Monday, February 12, 2007

Size Counts

When Montreal filmmaker Howard Goldberg set out to make Short and Male, a documentary about attitudes towards men under a certain height, he expected to learn that there are indeed some cultural prejudices around.

But as Goldberg proceeded with his research, he was taken aback to learn that many social scientists and economists have found solid reasons to believe there are deeply-rooted negative biases against the short. Economists, including the late John Kenneth Galbraith, have chimed in on the issue, with the unusually tall Galbraith suggesting that height is one of the few remaining acceptable prejudices. Goldberg learned that height can be an indicator of economic status—indeed, with some studies suggesting that being short has as big an impact as being a member of a racial minority or being a woman.

But Goldberg’s biggest jolt came when he looked into the case of China . In China , discrimination against the short isn’t mere speculation or suspicion—it’s actually written into law. In order to get a driver’s license, you must be of a certain height. You can’t be a judge or a lawyer if you’re under a certain height, and the same goes for getting a coveted post in the civil service. These restrictions are all written into law and continue to be followed carefully by Chinese authorities.

Western standards

Goldberg, who just returned from a two-week shoot in China , says these restrictions have been in place for a long time. But he adds that issues surrounding height are becoming much more complex now that China is going through a phase of massive change and evolving into a modern state.

“What’s most shocking to me is the way the Chinese are taking in Western cultural images. There are huge billboards there, advertisements for things that the new market is offering them. But 90 per cent of the models are not Asian—they’re white and associated with the West. And since the Chinese on average are shorter than their Western counterparts, height has become associated with success, power and economic well-being.”

And Goldberg says he noticed the economic rift between rural and urban first hand. Standing at 5’3”, Goldberg says he was surrounded by people about his height or shorter when he was in the countryside. “The peasants, the farm workers, were shorter. But when I was in the city, I was short again, by comparison. The people in the cities were much taller.”

Economic growth

One of the results, in a new, mean, capitalist China , has been the emergence of a cottage industry of get-tall-quick schemes. As well as elevator shoes (and there are shops that sell nothing but), there were also shoes with magnets in them, herbal remedies and even height-enhancing pills. All of these were sold by merchants who promised results. The government cracked down on the magnets and pills, recognizing their snake-oil status immediately.

But China has become a leader in surgery that allows people to add two or three inches to their height. Goldberg describes the procedure as “excruciating,” and while he interviewed people who were having the process done, such is the extent of shame surrounding being short in China that no one involved would have their face shown on camera.

The surgical procedure goes something like this: the patient’s shins are broken. Then, they are allowed to almost heal. Then they are broken all over again, with the legs stretched ever so slightly. Then the healing is almost done, and the breaking and stretching happens again. Repeat until you’ve added a couple of inches. The procedure takes months and is brutally painful, but people who are desperate to lengthen their prospects sign up for it. “The procedure is really quite amazing,” notes Goldberg, “in that when you heal, your legs are in good shape. You can run, play soccer, do anything you would otherwise.”

Goldberg’s film is taking him across Europe and North America too, and he cautions that though the Chinese laws against the short may seem extreme, anti-short attitudes pervade many cultures. “I have been quite surprised by a lot of the data I’ve come across, and a lot of the stories that people have shared on Web sites. For men, being short is much like being overweight is for women. There remains an acceptable prejudice against shorter people.”

Short and Male, which is produced by Ina Fichman of Instinct Films, will air on CTV in the fall.

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