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Is Being “Too Short” a Disability?

Kyle Munkittrick
By Kyle Munkittrick
Science Not Fiction

Posted: Apr 26, 2011

How short is “too short?” Why is 5’2” too short for a man, but not for a woman?

Human growth hormone (HGH) is one among the many hormones your body naturally produces. HGH influences growth in that it helps encourage cell reproduction and regeneration. Athletes really like to pretend that HGH makes them more powerful. It might, but it probably doesn’t.

Whether it works or not, athletes should be allowed to utilize it. But banning performance enhancers is a topic already covered, so let’s look at something more interesting.
As part of a thread called “The Bias Against Short Men,” Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish published an email by a reader struggling with a difficult question:

The doctor noticed that my son was comfortably sitting at the bottom of the growth chart and that he would most likely end up a measly 5’5” (a little more than my wife and myself). He went on to say that this could qualify as “idiopathic short stature syndrom.” And that we could potentially get our son on HGH (actually, it’s called rGH I think – see here) if we felt that his projected short height could affect his self-confidence and ultimately, his mental health.

Unlike HGH in athletes, HGH used to treat medical conditions has clinically observable benefits. A child given HGH treatments will have an appreciable difference in height as an adult. The reader feels inclined to give his son the treatments, while the reader’s wife is appalled at the idea. When is it alright to use HGH to help your kid grow to a “normal” height? If you do “treat” a child’s shortness, does that mean it’s a disease?

Crack open any text on bioethics and I can almost guarantee that the “is shortness a disability” example will be somewhere among the pages. Shortness (and deafness, which The Dish is also exploring at the moment) sits right in the blurry space among disability, disease, and normal. How short is “too short?” Why is 5’2″ too short for a man, but not a woman?

The answer is pretty much: because we think it is.

Human height does fall along a bell curve, but it varies around the world and throughout history. Yet, at some point, being short goes from a relative and descriptive term (e.g. “I am shorter than Yao Ming”) to a normative one implying a disability.

We might think something is a disability for a few possible reasons. The first is that there is a clear physical issue that prevents events self-care. An example of this might be total-body paralysis. That person is literally unable to care for him or herself.

The second is that a person’s physical attributes allow them to care for themselves, but make it difficult to exist in a society set up for people abled in a different way. A good example of this is that those in wheelchairs are perfectly able to do everything a non-wheelchair bound person can do, it’s just that most things are designed with those who walk in mind.

Finally, and most confusing, are social disabilities. These are disabilities that are a result of the advance of civilization…


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
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One advantage of being short is: the world was built for those, say, 5’ 6”. Look at your showerhead for instance, it was placed in a position to be ideally optimized by someone that height.

“Why is 5’2″ too short for a man, but not a woman?

The answer is pretty much: because we think it is.”

Reporduction is always going to play a role in discussions like this. A shorter male is less likely to be able to protect, is thought to have less testosterone, thought to be undernourished, and so on.

However, another important angle to discuss here is ‘sexual dimorphism’ (

“In 1871 Charles Darwin advanced the theory of sexual selection, which related sexual dimorphism with sexual selection.
In many non-monogamous species, the benefit to a male’s reproductive fitness of mating with multiple females is large, whereas the benefit to a female’s reproductive fitness of mating with multiple males is small or non-existent.[3] In these species, there is a selection pressure for whatever traits enable a male to have more matings. The male may therefore come to have different traits from the female.

These traits could be ones that allow him to fight off other males for control of territory or a harem, such as large size or weapons;[4] or they could be traits that females, for whatever reason, prefer in mates.[5] Male-male competition poses no deep theoretical questions[6] but female choice does.

Females may choose males that appear strong and healthy, thus likely to possess “good alleles” and give rise to healthy offspring.[7] However, in some species females seem to choose males with traits that do not improve offspring survival rates, and even traits that reduce it (potentially leading to traits like the peacock’s tail).[6] Two hypotheses for explaining this fact are the sexy son hypothesis and the handicap principle.

The sexy son hypothesis states that females may initially choose a trait because it improves the survival of their young, but once this preference has become widespread, females must continue to choose the trait, even if it becomes harmful. Those that do not will have sons that are unattractive to most females (since the preference is widespread) and so receive few matings.[8]

The handicap principle states that a male who survives despite possessing some sort of handicap thus proves that the rest of his genes are “good alleles.” If males with “bad alleles” could not survive the handicap, females may evolve to choose males with this sort of handicap; the trait is acting as a hard-to-fake signal of fitness.[9]”

To illustrate the point that these preferences are largely based on reproduction, I would turn your question around and ask ‘why is 6’3 a good size for a man, but too tall for a women’?

Reproductive mating selection.  (!)  I swear I’m gay exactly because of all of this…

BTW as another of my digressions, most males are probably bi, Andy; they just don’t know it. For instance why do you think Justin Bieber is so popular?: because of his music?
IMO, no.

A counterargument came to my mind recently. It was:
What about Yuri Gagarin ? His small hight was the main reason for his selections. And as you said, small people in general have advantages in transportation. I consider it probable that the fashion shifts to prefer smaller people in our lifetime.

On the gripping hand this hight might increase appeal of greater hight as an aristocratic trait, like extreme skinniness is currently.

To nikki’s idea of reproductive selection. This was refuted the moment BBW fell out of fashion. The fashion changes are much to fast for the speed of natural selection.

“A counterargument came to my mind recently. It was:
What about Yuri Gagarin ? His small hight was the main reason for his selections.”

And race horse jockeys as well.
IMO it is best to be “average”, nondescript; if one is too small or weak, one might be statistically more likely to be attacked;
if too big and strong, one might be attacked for a challenge.
Now, we can statistically prove the former (how many women are attacked every day?) but not the latter.

This is off-topic, but I can’t resist responding to post-post’s suggestion that most males are bi. I think the same goes for women too. In fact, I see an analogy with right- and left-handedness: the mode of what is probably a roughly Gaussian distribution is obviously towards the straight end of the spectrum, but there’s no way it’s going to be as clear cut as most people being exclusively straight.

Of course, if we want to be really mathematical about it then we need to plot the frequency distribution against two parameters: how attracted/repelled (sexually obviously) to the opposite sex, and how attracted/repelled you are to the same sex. Or may be four parameters: attracted to the opposite sex, repelled by the opposite sex, attracted by the same sex, repelled by the same sex. However complicated you make it, the mode is still going to be more or less centred on attracted by the opposite sex, repelled by the same sex, but a total absence of attraction to the same sex is going to be about as frequent as being totally and utterly useless with your left hand.

At least that’s what I think: I don’t really have any hard evidence for this, but it seems to satisfy Occam’s razor from my mathematical perspective and observations (including introspection). One factor that may complicate things is IF sexuality is to some extent culturally determined rather than innate. Then you would almost certainly have influences that would tend to invalidate the simple Gaussian model. Come to think of it natural selection could also play that role even if sexuality is entirely innate (so for example lead to a bimodal distribution), but it’s less obvious that this would occur in a single species. (Of course it IS how new species emerge.)

Being very short is a disadvantage, however as written in the first comment, being say 5’ 5” isn’t bad ‘t all.
5’ 5” or 6” is the height the world was built for. Did you look at the height of your showerhead?: it is usually placed by contractors at a height making those who are over 5’ 6” have to stoop slightly to wash their heads; if a showerhead is placed too high then very short adults and children have to reach too high to adjust them.
Peter, it appears you got it about right with your hypothesis. After talking to and reading (including body language because I don’t trust what anyone says) conservatives, I’d warrant sexual-orientation is in fact more culturally determined than innate. Gayness and bi are opposed for quite a number of reasons: one reason is so men & boys will not so readily be attracted to such as Bieber and other androgynes. In fact I guarantee if you did research on it you would discover so because it isn’t merely “conservative” dislike of gayness and bi, but also a more or less universal associative fear of adults being encouraged to be attracted to the androgyny of the underage—and that of course is legally as high an age as 17.
Another rather immediately apparent reason is pedigree: “conservatives” (the actual designation is rightwing) want family bloodlines to continue. There are many other reasons, just another example is pure jealousy and or revulsion—one can be both revolted and jealous at the same moment—however since it would be going even more off topic as per usual, you shall be spared the amateur psychology; albeit with the caveat that that which the public wishes not to discuss can be far more important than what they do discuss. In other words obfuscation may be the rule rather than the exception.
Peter, when it comes to statistics, don’t you ever suspect liars figure and figures lie?

Reason for the extreme skepticism is: to do cultural determining research, interviews have to be done; interviewees are going to lie so much to the point no adjustment of the final stats can reflect it, people lie even when there’s no reason to, they lie merely to game the outcome. So only behavior can be a true basis for statistics. Beyond that, culture itself is nothing but a construct, a German social scientist (and I don’t think sociology is a science) coined the concept of ‘kultur’ long ago, so since then we use ‘culture’ as a shorthand—when it might be even more nebulous than geography.

” So only behavior can be a true basis for statistics.”
I wouldn’t go quite that far but I agree that the assumption that people are telling the truth is generally false. Not only do we consciously lie, we also delude ourselves. Self-reporting tells us about how people respond to interviews, which in itself can be interesting; they can also tell us something about what they really believe and experience, but we need to compensate for the various biases. Political opinion pollsters are becoming experts at this kind of thing (as a result of painful experiences in the past where they got election result forecasts completely wrong).

“Not only do we consciously lie, we also delude ourselves.”

The following quote is off-topic, but not terribly very far off:
“Deception is pandemic in nature. Camouflage and mimicry are just two of its typical forms. Paradoxically, our tendencies to reciprocal altruism increase the potential gains from deception in our species, because exploiting reciprocators may lead to gaining benefits without having to give any in return. In our species the opportunities for deception are improved by language, which simultaneously provides a valuable medium of exchange—information—and the ability to counterfeit that good.
Of course, it is in the interest of those potentially deceived to discover deception, and it not surprising that human beings are natural, if imperfect, lie detectors. (That is the reason why we want jurors to hear testimony live rather than read a transcript.) This detection ability encourages selection for behavior that will avoid detection, setting up an arms race between deceptive behavior and mechanisms for detecting deception. Biologists have suggested that this arms race is, in turn, the origin of pervasive self-deception in man. By deceiving himself, an individual may suppress the cues that allow others to detect deception. Hence self-deception is most likely when there is an intense need to deceive others.
The fact that human beings have innate tendencies toward deception and self-deception buttresses the conservative defense of civil society and skepticism about state power. Civil society develops norms to combat deception in private life. In the market, individuals have strong incentives to maintain a reputation for honesty so that others will deal with them. Fraternal and religious organizations arise in part to vouch for the good behavior of their members.
In contrast, it is much harder to root deception out of large-scale politics. For instance, in a democracy citizens are rationally ignorant of most political issues; that is, they know perhaps subconsciously, that their individual votes are so unlikely to influence elections that it simply does not pay to follow the twists and turns of public debate. Politicians have a scope for deception proportionate to this ignorance. A commanding presence, a compassionate demeanor, and rhetorical virtuosity are evolutionarily designed mechanisms that fool the inattentive.”
The ingrained susceptibility to self-deception also undermines the celebration of sincerity and authenticity that has been at the heart of the Left’s project since Rousseau. Evolution suggests that individuals may project the most sincerity and feel the greatest measure of authenticity precisely when they are offering proposals that are deceptive—ideas that benefit themselves and their group at the expense of others.”

The above gets to the heart of things.


Indeed it does.

The issue about rationally ignorant voters is interesting and I think very real. All hope is not lost, however. First,  I think people are becoming more aware of the pitfalls involved in taking media-projected images of politicians at face-value. Second, the actual power of democratically elected politicians is in any case quite limited. While this can be seen as a bad thing, for example if it means that real power resides with unaccountable elites, it’s also a fact that crowd-sourced values play an essential role in what happens at the political level. Constantine converted because Christianity had become a force to be reckoned with, and Christianity was in the first place a popular movement (albeit a very well- and hierarchically organized one). Even the GOP is in the first place a popular movement.

Yes, Republicans are very democratic: they want us to be equally miserable so we will clasp Jesus Christ to our bosoms—misery loves company.
I got this thread off-topic; to get it back on-track the following is something concerning Napoleon I’s height that is not well-known: “After the famous general and emperor died in 1821, his body was autopsied in France, and his height was noted as 5 foot 2 inches. This measurement was in French feet (pieds de roi) and was never correctly converted to standard English measure. In English feet, Napoleon stood 5 foot 6.5 inches tall. So the poor guy was shorted a full 4.5 inches in height.
In his day, 5’6.5” was a perfectly respectable, nothing-to-be-ashamed-of height for a man. In fact, Napoleon was actually slightly taller than the average Frenchman of 1800.
So the diminutive size the emperor is so noted for was, in fact, a mere miscalculation. And as one observer points out, “It is also probable that the men of his Imperial Guard, with whom he ‘hung out,’ were very tall, creating the illusion that Napoleon was short.” The man himself said it best—“History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.”

I think this confuses disability with disadvantage. In doing so, it minimizes the true obstacles, and need for protections, associated with disability.

It’s a fascinating piece of information though. @post-post what’s your source?

Sex may be about connecting physically with another person (and so emotionally, spiritually etc.)  and if we have to be approved by a commercial for Axe ‘body spray’ (or by skeletal height or whatever prerequisite) then the whole thing is ruined, or at least made vastly more complicated than it needs to be. I don’t want to be ‘good enough’ in whatever physiological sense.  I want to be human, and have him/her be human, and that’s it. I don’t want to be considered good breeding material.  Loving someone because they fit well into a socially rewarded template is ridiculous.  WE ARE SEXY from a darwinian perspective or we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

This topic is hilarious; the idea is based on misguided beliefs about height prevalent in popular culture.  Men have gotten a lot taller over the last 100 years ever wonder if isn’t because the taller men were before at some type of disadvantage?  The reality is from a combat prospective 5.6 is idea, and 5.2 is better than 6.3.  Why, because size has disadvantages in combat especially physical combat.  A tall guy will take longer to start and stop moving his body which is a huge disadvantage.  Smaller size doesn’t really say much about stronger.  A taller guy weights a lot more unless he is in really good shape that is going to be a disadvantage.  His heart is likely weaker relatively and has to pump blood further, he is more likely to faint.  Test show that big guys do not do as well in extreme cold water.  The big guy will have a longer reach but he will have to attack downwards while the shorter guy can attack upwards.  If the short guy can get within the reach or the taller guy with a sword it’s all over for the bigger guy.  It’s easier to block a downward attack.  In modern combat they are also larger targets.  There are plenty of Navy Seal SMURF crews proving today that this remains true.  Although I really don’t think that the advantages today are like they used to be in the old days when people fought with swords.  Back then the short guy actually had an advantage.  When the physical ideal is based on sports which are single focused; it’s no surprise that the ideal is highly specialized.

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