I think if we're really being honest, most of us harbor some form of prejudice. I’m not saying deep down were all hate-mongering racists, but I think we tend to be suspicious of people who are different.
I, for example, am wary of the perfectly done-up mom who styles her hair and applies makeup before dropping her kids off at school at 8:00 o’clock in the morning. Overachievers like these are surely of a different breed.
I’m equally leery of the earthy granola types with their long flowing gray locks, scuffed clogs and gauzy skirts, mostly because I know that if we engage in conversation it will surely center on the details of their dreadful vegan diet, or worse, their boasting about not owning a television.
Sometimes our biases are cultural, but often they're learned from our parents. As my brothers and sisters and I got older, we realized that our own mother harbored a prejudice. We’ve been careful not to follow suit and have even made efforts to reform her. But, like a lot of people who are biased, she won’t admit to it.
My mother, I’m afraid, is a “heightist.”
I know it sounds crazy, but my 5’8” mother looks down on short people, and yes, I mean both figuratively and literally. Sure she has lots, well maybe just a couple, short friends and she’s not obvious about her heightism. She’s not advocating anything crazy like heightist segregation and she’s not out there burning crosses on short people’s lawns. But, I honestly believe that she thinks short people are a few rungs lower than her on the evolutionary ladder.
Anytime my mother meets someone new, she comments on the person’s height. When I brought home my 4.0 pre-med student boyfriend, I assumed he would be a mother’s dream. But no, at barely five foot, nine inches tall, he received a lukewarm welcome. I knew his height was to blame.
Recently my mom met a couple that my husband and I had befriended, and afterwards we didn’t hear the expected, “What a friendly pair.” Instead it was, “What a nice tall couple,” as if that were the ultimate compliment.
My eldest sister was the first to confront my mom’s heightist tendencies. When her second son failed to reach the 50th percentile on his growth chart, my mother could not hide her disappointment. Again and again she would ask if her grandson had grown any and then when she heard the bad news she would lament, “Well I guess he’ll take after his short grandma.”
I didn’t think too much about it until I had kids of my own. It became a habit when they were babies to call my mom after each doctor’s visit to relay the latest findings. Reports that my middle daughter was in the 90th percentile made my mom giddy with delight. The fact that she went on to be the tallest girl in her elementary class was just icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, my eldest daughter became a cause for concern early on. At doctors' visits she regularly checked-in below the 30th percentile. Soon I receive the “She’ll take after her short grandma” comments.
“She’s young and still growing,” I would lamely protest, trying to keep my girl in Grandma’s good graces.
But, now that my eldest is sixteen and only 5’2” I’m not sure my mom is buying it anymore.
I’ve tried to distract with reports of her “A”s, various awards and artistic accomplishments. But I’m afraid they are of no consequence. She could be a Rhodes scholar or Nobel Peace Price winner, but in the eyes of her grandma, she has committed the ultimate betrayal: she’s short.
My daughter knows. Recently, I hung up the phone after another height conversation with my mother and noticed my eldest daughter standing there, wearing a mock look of despair, “I’m a disappointment to you and Grandma, aren’t I?” she asked dramatically, before collapsing onto the chair in giggles. Of course, because of her height, she didn’t have far to fall.
Luckily, my kids understand that Grandma means no harm. I’ve explained to them the likely cause of her height prejudice. As a child, my mom towered over her friends. She was 5’8” in the seventh grade, a head above her classmates and certainly an unusual sight in the 1940’s. It would be years before the boys caught up, and in the meantime they teased her mercilessly.
Eventually my mom learned to appreciate her height and its benefits, but like a WWII veteran who befriends his Japanese neighbor yet still worries that he might attack him in the middle of the night, my mother has learned to forgive the short people of the world, but I’m not sure if she will ever forget.
Though I’m tall like my mother, I’m careful not to give into feelings of “heightism” because that would be foolish. I realize that the height-challenged among us can be good people and have families that they love and care for just like I do.
I know that I could never be a heightist. After all, some of my best friends are short.
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