successful.” I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. But it was clear that studying hard and getting good grades in school was a start. It was also clear that financial success might get me more female attention.

            I got my first “real job” when I was eight years old. I sold greeting cards to everyone in the neighborhood and used the money to give little gifts of candy and trinkets to my friend Caroline who lived up the street. She accepted my gifts, but I was devastated when I saw her holding hands with Timmy.

             In college I was drawn to psychology and philosophy, but it seemed that doctors made the most money so I studied biology and chemistry and took other “pre-med” classes. I graduated magna cum laude and went off to medical school at U.C. San Francisco Medical Center. My girlfriend at the time liked the idea of being married to a doctor and our families exchanged “my son, the doctor” stories.

            In my first twisted steps towards liberation from the “man box,” I dropped out of medical school in favor of graduate school in social work. I wish I could say it was a rational decision or even a crazy rebellion against the social mores that put doctors at the top of the pecking order and hence might balance out the low status of being short. Instead, after not sleeping for five days and nights, on the spur of the moment I left class, walked into the dean’s office and told him I wanted to leave.

            In quick order, a replacement was contacted, I transferred to U.C. Berkeley, enrolled in the school of Social Welfare, and made plans for a June wedding. I did have to see a psychiatrist that the dean of the medical school brought in from Tiburon to evaluate my mental status before they would sign off on my transfer. It seemed that anyone who would give up a four-year, full-tuition, fellowship at a top medical school in order to become a social worker, must be crazy.

            The June wedding went forward as planned, though I always wondered whether everyone was so stunned at my quick departure from medical school that they weren’t fully aware that I had actually left. My wife and I had two wonderful children and a marriage that lasted ten years. When we divorced, it wasn’t lost on me that she was drawn to one of our tall male friends and eventually married him.

            My second, liberating step in breaking free from what our dominant society thought a “real man” ought to be, was when I joined a men’s group in 1979. Up to then, I had been spending all my time trying to figure out how to get the women I wanted to want me. I also spent a lot of time and energy trying to make it to the top of my profession so even women who might not want me, might still jump in bed with me.

            For the first time in my life, I was with a group of men, all of whom were taller than me, but I was just one of the guys and my height didn’t seem to be an issue for them in how they valued me. We all had things we were dealing with and we all had insecurities that kept us from fully embracing the best of who we were. Over the years, we all came to love and accept ourselves, and each other, just the way we are.

            We still meet regularly now after being together for 42 years. Two of our members have died. One dropped out because of increasing dementia. The remaining four of us are planning to be together until death do us part. In my most recent book, 12 Rules for Good Men, the first rule I offer is “join a men’s group.” I believe that being in a group of caring, supportive, men can help us all to find and honor our true selves.

            I believe it was author Brennan Manning who said simply,

“Be who you is, ‘cause if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t.”

            A year after I joined the men’s group, I met Carlin. The attraction was mutual, but she was 3 ½ inches taller than me, so we almost didn’t get to a first date. I had always dated women that were shorter than me, which limited my choices, but Carlin was beautiful and we were willing to talk openly about our attractions and our reservations.

            We could both acknowledge that in the big scheme of things, our relative height was less important than our integrity, humor, passion, care, love of life, and so many other qualities we saw in each other. We could also talk about the societal conditioning that tells us who we should be and what we should consider attractive in the opposite sex.

            What prompted me to write this article was a recent episode in which Oprah Winfrey interviewed world-renowned actress, mother and activist, Sharon Stone about her life and revealing memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice. Stone talked about her traumatic childhood and the sexual abuse she experienced in her family. She and Oprah also talked about the way the dominant society diminishes women, particularly as they age.

            “I think that as we grow older, we have this societal pressure where people start to try to tell us that our worth is diminished,” said Stone. “You’re not attractive now. You’re less now. And so there’s this thing that you just get hit with and hit with and hit with that’s supposed to silence you. And I think that this is incredibly planned, prepared and oppressive specifically so that women don’t gain their own power.”

            Women have taken the lead in revealing, naming, and standing up to the oppressive system of domination that attempts to diminish women and take away their power. I realized that the same system attempts to diminish men--men who may be non-white, non-heterosexual, and not tall. Like women, there are some kinds of oppression that are so pervasive we just get used to them. We usually deal with them personally and silently. But sometimes, we have to step up, tell our own stories, and trust that they will be heard and be helpful to others.            

I look forward to your comments and hearing about any personal experiences my own life journey may encourage you to share. If you would like to read more of my work, please visit me at MenAlive and subscribe to my free newsletter

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