Short and Sweet
A new book defends the height-challenged and teaches kids about the misuse of science
When I was a kid, I was tall. Crazy tall. I was 5 feet 3 inches by the time I was 10. Everyone thought I’d ultimately reach 6 feet, like my Aunt Belleruth. Sure, Aunt Belleruth was gorgeous, but I wanted to look like everyone else. I envied Carolyn Schachter and Allison Page, the most petite girls in my class at Providence Hebrew Day School. They were adorable; I was a Sasquatch. I was fortunate that Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure hadn’t come out yet, or everyone would have called me Large Marge.
My first crush, Yoni Springer, was shorter than me. Of course, everyone was shorter than me. He was the smartest kid at camp and had the cutest smile. But he only liked me as a friend. I figured it was because I was dorky and awkward and uncute. I didn’t entirely blame my height, but my height was a huge part of why I felt dorky and awkward and uncute.
That’s why it was fascinating for me to read a children’s book called Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All by John Schwartz, whose childhood problem was exactly the opposite of mine.
I grew up tall in Rhode Island, the biggest little state in the union. Schwartz grew up tiny in Texas, the biggest big state in the union. (We know each other in the online community The Well though we’ve never met in person.) Today, Schwartz is a reporter at The New York Times who often writes about science. He’s also 5 foot 3 inches tall.
Short is unusual for a book aimed at middle-grade readers—it’s a mix of memoir and reported nonfiction, a look at the science of shortness. Schwartz methodically demolishes popular claims that short people are less successful in life than tall ones. He talks to scientists whose research is frequently cited as “proof” that short people have worse lives (fewer friends, less money, less brainpower) than tall folks, and he lets them explain that their work has generally been misunderstood or misquoted. He teaches young readers how to examine studies critically: Who performed or paid for this research? (Hint: If it’s a company that wants to make money by selling human growth hormone to parents of short kids, is it a shock that the research seems to prove that shortness causes misery?)
Schwartz teaches readers the difference between correlation and causation, something a lot of adults don’t even understand. He gives kids some of the grossness they love, in a discussion of the Chinese propensity for stretching limbs surgically to meet height requirements for certain jobs. One of the scientists Schwartz talks to, David E. Sandberg, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, did research showing that being short does not actually cause kids lasting psychological trauma or hurt their popularity with their peers and yet found his work cited by the FDA as proof that short kids have huge problems.
All this science-y stuff is presented conversationally and leavened with lots of personal stories and humor. Schwartz makes the point that being funny and social was his key to popularity in school. “We all compensate in one way or another,” he told me in an interview. “Everyone has something that sets them apart—you might think you’re too fat, too scrawny, too smart, too big-nosed.” So, why must shortness be pathologized? Maybe what makes us different can actually make us special.
Schwartz wasn’t traumatized by being short. He told me that the only person who ever got to him was his mother. “There was this pipe at my elementary school that ran between one part of the building and another,” he said. “The boys would jump up and slap it, and I couldn’t. Not only was I small, I was not athletic in any way. I couldn’t touch the damn pipe, and it bothered me. I had a little heart-to-heart with my mom, telling her this. The next time she was at school, she called, ‘Johnny!’ I turned around and there she was, standing under the pipe, resting her hand on it and smiling. She’s 5 foot 10 inches. She was teasing me, but it was also her way of saying, ‘This is no big deal.’ All the kids who’d seen me try to touch that pipe laughed. It just killed me. I’d confided in her and she made fun of me. But after that, I stayed after school and made a run at that pipe again and again until I could hit it. And I came home and told her. And she smiled.”
My favorite thing about the book isn’t Schwartz’s short stories. It’s the education in media and science literacy, which every kid should have. “We’re dependent on science to make sense of the world,” Schwartz said. “The founders of our country understood that the free flow of information is vital to democracy, and if you don’t have the tools to approach science, you can’t be an effective citizen. You can’t make informed decisions about climate change. You won’t understand economics enough to know whether the stimulus package is working. I used shortness as a topic kids might care about as a way to learn how to think about science.”
I’d add that so many kids are suspicious of authority; we parents should try to channel that suspicion. For instance, there’s no more effective smoking-prevention strategy than to tell kids “cigarette companies want to take advantage of you.” (Telling them “smoking is dangerous” or “smoking is only for grown-ups” is tantamount to inviting Joe Camel to the kid’s birthday party.) So, why not teach kids how science has been manipulated to sell growth hormones and create attention-getting headlines in the attention-starved popular press?
One great audience for this book: boys who don’t like fiction. I always tell my friends whose sons don’t read to give them graphic novels, sports bios, or an encyclopedia of farts and vomit. Now I’ll also recommend a funny book about marketing and the misuse of science.
Finally, a confession: I’ve never been attracted to short guys. (Let me quickly say that I’ve never had a problem with fat and/or bald ones.) But I suspect that’s a holdover from my youthful self-image as Olive Oyl. We all have our mishegas. I’m not tall or skinny now—I hit 5 foot, 5 inches when I was 12 and then simply stopped growing, at least vertically. Now I’m only a bit taller than the average American woman. (She’s 5 foot 4 inches. The average American man is 5 foot 10 inches.) But the heart wants what it wants, to quote someone one shouldn’t ever quote on the subject of human attraction. When I was dating, I was still carrying my own baggage. But things change. I was never attracted to back hair, techno, or the art of Victor Vasarely, but I love Jonathan, my husband, and now all those things are fine by me. So, I’d say to short boys (the book, alas, doesn’t really go into the problems specific to short girls): You’ll find someone who will love you. Look at John Schwartz: happily married to his high-school sweetheart, with three gorgeous kids. All of whom are taller than he is. But who’s measuring?