As the world tries to understand what lies behind Vladimir Putin’s warmongering, there has been frequent reference to his height. A “demonic little man”, Maureen Dowd calls him, quoting Russia expert Nina Khrushcheva in a Vanity Fair podcast: “He’s a small man of five-six saying he’s five-seven.”
Trying to psychoanalyse the Russian president, however, is no easy task, and reaching for “Napoleon syndrome” as an explanation for his aggression may be unwise. Not only that but it could serve to perpetuate a stereotype against men of small stature, contributing to what some believe is a serious form of societal discrimination.
Ironically, Volodymyr Zelenskiy is roughly the same height (5ft 7in) as both Putin and Napoleon, but there has been no suggestion in media commentary that this measurement provides insight to the Ukrainian president’s character.
“If you want to derogate a person and he is short, you mention his height. When you admire a person and he is short, you don’t mention his height – because height in our cognition does not relate to the characteristics that we admire,” says Dr Omer Kimhi, a legal scholar on heightism.
Shortness “does not relate to leadership, to strength, to wealth. It relates to something – if you remember The Benny Hill Show, there was a short individual and you patted him on the head; you can make fun of him.”
Kimhi, a law professor at Haifa University in Israel, says studies show the earnings difference between short and tall men “is no less severe than the wage gap associated with gender or racial discrimination”. He stresses he is not trying to downplay those wrongs. “All I am saying is short people are a group who are also discriminated against.”
I think it's fair to say there is a cultural preference for tallness in men. However, I don't think this rises to the level of an ism
Evidence for "short man syndrome" – the idea that men of Napoleonic stature feel a need to be aggressive as compensation – is patchy at best. A much-publicised study in the United States showed that men who feel least masculine are nearly three times more likely to commit violent acts compared with those who are comfortable in their own skin. The 2015 study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia says men can suffer from "male discrepancy stress" where they feel they are not living up to traditional masculine gender norms. It is a jump in logic, however, to say this form of stress is especially, or exclusively, found in shorter individuals.
Kimhi says he hasn’t closely looked at Napoleon syndrome but his “intuition” is to be doubtful of its credibility. “If Putin has a Napoleon complex then so should Zelenskiy... I presume if, in years from now, Zelenskiy comes out of this conflict as a winner people will say: He is 170 [cm] but look at what he achieved.”
But is heightism really on a par with racism, ageism or even sizeism – a prejudice against people with obesity? Margaret Steele, a lecturer in philosophy at UCC, specialising in health-related matters, especially food and fatness, is not convinced.
“I think it’s fair to say there is a cultural preference for tallness in men. However, I don’t think this rises to the level of an ism,” she says, partly as it “does not manifest itself in systematic discrimination”.
A cultural preference for tallness “can lead to shorter men being mocked, which is of course cruel and wrong, though perhaps understandable when aimed at a ruthless dictator making utterly unjustifiable war on his neighbours. For the most part, though, people don’t find short men either physically or morally disgusting, just – in some cases, to some people – less attractive. This is radically different from the case of fatness,” she continues.
“Fat is experienced in our culture as abject” – a term Steele borrows from the psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva. Excrement, vomit and pus are paradigmatic examples. Like fat, they are “neither fully part of me nor fully separate from me” and they are “a constant reminder of our lack of mastery over nature and ourselves, our vulnerable animality”, Steele says.
“It is not just that, as a culture, we prefer thinness, though we do. It’s also that we deeply loathe and fear fat. Short men are not tall. They lack something, but their shortness is an absence, not a presence. Fatness is not just the absence of thinness; it is also the presence of abject, disgusting, shameful memento-mori adipose tissue.”
Moreover, she says, “while being tall may be an advantage and being especially short may present some disadvantages, these advantages and disadvantages are not as ubiquitous or as consistent as those attaching to fatness . . . Fat people have been treated appallingly by healthcare professionals, are often denied insurance or care, and have been shown to avoid necessary healthcare as a result. People are denied mortgages or deemed ineligible to adopt on the basis of their weight, regardless of their overall health. Heightism is neither moralised nor embedded in our laws and social practices to anything like this extent.”
There are short people who are very successful but if you see the Fortune 500 CEOs there are many more women than short people
As for equating it to other forms of discrimination, "racism is, in some ways, comparable to fatphobia but its roots go even deeper and its effects are even more vast". In summary, she says: "I don't think we can compare heightism to fatphobia but I definitely don't think we can compare it with racism."
Kimhi reiterates he is trying not to set one community against another but rather to raise awareness of the phenomenon. “Whenever I talk to people, usually the first response is ‘meh’ . . . but it’s very hard to argue with the data. There are short people who are very successful but if you see the Fortune 500 CEOs there are many more women than short people.” While the focus of his research has been workplace discrimination, he adds: “The main issue short individuals reported to me was in relations with women – men who feel they are ‘belittled’ by women – even short women.”
Steele sees some cause for optimism in the use of the “short king” on social media to describe guys who are small but nonetheless very attractive. Search “We stan a short king” (“stan”is a reference to fanlike devotion) and you’ll find Zelenskiy, among others, profiled.
“Twitter and other social media platforms were also awash recently with praise for ‘It couple’ Zendaya and Tom Holland who – unlike Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman back in the day – make no effort to hide their height difference and scoff at the suggestion that it’s anything to worry or even think about,” says Steele.
“Zendaya wears heels, towers over Tom, and the internet loves it. Maybe times are changing for the better?”
Maybe, albeit Kimhi sees such cases as untypical. “Most people do not discriminate against short individuals intentionally,” he says. “It’s an implicit bias and since it’s implicit the letter of the law does not do much work. What we need to do is build a lot of data showing that it happens . . . and maybe if people are aware of their implicit biases they will change their behaviour.”
Irish philosopher’s anniversary
Friday marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Irish philosopher John Toland, and it is not going unacknowledged in his homeplace of Inishowen, Co Donegal.
"John Toland, Man of Ardagh" will hear a keynote address from writer and historian Brian Lambkin on the significance of this pioneering free thinker.
Organised by local film festival director Michael McLaughlin, the event takes place in the Strand Hotel, Ballyliffin on Friday March 11th at 7pm. There will be other scholarly contributions and music with “a flavour of the era” in which Toland lived. For more see the Visit Ballyliffin Facebook page.