The Long and the Short of It: The Life of a Height Outlier

When the nurse footprinted my son at birth, she declared, “his foot almost doesn’t fit in the box” on her special Baby Footprint Form (nurses and doctors like things to fit into the boxes, I gather). Less than five minutes after my son’s birth, I had heard the first of what would be 12 years of comments about how tall he is.


My son is tall. This is true. If you ever see him and are tempted to say, “Wow, he’s tall,” rest assured that this will not be the first time the idea has occurred to us, or has been articulated. It’s not as if I’ll slap my forehead and declare, “Holy cow! You’re RIGHT! He IS tall!”

My son took up basketball this year, in part because now, when people ask him, “do you play basketball?” he can say yes. 

He comes from a tall family. Remember that one kid in class photos who was always smack dab in the center of the last row, at the vertex angle of the tallest-to-shortest triangle arrangement common to elementary class photos everywhere? That person was most likely me, my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law, or, now, my son. 

In the class photo, the shorter children were usually placed seated, cross-legged, on the floor. When reviewing the photo, parents might say of a first-row classmate, “Is that Joe?! Isn’t he cute.” Height outliers may be (much) shorter or (much) taller than the norm. But they aren’t equal-opportunity spectacles. The short aren’t called short to their faces, except by the very young or the very rude. People will say often (trust me), “He’s almost as tall as you,” but they will rarely ever say, “He’s almost not even up to your hip yet.” 

This is because people inclined to comment on height are not being unkind. They don’t mean it to be an insult, or they wouldn’t say anything. Tall is considered a positive social trait, even when you’re a serious height outlier. It’s said that you can’t play football, at any position, unless you’re over six feet these days. More tall men have gotten elected President. 

Ours is a vis a vis world. It’s governed by comparison, often invidious, and nowhere near as much as with children’s achievements, and height. As my son’s grown taller, the height of my heels seems to have grown as well. I think I’m subconsciously choosing shoes that will keep the vis a vis gap between parent and child by which we measure a kid’s height (and age) as close to normal for him as possible. 

It’s not that the height comments offend me. As for my son I think he mostly zones them out, like the background muzak of his life, at least consciously. However, what people can’t see, because they’re not around all the time, is the cumulative effect, the “identity by a thousand comments” impact, of hearing casual remarks on his height from so many, so often. 

The trouble comes when height outliers begin to conform their personality to their relentlessly-commented upon height. The tall look older, and are treated older. They are asked to “grow up” more, and earlier, than a child of normal-range height. The fact of their childhood and immaturity is more quickly and easily forgotten, and forgiven less, by strangers and relatives. Alas, I’ve fallen for the perceptual error myself. There have been too many exhortations that my son “grow up” when he was, in fact, a seven-year old. 

Perhaps with shorter people, it’s the opposite. Maybe they’re indulged, trivialized, condescended to, or treated like cute, doll-like people long into adulthood. Some have told me that they feel they’re not taken seriously as adults.

A few parents I know seem worried about the prospects of having a smaller child— if their child is a boy. For girls, it doesn’t seem to bother them as much. Maybe this distinction is a vestige of the pre-feminist days, when being “adorable”—and mildly infantilized—wasn’t such an unusual fate for a female. A girl’s little stature matched well enough with a belittled view of her future.

So often, we equate being a “small” child with being a young one, and being a “big” boy with being an old one. 

The confusion is more than rhetorical. It is the body making the man, and woman. 

Social psychologists have developed a theory of “enclothed cognition.” It holds that the experience of wearing certain clothing changes how we think and feel about our identity. In one experiment, students who wore lab coats described as “doctor’s coats” scored better on tests of attentiveness. 

The body is a sort of clothing, too, and more influential than a coat. The danger of such comments is how much our personalities change to conform, Procrustean-like, to our stature. 

Likewise with larger breasts. They are, to put it mildly, considered in our culture a nice sort of thing to have. But I’ve seen young women who have larger breasts, and who desperately want to be noticed for something other than their cup size. Eventually, they start folding their arms over their chests, or hunching inward, to minimize their breasts.This is enclothed cognition, with the flesh.

Comments about tallness or other extreme attributes, even when intended as compliments, are still acts of valuation, and, in a sense, intrusion. They interject our view of what we think constitutes a positive trait into someone else’s life. The comment implies, “Being tall is good, or at least not worrisome, so, as a stranger, I can comment on it,” and it says, “You should value your height, because abstractly, other people do.” 

Perhaps the height outlier agrees with you. Or, perhaps not. We never know what sort of person a person wants to become. People sometimes want to eschew or disregard even what others consider to be their physical gifts. Some don’t care for sexiness, or height, or breasts, or athleticism. Perhaps they’d prefer to be nerdy introverts, prudes, or an AA cup. Perhaps they’d prefer not to have their social identity so shaped by a trivial deviation from a physical norm.

Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree is about the most luminously compassionate book not only about parenthood but also the human condition that I’ve read in recent memory. He talks to parents with children who are outliers in matters more substantial, systemic, and profound than height. 

The book made me ponder how much we classify and compare, even within the population of children who are typical in most all respects. They’ve not fallen far from the tree, but they’ve fallen a small bit away from the tree. And we make so much even of the small deviations. Solomon graciously intimates that the urge to compare—the ideals of our dreams against realities; variance against the norm—impede our embrace of the eclecticism that constitutes the human experience.

How much better our (parenting) lives would be, if we were suddenly deprived of all indicia of comparison—the smartest, fastest, tallest, cutest, funniest, prettiest, skinniest, most talented—but, instead, were left to embrace human variance through some means other than comparison.

Until that day, speaking as the parent of a height outlier, I’d feel not the least bit deprived or unhappy if I never heard another comment about my son that included the words “tall,” “basketball,” and “the weather up there,” ever again.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
  • French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
  • Solar panel "paved" roadways are proving to be inefficient and too expensive.
Keep reading Show less

What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.