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Short people

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Someone I don’t know personally, who posts on a Michigan sports message board I frequent, shared this with the community a couple of days ago:

My son is the shortest kid in his 8th grade class . . . by a lot.

We’ve done all testing possible and exhausted all explanations other than he’s just short. Doctors project 5’3, maybe 5’4.

Doctor would recommend a growth hormone treatment. Insurance won’t cover. It’ll be 20k per year for 3-4 years and get him maybe 3-4 inches.

I do well. I want for nothing. But I’m not loaded. 20k would require some serious adjustments.

Just learned the cost. I’m mad, but I don’t know at who. I think I have to do it for my kid though.

This drew a bunch of responses, from people telling him to accept the situation to others who had made similar choices for their sons (obviously the gender dynamics of this issue are significant) and urged him to do it.

There’s quite a bit of research now on the medical and social significance of height in American and other cultures. Some of that research finds a statistically meaningful correlation between greater height and decreasing life expectancy, at least when you control for other factors (That gets very tricky, because of course women live much longer than men and are also quite a bit shorter on average, so you have to control carefully for that. You also have to control for the confounding effects of socio-economic status, because higher SES correlates strongly with longer life expectancy, especially in the USA, but higher SES also correlates with greater height, especially among men. Confusing!).

This research also tends to find that there’s a lot of social prejudice in favor of tall people and against short ones, with again the effect being more pronounced among men than women. (BTW people are on average much taller and heavier than they used to be, primarily because of improved nutrition. The average soldier in the Civil War was about 5’7″ and weighed about 140 pounds, and this was a subpopulation that was no doubt bigger on average than the typical male adult of that era. In the late 18th century George Washington was 6’2″ and considered almost a literal giant among men.)

Naturally all this leads me to think about the politics and sociology of body modification. Height, like weight, is very difficult though not impossible for individuals to modify. Of course the question is, or should be, are the social pressures to engage in such efforts desirable or insidious? In this regard it’s important to keep in mind that those pressures are almost always a product of social prejudices, disguised though they almost always are by a medicalized discourse about improving peoples’ “health.”

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