Saturday, March 30, 2013

Heightism -- contemporary update

A recent issue of The New Yorker reminded me of the independent study project I pursued as a junior  at Beloit College.  I've subscribed to The New Yorker for many years.  The magazine became some of my favorite reading material years ago in college when an English Professor of mine required us to read the magazine as part of the syllabus.  I have never read the entire magazine.  I go through phases in terms of what sections I will be sure to read every week.  Currently, that section is the "Briefly Noted" section that follows a longer book review.  The "Briefly Noted" section includes about four or five brief review capsules of newly published books.  That section inspired me to buy about three or four of the books I've read most recently. 

Not long ago, I was reading the "Briefly Noted" section in the March 25th issue of the magazine. The third entry was a brief review of a book called The Force of Things. The second sentence of the review reminded me of the Heightism project from my junior year in college.  The sentence read, "In almost every way, they are an odd couple: she is beautiful, tidy, calm; he is short, sloppy, irascible."  Though the sentence uses the word "odd," not opposite, it is clear that in the context of this description, the man has qualities that do not reflect the woman's qualities.  When identifying something about the male character that is "odd," when juxtaposed with the woman's beauty, the author of the review, rather than use a word such as ugly or unappealing or even plain, chooses to use the word short.  Actually, the author didn't necessarily choose to use the word short.  Most likely, the male character in the story is characterized as short.  What's interesting though is that the author of the review chose to link the woman's beauty and the man's shortness as a way to contrast the characters.  Clearly, in this context, the word short is intended to be negative.

I would argue that there is no reason why short should be connected with a negative or a positive.  People are short or tall just like people are light or dark.  Just like light or dark are not directly connected to good or bad, or handsome or unattractive, tall and short are not directly connected.  The connection happens when cultural values are included.  Within popular culture today, big is valued more than small.  Because of this, the author of the review can successfully use the word short and have it carry a negative meaning. 

The problem with this is that the values of the published work are then subjected onto the society that the publication represents.  On its own, there is nothing wrong with shortness.  But the publication indicates that shortness is indeed a negative.  Who knows what difference one word in one review will make.  But the more often the word, or similar words, or used in such a way, the more likely it is that society will embrace that value, which in turn will make it more difficult for individuals who happen to be small.

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