Challenging Heightism and Weightism: Living Beyond Measure
Heightism, like weightism, is rampant in our society and is one of the last “acceptable” prejudices. We glorify tall people the way we glorify thin people, and stigmatize short people the way we stigmatize fat people. The tendency for people toround up their height and round down their weight is a symptom of this cultural bias. Because prejudice against both height and weight is so ingrained in our society, it is often invisible. Yet the effects are real both individually and collectively.
On being short
As a child, I felt I didn’t “measure-up” to the criteria of acceptability that was flaunted by the tall and thin models on magazine covers and television. I would imagine how wonderful my life would be if I could only stay on my diet and become thin enough. Yet that notion itself was like a shadow you couldn’t catch because the culture taught me early on that whatever I weighed, I must strive to weigh less and that there were other ways I “fell short” of the elusive ideal of physical perfection.
The image I held of myself losing weight was of a tall, leggy, thin woman walking along the seashore, my long blonde hair swaying gently in the breeze, my blue eyes as crystal clear as the turquoise sea. I would be, in essence, Sea Time Barbie. Never mind that I was and still am 4 feet 8 ½ inches tall with red hair and brown eyes. These were mere details. As it turns out, I was not alone. For many young girls, a Barbie doll serves as an early role model despite having a figure unattainable in real life.
On my “growing years”
I learned to feel badly about my size. I remember shopping excursions with my mother. When she would see another girl around my age and about my height, she would have me walk, ever so casually, to where the girl stood to see who was taller. I would position myself near my competitor, pretending to sift through the racks of merchandise, allowing time for my mother to assess. Returning to her side, my mother would report on the height differential. I hated those moments, but loved my mother.
As a pre-teen, my pediatrician once told me to make sure I marry someone tall “so you won’t have to worry about your kids being too short.” I remember leaving the doctor’s office that day wondering if Howie, my sixth grade love, was tall enough to make up for my obvious deficiencies. As a teenager, when I told my rabbi I was interested in following in his footsteps he laughed telling me, “You can’t be a rabbi, you’re too short to reach the pulpit.” There were neighbors who would remind me to be vigilant about what I ate. They explained that because I was short every pound I gained would show. They would tell how important it was to stay “nice and petite.”
During my childhood, my parents and doctors searched for ways to add inches to my height based on the belief that taller meant better. My shorter than average parents took me to different endocrinologists to see if anything could be done to increase my stature. They followed the societal dictates to thin out fatter children and grow shorter children to give them that extra edge (or inch) in life. When I failed to grow taller, my solution was to diet even more so that I could meet at least half of the cultural ideal. If I couldn’t be tall, I reasoned, then least I could be thin. This notion led me into years of eating disordered behaviors.
Our culture holds one body type above all others and encourages altering the physical body to more closely approximate that ideal as if one were merely taking up the hem of a skirt to meet the changing fashion. We are a society obsessed with outer appearance and the belief that with enough will power and determination weight loss is possible despite a diet failure rate of 95–98 percent over the long-term. We are taught that a thinner body will bring happiness, success and respect. A $50 billion diet industry continues to pedal this myth encouraging people of all sizes to lose weight and to fear fat. As a result of this pressure, there are increasing numbers of people struggling with eating disorders and others suffering with the potentially devastating consequences of diet pills and weight loss surgeries.
On the “growth” industry
The diet industry is bad enough, but now a new industry has emerged. I call it the “growth” industry. Literally. The extreme of height prejudice is seen in the July 2003 Federal Drug Administration’s approval of the use of human growth hormone injections for healthy short children in an attempt to make them taller. Treatment consists of administering 6 injections to the child per week at a cost of $20,000-$40,000 annually over an average of 5 years. Studies show at most a child may gain 1 to 1 ½ inches, if any additional height is gained at all, and there are potentially serious side effects. These include diabetes, high blood pressure, severe kidney damage, exaggeration of scoliosis, headaches, fever, spontaneous bone fractures and possible associations with certain types of cancers. Yet the number of children undergoing this treatment continues to rise.
Are we willing to treat the victim of a social prejudice with medical technology that supports and reinforces that prejudice? Being short isn’t the problem any more than being fat is the problem. The problem lies in the cultural attitudes that proclaim taller is better than shorter and thinner is better than fatter. What is needed is education for those who discriminate, not the attempted physical manipulation of those who are the victims of that prejudice.
So many of us are taught that how we appear is more important than who we are. We are taught to weigh our self-esteem by the numbers on the bathroom scale or against the inches of a tape measure. I know my Achilles heel, and for a long time that heel craved a stiletto. No longer. Now I am proud to stand on my own two feet, short legs and all, and take a stand. Heightism, like weightism is real. Individually, we can begin a revolution by accepting our own body for the miraculous gift that it is. Collectively, we can celebrate size diversity and work together to challenge the various manifestations of height and weight prejudice. Our self-worth should not be based on the size or shape of our bodies, nor should others be judged by such criteria. Who we are, in our fullness, is truly beyond measure.
By Ellen Frankel, LCSW
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Fall 2006 Volume 4, Number 4
©2006 Gürze Books
About the Author
Ellen Frankel, LCSW, has worked in the field of eating disorders since 1987. She is the author of Beyond Measure: A Memoir About Short Stature and Inner Growth (Pearlsong Press 2006), and the co-author of Beyond A Shadow Of A Diet and The Diet Survivor’s Handbook. Visit: www.beyondmeasureamemoir.com
Dr. Gnap website editor eatingdisordersrecoverytoday.com. Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.