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Small Things Considered — A Short Person's Perspective

Being 'vertically-challenged' has always been an issue, and now aging is playing a part

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

People talk down to me. 

No, I mean they literally talk down to me. Because I'm short. Or as I like to say, vertically-challenged. 

A big blue sky with a short palm tree next to a tall palm tree. Next Avenue, shrinking with age

This isn't something I obsess over, so I'm always startled to see myself in group photos. The top of my head is barely level with other people's chins. Inevitably someone says, "Wow, I never realized you're so short."

"I'm tall for my height," I say.

I seem to have misplaced an inch lately, though. The nurse at my doctor's office insisted on measuring me, then delivered the crushing news that I now measure five feet. 

I'm shrinking, right on target for my age. The doctor sent me for a bone density test, which showed thinning in my left hip and spine. That evening, I mentioned it over dinner with the women in my book group. One of them looked up from her menu. "Me too!" she said. "My doctor told me I have osteo-panini." In her defense, we were eating in an Italian restaurant. 

The Effects of Osteopenia

Osteopenia is common after menopause. It's the midpoint between healthy bones and osteoporosis when bones break easily. According to the National Library of Medicine, people typically lose almost a half inch every decade after age 40, and that loss accelerates after 70. Discs between the spine's vertebrae flatten, muscles lose mass, and the spaces between joints narrow. 

I'm shrinking, right on target for my age.

Osteopenia affects about 34 million Americans, and osteoporosis is four times more common in women than men.

I'm following the doctor's regimen of calcium, vitamin D, dairy foods, and weight-bearing exercise, but I can't help lamenting this incremental loss. Along with the waning of glowing skin or the ability to party all night without bodily repercussion, it's yet another one of aging's affronts. At least my friends are shrinking right along with me. 

I enjoyed a brief bit of stature in sixth grade when I hit puberty earlier than my peers. We lined up by size, so I got to stand at the coveted rear. But my schadenfreude was fleeting.

"Aw, how's the weather down there, shorty?" a tall queen bee in gym class jeered the following year, oozing fake pity when I couldn't reach the shelf full of towels. 

Mom used to joke that my short stature was my own fault. When I was a mere fraction north of 5'1" I announced I didn't want to grow any taller than my teenybopper crush, Davy Jones of the Monkees, who was 5'3."

"Be careful what you wish for," my mom said.

My parents weren't tall, so were baffled when my brother came along. He shot up to six feet so quickly that a month after his bar mitzvah, he outgrew his suit and the tailor shortened it for Dad to wear. 

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I was in my thirties when a new doctor measured me. "You're five feet, two and a half inches," he said.

I was delighted. But now I suspect it was merely my hair. It was the 1980s, when we all flaunted luxuriant perms like Melanie Griffith's in "Working Girl" and looked like a pack of French poodles.

"Short" is frequently used as a pejorative. Short-changed. Short-lived. Shortcoming. Short call. Shortstop. Shortfall. Short-tempered. Being shorted. Getting the short end. Coming up short. Is height destiny? Studies have shown there are very real biases against short people, affecting employment and salaries. 

The Petty Annoyances of Being Short

There are petty annoyances too. When I attend a popular art exhibit that's so crowded it's like viewing art in a subway car at rush hour, invariably someone steps on me.

"Sorry, didn't see you standing there," they (mostly men) say, affronted, as if I snuck up on them so it's my fault.

In elevators I wind up squashed against the rear wall with my face unpleasantly close to the back of some guy's dandruff-covered jacket. If I spring for a pricey orchestra seat at the theater, odds are high I'll see only half the stage. I'll be too busy bobbing side to side to see past the head of the woman in front of me who's brandishing hair bigger than Dolly Parton's. 

History is replete with successful tall/short pairings: Napoleon and Josephine. Jane and Mr. Rochester. Homer and Marge Simpson.

Finding clothing that fits is also a challenge. Hems are too long, sleeves hang way past my knuckles, pockets aren't positioned at hand level. "Try the petite department!" a helpful salesperson inevitably suggests.

According to the CDC, the average women is 5 foot 4 inches tall. Petite clothing is scaled proportionally for anyone shorter than that. Good luck finding it, though. Many stores don't carry petites. If they do, the pickings are slim. It feels like I'm hunting for Hannukah wrapping paper in a store teeming with Christmas merchandise: miles of candy canes and cartoon Santas, but only two dusty rolls with dancing dreidels. 

The dictionary defines petite as "attractively small, dainty and adorable." Although my loyal husband Marc insists I'm all that and more, there's nothing petite about me besides height. No one has ever alluded to me as svelte, except the time I had a prolonged bout of gastritis and briefly dropped two sizes. 

I tell people that Marc and I have a mixed marriage, not because he's a diehard Yankees fan and I root for the Mets, or that I got Moderna, and he got Pfizer. Visually we make an unlikely couple. He's nearly a foot taller. I barely reach his shoulder.

It doesn't bother me, though. History is replete with successful tall/short pairings: Napoleon and Josephine. Jane and Mr. Rochester. Homer and Marge Simpson. 

Being differently heighted does have its plusses. I always have ample leg room on airplanes. I can shop for a Ralph Lauren cashmere sweater in the teen boys' department, where it's half the price. And thanks to a lifetime of having to stand on tiptoe, I've developed calf muscles of steel. As Shakespeare said, "though she be but little, she is fierce." 

I may be a person with short stature, but I'm still standing tall. I'm doing planks and lunges to maintain my posture and balance, determined to hold onto what I've got. Which is something mature women should all be drinking to — but with a glass of milk. We can use the calcium. 

Photograph of Liane Kupferberg Carter
Liane Kupferberg Carter is a New York-based essayist and author of the memoir, “Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism.” Read More
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