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.