Seinfeldisms: If You Can’t Call Someone Fat, Why Can You Call Them Short?

File this under Seinfeldisms.  If you can’t call someone fat, why can you call them short?

In a world full of confounding realities–how does photosynthesis happen?  Why do people enjoy the music of Neil Diamond?–this is a particularly tricky one.  I’m not tall, and I happen to know a number of people like me.  In discussion, we’ve learned that it’s quite common for a certain type of person to make remarks about height.  “You’re short, you can fit in that seat!”  “How short are you, anyway?”  “Were you always short?”  “Look–that kid is as tall as you are!  That’s hilarious!”  Remarks like this are commonplace.

But why?  Why is it acceptable to talk about how short people are to their face?  Okay, sure, if it’s in good fun, that’s fine.  But if you can rib someone about height in good fun, you can surely rib them about other topics in good fun.  “Hey, when did you get so fat?”  “Have you gained weight in recent years?”  “Has your face always been pudgy, or has that recently changed?”  “How’s the whole male pattern-baldness thing going for you?”  “Did you always have knock-knees, or has that developed over time?”  “Did it bother you being ugly when you were a child?  If so, how does it compare in adulthood?”  “Your eyes seem very small on your head.  Kind of freaky!”

These would all be terribly gauche comments in polite conversation.  Why, then, is it okay to call attention to a person’s shortness?  It’s a physical characteristic just like those I’ve humorously referenced above.  Yes, shortness is a rather obvious trait.  But so is ugliness, or baldness, or creeping obesity, or misshapenness.  For some reason, it’s okay to discuss a lack of height.  May I suggest that it should not be?

This happens all the time with children.  If you have smaller children, people often exclaim on seeing them, “She’s so little!”  I’m thinking, as a teaching moment, I may start responding, “Yes, and your baby is so pudgy!” or “He’s so alien-like!” or “She’s rather boyish, isn’t she?”  The same rule will apply if an adult makes a comment to me about my height.  “Have you always been short?” will be met with “Have you always carried a well-inflated tire around your midsection?” or “What does it feel like having cankles?”  I encourage fellow short people of the world to adopt this perspective and to push for Universal Height Equality.

If you’re reading this with high sensitivity, my tongue is in my cheek.  I don’t actually really encourage short people to respond in the manner I’ve laid out.  It’s probably not a great idea on the whole.  But the question is nonetheless relevant.  The principle behind it is real.  Shortness is no more deserving of the flouting of social politeness than any other physical trait.  There are people in my life who never fail to make a comment about height.  Every time they do, somewhere a bunny falls down dead.

By the way, a similar thing happens in sports.  If a short guy does well, it’s because he’s “scrappy” or “hustles” or “is cagey.”  Can short guys, including guys who can’t dunk, not be athletic?  Why can the highest height to which they rise (pun intended) be “scrappy?”  Aren’t there all sorts of athleticism outside of vertical leap or bench press?  What about hand-speed, foot-speed, hand-eye coordination, anticipation, first-step, ball-handling, depth perception, ability to handle and manage contact, and 1000 other ways of being athletic?  Many sports fans dumbly assume that it’s only the highest leaper who’s athletic.  That’s a mistake.

And yes, just to be snide, I included a picture of the fantastic 5’10″ Maverick JJ Barea scoring on 7’1″ Tim Duncan.  I couldn’t resist.  Go Mavs.

  • Trevin Wax

    In Romania, height wasn’t an issue to be discussed, but weight was fair game. I had colleagues and friends who would say, “Good night, Trevin, you’ve put on weight. What have you been eating?” just as quickly as they’d say, “Your new hairstyle looks great or it looks terrible.” Friendship meant truth-telling.

    By the way, I think I’m taller than you. I can’t say that about many people my age.

  • Brent Hobbs

    I’d like to point out that, if a height-neutral society is what you’re hoping for, the photo and last paragraph aren’t helping. Perfect example of reverse height discrimination! As a relatively tall person I want to know why it’s always a highlight when a tall guy gets dunked on by a short guy. :)

    But seriously I started working with a youth group a few years ago and somehow they had developed a culture where comments about each others’ appearance were the normal way of relating to each other. It was done in a tone of humor but there was a great deal of insecurity and hurt below the surface. Relationships really suffered, there was little authencity between the youth because of it.

    It made me realize how important it is for the church to be the place where we leave “sarcasm” and worldly humor behind and refuse to say anything that’s not meant to build up one another.

    • Woody Bailey

      Very good point Brent! I too have seen that in churches or even worse. Cutting remarks, said in jest of course. But it leaves it’s mark on relationships.

  • Kevin Cuthbertson

    good call with the mention of sarcasm and I’m sure it is prevalent in most youth groups. That has been an area of sanctification for me for years now and, even now, I have to watch how my tone comes out to my kids. The wife has gotten quite excellent at drawing my attention to it.

    Owen, glad to have you back writing. The question if someone has always been short could be one of the dumber questions I have heard. I could think of some pretty good retorts to that but nothing really that would jive with my preceding paragraph.

  • Blake White

    Unrelated, but Barea’s sick game reminds me of yours.

  • owenstrachan

    Trevin, good thoughts on another culture. I’m not sure my self esteem would survive in Romania. You may have an inch on me, but now that you’ve raised the issue of height, I have liberty to taunt you on another matter. I’m going to take my time with this…

    Brent, this sort of thing surely can create barriers between people. One of the clearest signs that someone has a problem with you is if they find some detail to be negative about. Jealousy often crops up in this way, I think. It’s well and good to be able to laugh together, but there need to be boundaries for that, it seems.

    Kevin, our wives are their for our good. My wife is perceptive, as I’m sure your sweet wife is. We need them. And I’m glad you’re holding your fire!

    Blake, you’re too kind. Truth be told, I love his game. You ever think about how rarely coaches actually figure out what works for individual players? Every coach has a system; few can use the unique strengths of their players. Phil Jackson, much as it pains me to say, always did that. He got the max out of his twelfth man, for which I had great respect. Most players simply run a scheme–run and jump, four corners, high-post–without taking the time to figure out their players. Of course, most coaches don’t have the skill to do that. That’s the point. Anyway, I credit Carlisle for figuring out the Barea-Dirk high post game. Brilliant. I would have loved that offense. Thanks for the kind words.

  • Scott

    I’m 6’5” and I can tell you that the insensitivity of people making height comments isn’t limited to shortness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Wow — you’re really tall! Do you play basketball?” No, actually, I’m quite uncoordinated and lousy at most sports; thanks for reminding me. My son, who is as tall as I am, had a high school teacher, upon discovering he does not play basketball either, actually say, “What a waste!”

  • Joe Thorn


    You and I are about the same height. I may be shorter. I’m 5’5”. Plus, I’m bald and ugly. A triple threat. I’ve heard jokes throughout my life, and even get a fair amount of ribbing from good friends in my church and network about my “hobbit height.” At every conference I’m at I hear from strangers, “You’re shorter than I thought you would be.” It’s never bothered me. Maybe because I think I could beat most of those people up if I wanted to (though I probably couldn’t). Maybe it’s because I feel like my height is an asset in some mysterious way. Maybe it’s because the only sport I have ever followed is MMA (and boxing before that) which always includes super talented little guys. I guess in the end, it’s how God made me and I’m good with it. And besides, I probably could beat those tall guys up. ;)

    I appreciate the post, brother. It was funny. It was good meeting you at TGC, and I’m sure I’ll see you at the Baggins’ next party.

  • Tom

    Could not agree more! I am 6’5 and it drives me crazy when people say to me “your tall!”, Hmmm… I had not noticed.
    Those same people saying it are often over wieight and I have been tempted more then once to retort “your fat!”.
    Why is this Ok? I don’t like being reminded of my hieght anymore then someone likes to be reminded of their weight!
    Keep your opinions to yourself, thank you.

  • owenstrachan

    Appreciate the comments. I’m enlightened by the remarks from our taller commenters. That makes sense. Scott, what a horrible remark! That’s just terrible. I hereby amend my post mentally in order to encompass that injustice and those Tom has suffered.

    Joe, yes, people don’t know this, but there is a race of gospel hobbits. I am pleased to be one with you. I don’t think you’re ugly, by the way. You’re not. But yes, boxing’s featherweights and lightweights are often fantastic athletes. Great to meet you as well.

  • Tom B

    Owen thanks for the feedback.
    Yes, I have mentioned the fact to people that I hate it when people walk up to me and tell me I am tall and the response has been they never thought that was true for tall people because there is a perception that it would be great to be tall and some people wish they were. Actually, I hated it all my life starting in grammar school when I always “stood out” as the tallest in my class. I was always self conscious about it and wish I was no more then 6’1″ just to feel “normal” and blend in with the crowd. In fact just yesterday a complete stranger said to me as I came out of a convenience store “your big!” Imagine him saying the same thing to an overweight person. It feels the same way. Thanks for the article maybe it will educate some.

  • Ruth

    Owen, I nearly fell of my chair with laughter at your witty retorts!! I re-read it and was still laughing, this has got to be the best article on the web about height. Being 5ft 1 3/4” I have had my fair share of ribbing about how short I am throughout my life. Some of it has been in jest while others seem to be downright nasty. My junior school friend used to call me “Toots” which I liked as it was kind of affectionate nickname. I’ve got a good sense of humour and I’ll often say, “yeah I’m pint size” or “do you remember that song by Jackie Wilson “Reet Petite” that was re-released in 1986 for me you know. Or unfortunately I was at the back of the queue when they gave out height.

    However, it’s the people who are saying it to bring you down or to try and make you insecure about yourself seem to irk me somewhat. My boyfriend’s family are obsessed with my height and not in a good way. I’ve always been into fashion and love to dress up and have an arty kind of style, whether it’s this that bothers them or the fact that I’m happy in my own skin.

    We recently went on a trip and stayed together for a few nights for his mother’s 70th birthday. Every day there was some reference to how short I was. From his mother, sisters kids, brother’s girlfriend and his other brother who was over from Australia. He said, “well you are very small” and not in a humorous way. I would have loved to have said “really I haven’t got to 43 and realised that yet” but I didn’t want to rock the boat. On the last night we had to go around the room and say how tall we were. I said my height and with arms in the air the exactly the same as Lady Gaga.

    I agree with your reply to Brent and “this sort of thing surely can create barriers between people. One of the clearest signs that someone has a problem with you is if they find some detail to be negative about. Jealousy often crops up in this way, I think.”

    I’ve never understood why people pick on things you have had no control over.

  • owenstrachan

    Ruth, thanks for your comment. I can of course relate. I’ve actually had students comment on my height in class to my face. It’s taken me aback, to say the least. I don’t expect people, of course, to lose their silliness; that won’t happen until Christians reach heaven. But I do hereby own the right to reply with a complimentary comment on weight, attractiveness, or some other such needless topic.

    Of course, I won’t do this. I’ll suffer it out! Such is the lot of the short person.