Our inexplicable obsession with our children’s size
Without realizing it consciously, we seem to be preoccupied with our children’s physical size, and this preoccupation is the root cause of height discrimination against short people. This focus on our children’s height is both a symptom and cause of the undue importance that height has in our culture that persists throughout our lives. What ought to be considered a trivial physical feature has acquired a significance that is much more profound than we acknowledge.
Almost as soon as a baby is delivered, the baby’s length and weight are recorded. As long as there is no real medical emergency involving the baby’s health, measuring the baby is the first thing that occurs after delivery, sometimes even before the baby is placed into the mother’s arms for the first time. This measuring is done with great urgency, as if the failure to record the actual length and weight within the first few seconds of life might lead to having missed out on something essential.
After birth, at the beginning of every visit to the pediatrician’s office, the weight and height are measured and plotted on an official-looking growth chart. It is often the first item of business before anything else is done, before the child’s temperature is taken, before the child’s health is assessed in any other way. Often, parents continue their own statistical gathering and monitoring of a child’s height measurements on some door frame in their homes, collecting and documenting this aspect of their child’s growth and development more frequently than all others – usually well into the child’s adolescence.
If only those statistics were treated as a charming tradition, they would be harmless enough. But our children’s height percentiles become one of the primary descriptors of the child’s position within (or outside) the norm. The doctor’s practice of making size measuring a primary focus of each medical visit helps perpetuate the focus on the child’s relative size and reinforces negative social stereotyping when the size does not “measure up” with socially desirable norms.
Parents are endlessly fascinated by their children’s height and growth as compared with other children. When meeting with other parents at school or on the playground, parents often discuss and compare their children’s height percentiles. The parents whose children fall in the upper percentiles for height display significantly more pride about their kids’ size than those parents whose children are in the lower percentiles, who often experience shame, anxiety and disappointment. It is as though the child’s tallness is some sort of achievement worth celebrating.
Our obsession with collecting this statistical data reflects our unconscious concern about our children’s relative size as compared to other children. This concern is not about the physical size itself, but about the societal prejudices that their short children will face later in life.