Short Studies

A Brief Overview & Some Provocations

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Introducing Short Studies: A Brief Overview & Some Provocations

Antonios Ktenidis

Does height matter? To whom? Why? Have you ever wished to be taller/shorter?

I still recall vividly the moment when an orthopaedic doctor announced to me when I was teenager that I would not grow any taller, stripping me of the hope of a growth spurt.

Since Science had rejected me, I turned to God. Every night before falling asleep, I prayed to wake up taller, even if it were only a few centimetres.

I then turned to Sports, which, as a child, I had been told would help with growing taller: basketball, volleyball, pull bar at home.


I still remember the first time I stepped into my secondary school, the school for the ‘grown-up’ children. But I had not grown up. The stares were a constant reminder that I was ‘out of place’.

I avoided the playground and spent the breaktime in the classroom, as the former was a space where my short body could attract unwarranted (in my mind) attention and be turned into a spectacle to stare or laugh at.

These memories still haunt me…

Personal reflections

Antonios Ktenidis, 2023

The reason I am sharing these personal stories is not to make the reader feel pity or sympathy, but because feminism taught me that the ‘personal is political’ (Hanisch, 2000). How I experience(d) my Short body, my height, and how I experience(d) the world through my body, is a political matter. However, what I wish I had when I was growing up was a (different) language that would allow me to make sense of why I was experiencing my body the way I did, as if there was something wrong with it, as something requiring ‘fixing’. A language that would permit me to make sense of why I felt the way I felt about my body, such as my embodied anxiety to alter it.

It was not until the time I started writing my masters dissertation that I came across the word ‘heightism’ for the very first time! Heightism -discrimination based on one’s height- was firstly introduced by Saul Feldman, an American sociologist, in a paper entitled ‘The presentation of shortness in everyday life – height and heightism in American society: Toward a sociology of stature’, presented at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1971. I was aware of other forms of discrimination, such as sexism, racism, disablism, homophobia, transphobia, but I had never heard of heightism.

Although heightism and its impact has been studied across different areas, such as employment e.g. the taller, the better salary, the more likely to get leadership roles- (Rosenberg, 2009), politics (McCann, 2001), fashion (Rahman & Navarro, 2022), cultural representations (Pritchard, 2021; Vallone, 2017), dating (Stulp et al., 2013), there are still few key texts that discuss the different manifestations of heightism (cf Osensky, 2017). Consequently, Feldman’s vision for a Sociology of Stature has still not been followed up.

Rather than a Sociology of Stature per se, I propose the need for an interdisciplinary field, with the name of Short Studies. Inspired by Fat Studies, Short Studies aim to develop a language through which the dominant discourses which shape how one ‘lives’ their statured body can be interrogated. A quick look at language reveals the heightist assumptions permeating everyday life:

Expressions with negative connotation

Expressions with positive connotation

Look down on

Look up to

Short shrift

Big man on campus

Coming up short

Head and shoulders above the rest

Get the short end of the stick

Stand tall

Caught short

Be the bigger person

Draw the short straw

Make it big

Short change

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Feel small



Sell yourself short

What would it be like, however, if we were introduced, from an early age, to a different vocabulary, such as:

Internalised heightism -  can take different forms, from the ‘pursuit of height’ (children and their parents wishing for the former to grow taller) to passing judgements on others regarding their height e.g. hierarchies of shortness, where someone who stands at a certain height passes a judgement on another person who might be slightly taller, but would still be considered ‘short’.

Heightist microagressions - joking around one’s height is still considered acceptable, sometimes described just as another form of ‘banter’. Infantilisation, that is to be treated as a child, is also another form of a heightist microaggression. 

Heightphobia - a fear of addressing height(ism) injustice, treating height(ism) as an elephant in the room.

Staturisation: a term coined by the American geographer Kruse (2002) to describe how space is designed by and for people of ‘average’ height.

Such vocabulary is pertinent to the interdisciplinary field of Short Studies, which draws on and engages in dialogue disciplines such as:

  • Sociology of the body, of stature, of space, of health, of education  
  • Medical Sociology, Medical Humanities
  • Critical Disability Studies, Studies of Ableism

What follows are some provocations illustrating how Short Studies could be used.

Phenomenology/ies of height(ism)

With phenomenology’s focus on the ‘lived body’ and embodiment, phenomenology constitutes a suitable framework through which how the short/statured body is experienced as well as how the world is experienced through such a body. However, it is worth mentioning here that some of the original ideas of phenomenology relied on normative, ableist understandings of the body (Reeve 2012), so here I draw on more critical, political approaches to phenomenology, such as phenomenology of racial embodiment (Alcoff, 1999) phenomenology of whiteness (Ahmed, 2007), queer phenomenology (Ahmed, 2006), and phenomenological disability studies (Titchkosky & Michalko, 2012).As Paterson (2001: 95) argues in relation to impairment and phenomenology,

A phenomenological approach to impairment is not an apolitical discourse. Phenomenology provides the conceptual tools to trace the ways in which oppression and discrimination before embodied and ‘lived’ through everyday reality.

Similarly, a phenomenology of height(ism) then questions this idea of the pre-discursive short body, but examines critically how such a body is shaped and lived through discourse.  Phenomenological accounts of height(ism) can then shed light on how short bodies experience and navigate a heightist society and what it feels like to live in a ‘staturised’ world, that is, a world designed for and by people of an ‘average’ height: cf. the Vitruvian Man. 

Biopolitics, technologies of disciplinary and regulatory power and height(ism)

From a biopolitical perspective (Foucault et al., 2008), heightism can be read as power/knowledge, which renders the short body, this ’indocile’ body which refuses to grow normatively, as a threat to other forms of growth, such as economic or societal growth (Burman, 2017). The Short body crips the normative, ableist underpinnings of biological growth. Surveillance technologies, such as the Red Book (a book given to new parents in the U.K. to keep track of their newborns’ and infants’ development), constant paediatric check-ups (Kelle, 2010) and height measurements during school (including BMI measurements), intend to secure the normative ‘growing up’ of human beings from their infancy to their adulthood, so that they embody neoliberalism’s ideal citizen (Goodley, 2014). When developmental milestones, as constructed by the logic of average are not met and children are constructed to be ‘at risk’ (Bollig & Kelle, 2013), (disciplinary) treatments such as human growth hormone and limb-lengthening surgery (Daniel et al., 2005) are recommended (or ‘imposed’). The justification behind these treatments is based on the predicted repercussions that short stature will have on individuals’ future lives as well as the impact on their current emotional well-being (Sartorio et al., 1995). According to de Onis et al. (2012),

The assessment of growth in children is important for monitoring health status, identifying deviations from normality and determining the effectiveness of interventions. The significance of timely detection of poor growth in early life resides in its association with adverse functional consequences, including poor cognition and educational performance, low adult wages, lost productivity and, when accompanied by excessive weight gain later in childhood, increased risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases.

A biopolitical reading of height(ism) questions the medicalisation -how shortness is constructed as a medical condition’ and pharmaceuticalisation of shortness -how pharmaceutical treatment is recommended to ‘treat’ the condition (Medeiros, 2016; Morrison, 2015). For instance, Morrison discusses the contested diagnosis of ‘idiopathic short stature’, which refers to children who are ‘abnormally’ short but without any detectable pathology. Shortness here is constructed as a condition that needs to be treated, as something undesirable, as a ‘deviation’ from the normative, ableist routes of development constructed in and by growth charts. Such treatment took the form of the Human Growth Hormone, which expanded its market from those with underpinning medical conditions related to their shortness to those who were short, but without a diagnosed medical condition (Morrison, 2019).

Not only shortness is pathologised but so are  the adverse effects that come with it. Rather than heightism, these effects are presented to inhabit on the short body, therefore legitimating the interventions to fix it. Unlike the ‘Fat’ body, which brings moral culpability (LeBesco, 2001) to their owners, the Short body is seen as an irreversible condition and remains a spectacle to be fascinated or threatened by (Goodley, 2012).

Intersectionality, Height and Short Killjoys

Critical Disability Studies ‘start with disability but never end with it: disability is the space from which to think through a host of political, theoretical and practical issues that are relevant to all’ (Goodley, 2016: 157). Similarly, Short Studies start with height, but do not end with it. In particular, height as an identity marker does not ‘stand on its own’, but it intersects with other identities, hence, intersectionality (Crenshaw, 2017) is crucial in understanding how height is experienced and embodied. Nevertheless, intersectional discourses have rarely considered how height(ism) intersects with sex(ism), race(ism), class(ism), able(ism), sexuality (homophobia) (for exceptions, see Hester and Gray, 2018, who explored the intersection between race, gender, height and policing, with reference to Black tall men).

One example (of which I also have personal experience) of intersectionality is the ‘little man or Napoleon syndrome’, indicating how height and sex intersect.  In short (pun intended), a short man can be more aggressive to compensate for his lack of height.  Such a syndrome (with its description as a syndrome indicating its medicalisation) appears to be feeding more into dominant gender discourses e.g. toxic masculinity, and heightist discourses, than something ‘naturally’ occurring among short men.   

Similar to how the ‘angry Black woman’ discourse is weaponised against Black women who call out racism and sexism (Doharty, 2020), Napoleon syndrome can be an effective means of shutting down discussions of short men (and not only) of calling out heightism and sexism by pathologising them: the Short Man is angry or insecure about their height.  Ahmed’s concept of the feminist killjoy is useful here, as ‘she kills joy because what she claims exists. She has to keep making the same claim because she keeps countering the claim that what she says exists does not exist’ (Ahmed, 2017: 252). In similar terms to how the notion of the killjoy has been adopted to make a case for other identities, such as the crip killjoy (Apelmo & Nerdgron, 2020; Johnson & McRuer, 2014; Tsakiri, 2020), I suggest there is a need for the “short killjoy”, who is calling out heightist microaggressions, heightist ideologies, and heightism overall.

Concluding Thoughts

Rather than treating height(ism) as an elephant in the room, this post invites people to start thinking more critically about the ways height (comes to) matters in our everyday lives, across all the different stages of life: infancy, childhood, youth, adulthood. Short Studies provide insights into how such critical thinking can take place as well as a vocabulary through which such ideas can be articulated. Moreover, Short Studies do start with height, but the intersections of heigh(ism) with other identities and forms of discrimination, such as sex/ism, class/ism etc., also warrant further investigation. This post offers some ways of thinking with Short Studies and sets some of the foundations of this interdisciplinary area of inquiry, but it remains open to suggestions of other ways of initiating such discussions.   


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