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Jewish World Review August 11, 2003 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5763

John Leo

John Leo
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The high and the mighty | Donald Sutherland and I have much in common. We went to the same school and graduated in the same class, but he is 6 foot 4 and I am 4 inches shorter, so I cannot be part of the new identity group that claims him as a member. Sutherland is the current poster boy for the heightist movement. He is on the cover of Tall magazine's premier issue, which deals with all the pride and heartbreak felt by people of elongation. Sutherland is interviewed at length, so to speak, but he doesn't seem to have much to say heightwise--though the writer observed that the star seemed "larger than life."

Sutherland just talks about his movies and his family, not once explaining the impact of height awareness on his life and career. He doesn't mention that the publisher of Tall calls for "an inspirational culture of height." The publisher, 6-foot, 9-inch Everard Strong of Oakland, Calif., thinks the boundaries of the new culture start at 6 foot 2 for men and 5 foot 9 for women.

The problem for heightists is that inspirational articles are rare. I can think of a few. "Cleaning Gutters Without a Ladder" would inspire many. So would "Top Shelf--We Can Reach It and You Can't." And for gender inclusiveness I suggest a dating memoir by a tall woman--"From Here I Can See Your Bald Spot." Articles in the first issue of Tall are somewhat less gripping. There's a report on an extra-long mattress, an analysis of back pain among the lanky, and a photo of the world's biggest chair (66 feet, 6 inches). What tall people should do about the chair isn't clear. Maybe just feel proud.

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Monsters. Also featured in the issue are the late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien (6 foot 4), the "longest-limbed female twins alive" (basketball players Heather and Heidi Burge, 6 foot 5), and the scary nemesis from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Roger Morrissey, 7 foot 4). The twins were nicely positive about their height ("We saw it as an advantage rather than a curse," said Heather), but Morrissey's long career playing monsters and aliens clearly raises antiheight bias as a social issue. Associating tallness with menace has been a recurring theme in popular entertainment. Many 7-footers have never fully recovered from seeing those sky-high characters in Yellow Submarine trying to slaughter everybody with apples. You can't do this with short or handicapped people. Depicting tallness as evil may well be the last safe prejudice to have in America.

No identity group is complete without a dab of militancy, and Tall provides it with "Fair Air," a firm demand by the tallness lobby for more legroom on airplanes ("Why we hate it and what we're doing about it"). We have been all through this with the size-acceptance movement (lateral division), which would like free extra seats for all wider-bodied passengers. As I understand it from what may have been a superficial reading of Fair Air, advocates for the tall are not asking for anything like that. They merely want representatives of the tallness culture to be able to put their legs under the two or three rows of seats in front of them.

One of the vexing problems for the height-consciousness movement is that the public thinks tall people are doing well and should have no complaints. ABC's 20/20 pointed to research showing that women, corporations, and children all prefer tall people. Some observers think the phrase "looking up" to someone indicates a strong pro-height social bias. But this analysis comes up short. It fails to account for all the outright antiheight discrimination. A nontall person may say, "How's the weather up there?" (correct reply: "You'll find out when you grow up") or "Do you play basketball?" (possible retorts: "Do you play miniature golf?" and "Are you a jockey?"). And, as we all know, the cry "Down in front!" devastates many vulnerable tall teens.

This is why activists are demanding a height-friendly college curriculum (reading Wuthering Heights is a must) as well as height-themed dormitories where tall and pro-tall students can mix their distinctive cultures. Maybe a Ph.D. could be offered in tallness studies. There is even talk that phrases like "that's a tall tale" (which clearly associates height with lying) may be declared hate speech by the Irish parliament or even by the whole European Union. Will this happen? Nobody knows, but surely it's high time.

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JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


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