The other week I walked into a crowded train and was forced to take a seat next to a stranger, something I am accustomed to on my frequent forays into Manhattan. This time it happened again, however, and when it arrives it is always unexpected. There is no way to forecast it, and it is the fault of no one person.
I took in the man next to me, probably late 20s or early 30s, and his rambunctious, cute little tot of a daughter. It was her presence that caused me to more than merely glance. I noticed his excellent jacket and perfect fitting clothes, all of which were ideal for his figure. I quickly noticed, then, that next to me he looked gargantuan. There in front of me was a side-by-side comparison of our legs. His extended further than mine, almost touching the back of the seat in front of ours, and they also came up higher, sturdy enough that he could plant his daughter on them.
This is it, the moment every shorter man dreads, when the feelings of self-hatred and inadequacy spring back up, rising from the dead. I had to consider how much more of a catch to a woman this man was than I - after all, he had already fathered a child. I could not imagine any instance in regard to holding the eyes - the interest - of women in which I would have any practical advantage over him or others like him.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, this was nature's way of making things right, of weeding out the weak and preserving the superior versions of mankind. My legs are not as ideal to support a small child sitting upon them, making me less desirable by comparison. It would therefore make sense were I not to mate and father a child. Logic says I should be phased out.
These are the thoughts that often come through our heads, and certainly mine. For me, they are an unwelcome break from my usual assuredness that, flaws and all, I am a pretty decent, desirable fellow. At five-foot-six, though not particularly short, I have nevertheless been the subject of light ridicule for the sake of others' self-aggrandizement (such as assurance that I could easily make it through a game of limbo by taller guys during high school gym class). There are also backwards compliments designed to allow others to excuse themselves from facing head-on their assessments of me as inadequate (usually girls calling me "cute" in the same vein as they would a puppy). Life could be much worse, but it is far from a walk in the park, even for a guy just south of average stature. I sometimes look in the mirror at myself after dressing for a formal event in my dress shoes, which add an inch or two, and I think to myself that I am looking at the man I should have been but will never be. Taking off my shoes means a reduction in more ways than one. Taking them off and putting them on back on and repeating the process: Bargain bin me, ideal me; bargain bin me, ideal me; bargain bin me; ideal me. Such is the thought process. It is an understandable obsession.
I have also noticed throughout my 21 years roaming around unattended (as the late, great George Carlin would have put it) that feminism has been hard at work during the past two decades. A great deal of necessary things has been accomplished because of this, which need not be repeated here. Through that has arisen a term called "BBW," or big, beautiful woman, coined by Carole Shaw in 1979 when she launched the magazine of the same title. The term has continued to be embraced by women who are negatively affected by a culture that has unrealistic bodily expectations. Just because a woman is larger and curvy, the term puts forth, that alone does not negate her potential beauty.
"How to Look Good Naked," a reality show filmed on both sides of the Atlantic, hosted invariably by gay male fashion experts and featuring plus-size women dealing with insecurity issues, perfectly realizes the concept of "BBW." "This is what real women look like," observed an interviewee on the American version. Other terms have sprung forth, such as "chubby chasers" for men who prefer larger women.
However imperfect its means or ends may be, this movement seems to thus far be a positive one. Images of women in the media may continue to be skewed toward the unrealistic, but "real women" now have an outlet, an aspect of the feminist movement that has reached out with them in mind and cemented itself into society. They now have a voice and a place. As a result, it has become socially and politically incorrect for anyone, especially a man, to criticize a woman's figure. "No fat chicks" is now a phrase for the Dark Ages.
Something that goes unacknowledged, however, is that our culture encourages unrealistic images of men as well, and in very high proportions. Everyone remembers from high school the tall, hunky quarterback on the football team that every girl pined for. Stick-thin female models also necessitate chiseled, physically imposing male models - there are two sides to every story. One need look no further than a Calvin Klein catalogue. Nearly all of Hollywood's most popular leading men are taller than their average and shorter counterparts, and the public is quick to deride the latter such men, particularly the female public. The scanning of message boards on the Web site for International Movie Database (imdb.com) devoted to actors such as Scott Caan, Stephen Dorff and David Spade makes this painfully clear.
The unstated, overall message that culture is imparting is that dehumanized women deserve an outstretched hand and a restoration of dignity, whereas their male counterparts deserve derision. Our culture is particularly unkind to shorter men, irrespective of those simply not deemed physically superior or in good enough shape. Just look at personal ads on Craigslist or in the local paper and you'll find women requiring men to be tall, sometimes with exacting specifications. Shorter men are shunned by women to comic appeal in contemporary sitcoms with rip-roaring laugh tracks - the fact they face a home or apartment that is empty when they get home from work is a subject of hilarity. If contestants on "How to Look Good Naked" exemplify real women, these portrayals of shorter men similarly exemplify "real men." What does this tell us? Empathy for real men is non-existent in contemporary culture.
It must be acknowledged that the law of nature is that people will tend to mate with those of a similar level of attractiveness, height, weight, facial features and still more factors that play pivotal roles in the physical aspect. Human beings are essentially primal, and not nearly as evolved as we would like to think. Going back to high school, who did the football star date? The most popular girl, of course! They were likely the king and queen of the senior prom, too, since that is the way things usually play out. There is no arguing for a reform of human nature because such is impossible. These are base desires that dictate life. We could improve ourselves by acknowledging that.
However, since there has been a similar effort to humanize women who are less than the physical ideal, I therefore wish to follow in Shaw's footsteps and craft my own coinage: "SHM" - short, handsome men. That's right. Short. Handsome. Men. I would love to see it stick and gain momentum, because short men deserve it. No one deserves to be dismissed simply because of their physical makeup. I believe the term SHM, if widely understood and embraced, might prove helpful to shorter men in many aspects of their lives, particularly when it comes to romance and restoring confidence, much as BBW has done for full-figured women.
A society that makes an effort to humanize one discriminated group but does little to nothing to acknowledge another such group of equal importance is greatly flawed and in need of considerable revision. Such revision can only take place if affected groups are willing to speak up for themselves in eloquent, appropriate fashion.
For men, our masculinity itself seems to be in a constant state of flux, at least in American culture. No one can seem to agree on what makes a man a man anymore, neither the women we are trying to court nor ourselves. Is it having tattoos, the ability to play guitar or drink each other under the table? In spite of what the media would lead us to believe, I do not think so. One thing I think men are unanimous in understanding, however, is that height is not a sufficient measure of a man's character or masculinity, just as weight is not a sufficient measure of a woman's character or femininity.
A look at the cultural landscape shows that men have been shown that assessing women based solely on their physicality is inexcusably flawed. There is no shortage of opportunities to learn this lesson. Still, a second look reveals that it is accepted behavior for women to do this exact same thing to men. Like men before them, their problem of misjudging the opposite sex is not merely because of primal desires, but also a hostile cultural environment that mars reality. When we introduce change into that environment, however, we increase peoples' awareness and restore our vision. I therefore think SHM is a term long overdue - just as there are big, beautiful women, so too are there short, handsome men.