Comparatively Speaking
by Ellen Frankel
July 2006

I am at an awards ceremony for a local arts festival. My husband and I are sipping champagne, wandering through the display of watercolors, hand-painted furniture, pottery and photographs. The room is quickly filling up. Briefly, our eyes meet. We stare at one another, and then quickly turn away. We busy ourselves talking with our respective partners. She glances at me once again. I do the same only seconds later. She is the first to look away. I move on to another painting, and then, ever so casually, flick my hair over my shoulder and look back at her. She is already looking my way. We smile. We know, we two. We've never met, yet we share a secret bond.

A few minutes later, when our paths cross again and she is focused on a vase, I let my eyes wander to her face, her back, her legs and her shoes. Mostly her shoes. Heels? Or flats? I am comparing, of course (was taught to do it well), this woman who is within an inch of my height. Her short brown hair nicely frames her eyes. She is wearing a tailored black suit, which falls easily on her thin frame. Without those two or so inch heels, I might even be a inch taller.

She looks at me, and I look away. We know the rules. It is her turn to look.

In a crowd, I am startled by the appearance of a woman my height. We are startled by each other. When I see another my size, my body immediately adjusts; eyes focused ahead rather than upwards, shoulder and neck muscles relaxed. Equal. What must it be like to stand in such a posture all day?

Without saying a word, we know we share many of the same circumstances. For instance, we know that neither of us can reach the stewed tomatoes on the shelf at the local Stop and Shop and that we will obsess over who will sit in front of us, blocking our view, at the theatre. We've overheard others whispering about and pointing at our short stature. There's much more, but this is what I think about when our eyes first meet.

My husband sees me looking at this woman. He's seen this dance before, and has learned to stay out of where he doesn't belong. All 5' 10" of him. He's the helpful person who reaches the stewed tomatoes off the grocery shelf, the one who maintains that "all theatre seats have a good view." He's average, for God's sake! He can be supportive, but cannot enter this invisible club that exists in mind alone. We know, us members, we know.

As a child, I don't remember coming to the realization that I was short on my own. Rather, I recall snippets of comments and conversations about my height, mostly from adults who loved me. The words hung heavy in the air.

During my "growing" years, 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. I would position myself near my competitor, pretending to sift through the rack 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.

Like many healthy short children, my well-intentioned parents brought me to endocrinologists in search of inches. The climax of this pursuit led to a cross-country trip to determine if I would be a candidate for Human Growth Hormone (hGH) treatment. Luckily, I wasn't. The hormone treatment was derived from pituitary glands of human cadavers, and turned out to be dangerous and, at times, fatal.

The shortest of a short family, we bought into the cultural belief that taller meant better. Believing I didn't "measure up," my solution was to diet. I wanted to more closely approximate the ultra tall and thin models that decorated the covers of my glossy teen magazines.

The image I had of myself losing weight included 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 am 4 feet 8 inches tall with red hair and brown eyes. These were mere details.

As it turns out, I was not alone. The role model for most girls and teens is a Barbie doll who flaunts a figure unattainable in real life.

Throughout the day, store clerks, waiters, car mechanics and the like tell me that I look like a little girl. (I am 45 years old). Strangers have ridiculed my height with variations on the whole "shrimp" thing. Friends who are short have said they love standing next to me because it's the one time they can feel tall.

As a kid, 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." As a teen-ager, 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!"

When I spoke of my concerns about driving with an airbag, the car manufacturer advised me that with my height and weight I should sit in the back seat, despite my repeated attempts to explain that I am the mom.

Last week when I took my wallet out of my purse in an accessory store the sales clerk gushed in a singsong voice, "What a big wallet for such a little girl!" As if my stature were a measurement of how much economic power I am allowed!

As an adult, I continue to have my head patted, my cheeks pinched and to be referred to as a little thing. And the clincher is, you are expected to smile and laugh.

It's hard to be taken seriously when you are short.

It's important to look at how short people are treated in this culture, because their struggle is either invisible or ridiculed. Being short per se is not particularly problematic. It is the cultural bias favoring tallness and stigmatizing shortness that creates the majority of problems faced by the vertically challenged from school playgrounds to discrimination in the work force. What makes matters worse is the willingness of our society to treat the victims of this prejudice as patients in need of treatment rather than changing the cultural attitudes that led to discrimination in the first place.

In 1985, a synthetic version of hGH was developed for the small number of children medically in need of treatment (children who are growth hormone deficient)). The use has expanded. Increasingly, healthy short (i.e., non-growth hormone deficient) children are receiving treatment in an attempt to make them taller despite potentially serious health risks and questionable effectiveness. Treatment averages five years and $20,000 annually, with the parents giving the child daily injections of the hormone, hoping for some coveted inches.

The National Institutes of Health recently ran a 10-year study on 80 healthy short children to determine the safety and efficacy of the treatment. Even coated with science and medicine, the child is still being called a shrimp. In the consent form, the child is informed why he/she is being considered for the experiment: "Your parents have brought you to the National Institute of Health because you are shorter than most children your age." The study found that some children might add approximately one inch to their height after years of treatment. In July 2003, based on the results of this study, the Federal Drug Administration approved the use of human growth hormone treatment for healthy short children.

Using hormones to create a jumbo shrimp is based on the half-baked notion that being short is unacceptable. Frankly, it leaves this "shrimp" feeling raw.

Ellen Frankel, LCSW is the author of Beyond Measure: A Memoir About Short Stature and Inner Growth, (Pearlsong Press 2006). You can visit her website at: www.beyondmeasureamemoir.com.