Archive for June 16th, 2008

At 5’9” (175 centimeters), I am on the short side of average for a man born in North America. However, I’ve never noticed felt my lack of height. For one thing, the last few decades’ immigration from countries with a traditionally lower protein diet make me closer to average in a crowd. For another, like many shorter men, I have the self-concept of a much larger man.

I don’t mean this in any metaphorical sense. Contrary to stereotype, I feel absolutely no need to compensate for a lack of inches with an aggression that might be mistaken for steroid popping, or with an exaggerated sense of competition.

Nor am I not likely to order an invasion of northern Italy or the reoccupation of the Rhineland to compensate for my lack of height. My own insecurities lie elsewhere.

Rather, I’m being literal. You see, until I was fourteen, I was tall for my age – I just didn’t grow more than a few centimeters after that. When I was entering adolescence, I was one of the two or three tallest and stockiest boys in my school, and that left a mark on me.

Objectively, I know I no longer physically dominate my immediate space, but, on some basic level, I seem to believe that I still do. Usually, I don’t think much about my height, but, every once in a while, I notice how tall some other person – usually a man – is in relation to me, and get a surprise when I realize that they are actually taller than me. Even after all these years, I still expect to be one of the taller people around. Nor have I entirely forgotten what being tall is like.

If you’ve never been tall for your age, you might not realize that, whatever other facets your personality has, height gives you a privileged position. Even if you are shy in other ways – and in adolescence, I could be extremely shy – you get used to being the first to catch everyone’s eye when you enter a room or location, and being able to see from the back of a crowd. That can be especially pleasing to you if you’re single, because members of the opposite sex will notice you, if only briefly.

Also, extremely short people seem fragile to you, so much so that you may feel a condescending pity towards them out of all proportion to any real difference to your strength. There are still times when having to elbow my way to the front to see seems an assault on my dignity, and I feel odd at times, knowing that a very tall person is looking at me and thinking dismissive thoughts.

Another characteristic of being tall is that you tend to have two distinct ways of using the space around you. If you are feeling anti-social or aggressive, as a tall man you claim as much space as possible, sitting with your legs forever sprawled out in front of you and your arms spread out along the back of your chair or couch. By contrast, if you are more polite. you are careful not to claim more than your share of space, especially around women. Sometimes, you may even claim less space than you need to be comfortable, as a courtesy. Even today, I tend to behave like a polite tall man, although if I’m feeling contrary towards someone, I occasionally find myself claiming all the space I can at their expense.

All these responses are muted in me today, but I remember them, and I am still aware of their remnants. They took a long time to fade, partly because my mental image of myself – like most people’s – is always a few years behind the physical reality, and partly because the endorphins and adrenalin addiction of heavy exercise gave me a separate reason for physical confidence. When I realized around the age of twenty that I would be a short man, I was unsettled, because the thought was so unexpected.

Still, if I try, I can remember being tall, and that occasionally works for me. Because I know what physical confidence looks and feels like, I can summon up the illusion well enough that it has helped me bluff my way through some of the rare occasions of threatened violence in my life. More often, because I’m aware of the way that the tall use personal space when they’re bullying, I have been able to ignore it during negotiations, or nullify it by mirroring it. Like a butterfly whose coloration imitates a poisonous one, I am only mimicking in these situations, but bluffing can be a useful skill to have.

Otherwise, contrary to the impression you might get from this post, most of the time I don’t spend time worrying about my lack of height. Sometimes, I think I might have been a better runner if my calves were a few centimeters longer and in accordance to classic proportions, but that’s about it.
If anything, these days I take a wry pride in my size. After all, a bullet is a small thing, but with a gun to give it velocity, it becomes deadly. And if someone I’m negotiating with under-estimates me, for my height or any other reason, I’m quite content to let them; their attitude means that I can enjoy triumphing over them without feeling guilty.

But in the end, I can’t do anything about my height – less, really, than my hair color or the shape of my nose, since boots with heels make me clumsy. For the most part, I tend to dismiss the topic as irrelevant, except as a source of amusement at the foibles of both others and me.

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