Why Inches Matter

Posted on February 17, 2014



Life in the Boomer Lane has been short for almost all of her entire life (birth doesn’t count, as most newborns are unusually short.) She didn’t notice it much when she was growing up (or rather, growing older), because everyone in her immediate family was vertically challenged. When she went out into the world, though, she gradually realized that a lot of people were over 5’2”. She has been struggling with this observation ever since.

Opening her email this morning, she immediately saw that an alert reader had sent her an article from NationalGeographic.com titled “Short People Got Lots of Reasons to Legitimately Feel Paranoid.” LBL doesn’t understand why NatGeo can’t confine itself to taking photos of baboons and entire societies who manage to live without VISA cards and Justin Beiber. Why are they bringing up sensitive issues that LBL would rather not dwell on? Against her better judgment, she set aside the post she had been working on about OJ Simpson’s hunger strike in order to end his life, and read the article.

She already knew that being tall gives one an advantage in life. Tall people get better jobs, have a better shot at becoming President, produce taller children, and their noses are further away from the litter box.  A new study conducted by Oxford University takes this even further, using virtual reality to allow participants to experience a subway ride at their normal height, and then that height reduced by ten inches.

LBL knew that she shouldn’t have read further. She had just watched an episode of House of Cards in which someone was thrown off a subway platform onto the path of an oncoming train. Now this. She was at risk of becoming subwayphobic.

For the study, 60 women were used. Nat Geo reports that “none had a history of mental illness, but all of whom had recently reported mistrustful thoughts.” Like House of Cards, which never seems to explain anything, the article didn’t explain what those mistrustful thoughts were and why mistrustful thoughts were a requirement for someone to be in a scientific study about height.

Back to the study: The subjects donned headsets and viewed monitors as they participated in two 3-D virtual-reality trips on the London subway system. They were able to move and interact with other virtual passengers, exchanging glances or looking away from others. The study doesn’t say whether there were panhandlers on the platform or if someone to was waiting to push them off the platform onto the path of an oncoming train.

The virtual train trips journeyed between subway stations, took about six minutes each, and were programmed and animated identically except for one thing: In one ride, the avatar representing the participant was reduced in height by a little less than ten inches. That’s “approximately the height of a head” in the words of Oxford clinical psychologist and lead researcher Daniel Freeman. This unfortunate description once again took LBL back to the scene in House of Cards. She feels pretty sure that being struck by an oncoming train would result in losing one’s head. Or, at the very least, giving one a terrible headache.

The results (of the study, not the woman who was thrown off the platform): Participants reported that during the ride in which they were made to feel shorter, they felt more vulnerable, more negative about themselves, and had a greater sense of paranoia. “The key to this study was there were no reasons for mistrust. Yet when the participants saw the world from a height that was a head shorter than usual, “they thought people were being more hostile or trying to isolate them. Height seems to affect our sense of social status. The implication is that greater height can make you more confident in social situations.”

Back to House of Cards: The person who was thrown from the platform was really short. What, then, did that do to her self-confidence? It’s bad enough to be thrown off a subway platform onto the path of an oncoming train, without having to worry that the reason this happened to you is that you are short, and therefore vulnerable.

The article then explains that “Taller men are perceived as having higher status, stronger leadership skills, and as being more occupationally successful than average or shorter males.” Although the evidence that such stereotypes affect women is weaker, “short females, too, are perceived less favorably in the occupational realm.”

What does all this mean for Boomers? The fact is that we are all shrinking. By age 80, we will have lost between 2-2.5 inches of height. If shorter people are at a disadvantage in society to begin with, what happens when those people who are naturally short just keep getting shorter? LBL has already written about this disturbing phenomenon.  She has thought long and hard about this and couldn’t come up with any positive advantage of being short, aside from being better able to spot coins dropped on the street. But the article does present one optimistic scenario:

“Watching our elders shrink in size might also bring out positive, nurturing emotions.” LBL’s 92-year-old Aunt Gert is now 4’5” tall and continues to shrink. LBL realizes that, at some point, Gert’s height will be the same as LBL’s grandchildren’s heights, and so she can see where this theory would hold true. And one advantage Gert has is that she is mostly stationary and LBL doesn’t have to chase her around the room in order to have a relationship with her.

The bottom line (It is good to use a bottom line, so that short people can see it) is that we can’t change our height or prevent shrinking with age. But we can choose to not watch shows in which people are thrown from subway platforms onto the path of oncoming trains. So we do have some kind of control over our lives.