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The Long and the Short of It: The Life of a Height Outlier

Delegate Yao Ming, a former NBA basketball star who is 7′ 6″, attends the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

When the nurse footprinted my son at birth, she declared, “his foot almost doesn’t fit in the box” on her special Baby Footprint Form (nurses and doctors like things to fit into the boxes, I gather). Less than five minutes after my son’s birth, I had heard the first of what would be 12 years of comments about how tall he is.

My son is tall. This is true. If you ever see him and are tempted to say, “Wow, he’s tall,” rest assured that this will not be the first time the idea has occurred to us, or has been articulated. It’s not as if I’ll slap my forehead and declare, “Holy cow! You’re RIGHT! He IS tall!”

My son took up basketball this year, in part because now, when people ask him, “do you play basketball?” he can say yes. 

He comes from a tall family. Remember that one kid in class photos who was always smack dab in the center of the last row, at the vertex angle of the tallest-to-shortest triangle arrangement common to elementary class photos everywhere? That person was most likely me, my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law, or, now, my son. 

In the class photo, the shorter children were usually placed seated, cross-legged, on the floor. When reviewing the photo, parents might say of a first-row classmate, “Is that Joe?! Isn’t he cute.” Height outliers may be (much) shorter or (much) taller than the norm. But they aren’t equal-opportunity spectacles. The short aren’t called short to their faces, except by the very young or the very rude. People will say often (trust me), “He’s almost as tall as you,” but they will rarely ever say, “He’s almost not even up to your hip yet.” 

This is because people inclined to comment on height are not being unkind. They don’t mean it to be an insult, or they wouldn’t say anything. Tall is considered a positive social trait, even when you’re a serious height outlier. It’s said that you can’t play football, at any position, unless you’re over six feet these days. More tall men have gotten elected President. 

Ours is a vis a vis world. It’s governed by comparison, often invidious, and nowhere near as much as with children’s achievements, and height. As my son’s grown taller, the height of my heels seems to have grown as well. I think I’m subconsciously choosing shoes that will keep the vis a vis gap between parent and child by which we measure a kid’s height (and age) as close to normal for him as possible. 

It’s not that the height comments offend me. As for my son I think he mostly zones them out, like the background muzak of his life, at least consciously. However, what people can’t see, because they’re not around all the time, is the cumulative effect, the “identity by a thousand comments” impact, of hearing casual remarks on his height from so many, so often. 

The trouble comes when height outliers begin to conform their personality to their relentlessly-commented upon height. The tall look older, and are treated older. They are asked to “grow up” more, and earlier, than a child of normal-range height. The fact of their childhood and immaturity is more quickly and easily forgotten, and forgiven less, by strangers and relatives. Alas, I’ve fallen for the perceptual error myself. There have been too many exhortations that my son “grow up” when he was, in fact, a seven-year old. 

Perhaps with shorter people, it’s the opposite. Maybe they’re indulged, trivialized, condescended to, or treated like cute, doll-like people long into adulthood. Some have told me that they feel they’re not taken seriously as adults.

A few parents I know seem worried about the prospects of having a smaller child— if their child is a boy. For girls, it doesn’t seem to bother them as much. Maybe this distinction is a vestige of the pre-feminist days, when being “adorable”—and mildly infantilized—wasn’t such an unusual fate for a female. A girl’s little stature matched well enough with a belittled view of her future.

So often, we equate being a “small” child with being a young one, and being a “big” boy with being an old one. 

The confusion is more than rhetorical. It is the body making the man, and woman. 

Social psychologists have developed a theory of “enclothed cognition.” It holds that the experience of wearing certain clothing changes how we think and feel about our identity. In one experiment, students who wore lab coats described as “doctor’s coats” scored better on tests of attentiveness. 

The body is a sort of clothing, too, and more influential than a coat. The danger of such comments is how much our personalities change to conform, Procrustean-like, to our stature. 

Likewise with larger breasts. They are, to put it mildly, considered in our culture a nice sort of thing to have. But I’ve seen young women who have larger breasts, and who desperately want to be noticed for something other than their cup size. Eventually, they start folding their arms over their chests, or hunching inward, to minimize their breasts.This is enclothed cognition, with the flesh.

Comments about tallness or other extreme attributes, even when intended as compliments, are still acts of valuation, and, in a sense, intrusion. They interject our view of what we think constitutes a positive trait into someone else’s life. The comment implies, “Being tall is good, or at least not worrisome, so, as a stranger, I can comment on it,” and it says, “You should value your height, because abstractly, other people do.” 

Perhaps the height outlier agrees with you. Or, perhaps not. We never know what sort of person a person wants to become. People sometimes want to eschew or disregard even what others consider to be their physical gifts. Some don’t care for sexiness, or height, or breasts, or athleticism. Perhaps they’d prefer to be nerdy introverts, prudes, or an AA cup. Perhaps they’d prefer not to have their social identity so shaped by a trivial deviation from a physical norm.

Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree is about the most luminously compassionate book not only about parenthood but also the human condition that I’ve read in recent memory. He talks to parents with children who are outliers in matters more substantial, systemic, and profound than height. 

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The book made me ponder how much we classify and compare, even within the population of children who are typical in most all respects. They’ve not fallen far from the tree, but they’ve fallen a small bit away from the tree. And we make so much even of the small deviations. Solomon graciously intimates that the urge to compare—the ideals of our dreams against realities; variance against the norm—impede our embrace of the eclecticism that constitutes the human experience.

How much better our (parenting) lives would be, if we were suddenly deprived of all indicia of comparison—the smartest, fastest, tallest, cutest, funniest, prettiest, skinniest, most talented—but, instead, were left to embrace human variance through some means other than comparison.

Until that day, speaking as the parent of a height outlier, I’d feel not the least bit deprived or unhappy if I never heard another comment about my son that included the words “tall,” “basketball,” and “the weather up there,” ever again.


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