Feeling “Too” Tall or “Too” Short: Another Body Image Challenge for Children and Adults

beckytand_proflim.jpgIt can be challenging for children to feel like they can fit in, feel confident, and thrive when they feel so different from others. Yesterday morning’s (3-26) New York Times featured “The Life of a Tall Girl,” an essay by the exquisite Becky Thomas. This essay talked about the tough mental challenge to “feel good about ourselves” while we’re growing up, especially when we are different from others. Ms. Thomas said “Everywhere I go people stare at me. At the grocery store children gawk at me wide-eyed, craning their necks and pointing as they tug their mothers’ shirts. When I pass people on the street, I hear them mumble comments about my appearance.”

As many of you know, I wrote a series on “Fitting In and Standing Out,” a struggle for many children whether they feel too tall like Ms. Thomas, too short, too thin, too fat, or “too” something else. To give the other side of the coin, here is the second article of the series on “coming up short in a tall-is-all world” originally published in Bay State Parent Magazine.

5 Tips to Help Your Child Deal with Coming up Short in a Tall-is-All World

By: Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman

Everyone thought Dylan was adorable. Girls wanted to pick him up and cart him around like a doll in a baby carriage. Boys called him “Mouse.” He was 8 ¼ years old and was starting third grade. He looked like he was in first.

Perhaps you know a child who is struggling with this same issue. Perhaps it’s your child. Perhaps it was you! When it comes to body image, weight isn’t the only thing that gets scrutinized by others. Short children often feel that they can’t measure up.

It can be difficult for children to cope with feeling short when their same-age friends or younger siblings start to surpass them in height. Especially at the start of a new school year, this issue gets a great deal of attention—children go for their back-to-school check-ups where height and weight are routinely examined and of course, it’s only natural that students compare heights, along with summer experiences, on the first day of school.

Studies show that people unknowingly assign positive qualities to tall people. With height comes assumed qualities of worthiness, dependability, intelligence, and authoritative leadership qualities. Even for girls, although short stature can be connected to positive qualities of being “cute” or “sweet,” being short can subconsciously keep others from putting a girl in a leadership position.

On a normal bell curve, some children will be tall, some will be short, and many will fall somewhere in between. It typically doesn’t matter where they fall on the bell curve, but rather, their pattern and rate of growth over a period of time. In fact, a child who’s in the 10th percentile for height and a child who’s in the 90th percentile of height can have the same rate of growth. They are both normal. If a child is not growing at a consistent rate or showing a predictable pattern, a pediatrician can determine if tests are needed.

While being tall may have social advantages, being on the low end of the measuring tape can feel like you’re getting the short end of the stick.

How can we help our short children stand tall?

(1) Be careful about transferring your worry: As caring parents, it’s common to become worried about your child’s height. Studies confirm that parental concern often outweighs the child’s concern when it comes to height! Parents may be anxious about the possibility of their child being teased or treated unfairly. They may be stressed about what the future might hold (professionally and socially) if their child remains short in comparison to others. While the concern is good intentioned, these worries might lead to repeated measuring, comparing, and doctor’s visits. When we transfer our worries to our child in this way, it teaches him that his height is an issue— even if in the child’s view, this wasn’t the case until it was brought to his attention.

(2) Don’t compare: Grade school is often about “who’s in, who’s out” which can be determined by as little as the color shirt the child is wearing that day or how many inches he measures. As parents and teachers, it’s important that we don’t inadvertently make our short children feel inadequate by comparing them to taller siblings and friends. Lining up by height or comparing how high someone’s mark is on the height chart in comparison to others may feel more like a competition than interesting fact. Since the child has no control over their height, such a comparison can make them feel that they will never “measure up.”

(3) Watch your language: Often height comparisons or statements are tainted with language bias. Parents and other family members might not think they’re being hurtful, but they’re language may be sending messages that celebrate taller members and denigrate shorter ones. Nicknames like “shorty,” “shrimp,” or “pip-squeak” may be said in jest but received as mockery. One of my coaching clients, a parent of two sons, told me that their grandmother would joke; “you wouldn’t believe they’re brothers- my Thomas is so short I feel like I can scoop him up like a rag doll and my Tony is so tall that I think he must hang the rainbows up after it rains.” The former sends a message of insignificance while the latter sends a message of superhuman qualities. It’s no wonder that Thomas always felt that his family looked at him like he was still a baby even though he was 12 years old.

(4) Celebrate all different heroes: Children need to be able to picture themselves and people like themselves as the heroes every once in a while. Superheroes, presidents, and sports stars are often described as being tall and strong. However, there are plenty of heroes who are shorter in stature while still being highly regarded. For instance, James Madison, “the father of the constitution” and “the father of the bill of rights,” stood 5’3 ¾” tall. Exposing children to different kinds of people of varying heights, both from our history as well as from our own communities, can help children see that anyone can be successful no matter how tall they are.

(5) Don’t allow height to dictate their involvement: Life doesn’t have to be a series of signs that read “too short to ride this ride.” Individual sports like swimming, dance, gymnastics, and martial arts arrange children by skill level and age rather than by skill level and height or weight. Jessie, a girl with dwarfism, began martial arts at age six. While some skills needed to be altered for her size and physical differences, she was able to excel as a leader in her class. When her mother told me, “Jessie doesn’t know that she isn’t supposed to be able to do any of this stuff,” I responded, “don’t tell her!” Sometimes limitations come from our own limiting thoughts (or what we have been told) rather than what is truly accurate. Jessie excelled because she could and nobody told her that she couldn’t.

And of course, talk to your child. Ask him or her how s/he feels, what s/he wants and what s/he hopes to become. Support these dreams just like you would any child. When it comes to our children, no matter what their height, it’s important that we don’t sell them short.

To our children!


Webmaster’s Note: This article was originally printed in Bay State Parent Magazine and was part of Dr. Robyn’s award winning series “Fitting In and Standing Out.”

Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman is child and adolescent development specialist, success coach and body image expert whose programs and services are used worldwide. Known as “The Character Queen, she’s the creator of the Powerful Words Character Toolkit used by the best and most progressive children’s activity programs, daycares, and personal development centers worldwide. She is an award-winning columnist for Bay State Parent Magazine.


One Response

  1. […] Point.  Laugh and say; “He’s sooooo fat.” “She looks gross.” “She’s way too short!” “Have you seen her thighs?  Her muffin top? Her butt?” Prejudice comes in all forms. […]

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