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The long and the short of it

entertainment Updated: May 13, 2010 13:56 IST
Jane E. Brody
Jane E. Brody
Hindustan Times
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People of normal height or taller might be inclined to assume, as that silly Randy Newman song put it, that “Short people got no reason to live. ... Short people got nobody to love.” As someone who never broke the 5-foot mark, I can attest that most assumptions about short people are just that: assumptions. Here are a few facts.

Children who are naturally short are no less socially competent or intelligent than taller ones.
Being short was no deterrent to the likes of Yuri Gagarin, who, at 5-foot-1, was the first man in space or the actor Danny DeVito.
Short people can run countries (though not necessarily well): Napoleon, Caesar, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco.
Being short is no impediment to financial success.

These examples can be found in a charming and informative new book, Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All, written especially for teenagers (and I would hope their parents will read it, too) by a colleague at The New York Times, John Schwartz, who stands tall at 5-3.

His book is encouraging — presenting well-researched facts and life experiences that counter the myths and misinformation associated with being short, especially for boys and men. As a girl, I did not face the same slurs often flung at short boys by insecure taller ones. Instead I was labelled “petite.”

The height of the problem
The idea that “short kids have social problems,” as Schwartz puts it, is largely a myth, eagerly embraced by makers of human growth hormone. “When Eli Lilly was telling the government that it should be allowed to sell its growth hormone to kids who were simply small,” he writes, “it presented studies that supposedly showed that short kids are prone to teasing and bullying and ‘exclusion’ and they suffer from ‘social isolation’ and a ‘perception of lower competence.’”

But David E. Sandberg, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, reports in a study on shorter children that “short kids actually cope pretty well with being small.”

Summarising the research, Schwartz writes: “Height didn’t affect the number of friends the kids had, or the height of those friends. It had nothing to do with how well students were liked by others, what the others thought of them, or even of their own perception of their reputation within the school.”

Earlier research suggested that short people did not do as well on cognitive tests or were at a disadvantage in getting jobs and making money. But those studies, Schwartz writes, either failed to control for contaminating factors or were not supported by later research. For example, in testing children for intelligence and later earning potential, a number of the short ones may have had their growth stunted by disease, poor nutrition or other factors that can impair cognitive development.

Still, Schwartz wisely advises youngsters to make sure they maximise their growth potential by eating healthy meals that include protein (meat, chicken, fish and soy versions thereof) and plenty of fruits and vegetables, drinking milk instead of soda, and getting regular weight-bearing exercise to stimulate the growth plates in their long bones.

“There’s no evidence,” he concludes, “that being short is a terrible problem for people or that it predicts a second-rate life for us. You don’t have to be psychologically burdened by being short...”

-NYT