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Illustration by Maya Nguyen

What do ballet dancers and short people have in common? They both spend more time on their tippy toes than most.

I don’t remember when I went from being a small person like the other kids to being a short kid. I know that by the time I was about 12 you’d be hard-pressed to make a short joke I hadn’t heard. Am I a Smurf? Ha ha. Sure, you can rest your elbow on my head. No, I can’t reach that.

One of the greatest lessons my dad taught me was to beat the jokers to the punch. Since then I have become the Muhammad Ali of short jokes. If I am going to be a punchline, I’d rather be the author of the joke. Also, my jokes are objectively funnier. Sorry, tall folk, but I am an expert on the subject matter. I use the present tense because I still hear them, with my 50th birthday just a couple of years away. It’s far from the constant barrage of junior high, but the jokes keep rolling in. I can laugh now, most of the time. But it took some time to get here.

Growing up, height was everywhere. I mean, it still is. Books (I get it, you need to paint the picture – the love interest is tall) and songs (Randy Newman’s song Short People, while meant to comment on discrimination, was recited to real short people through laughter – “short people got no reason to live”).

On the big screen, Shrek was a conundrum for me. I loved the movie. I thought it was so funny, but the short jokes were unrelenting. “Men of Farquaad’s stature are in short supply,” “I’ll let you do the ‘measuring’ when you see him tomorrow,” and on it went. And it’s not just Shrek. Height is a device to make a character look more weaselly or foolish or undesirable. Need a leading man to look more appealing? Put him beside a bumbling short character. Hearing these things in public, with friends, made me feel extremely self-conscious.

To be clear, I’m not just short. I’m really short. Short enough that I used to add “and a half” to my height because that half meant a lot. But not any more. As a confident grown man, I don’t need that half. I just round up.

There was a lot of name-calling. Some cruel, some not. I have blocked out much of the cruel. In junior high, a well-meaning acquaintance called me Stretch. In university, I was Shortly – brought on myself when a friend said, “I’ll see you shortly,” to which I replied, “Sounds good, and don’t call me Shortly.”

Jokes and nicknames aside, there were some real challenges as a short person. Being in the market for romance was painful. Tall, dark and handsome? Well, if I am feeling confident, I can claim one of the three. Being neither tall nor dark – nor wealthy – I took the personality route. And in some cases it worked – I am married with two wonderful children (the jury is still out on their comparative heights, thanks to taller Mom genes).

But more often than not, my award-winning personality wasn’t enough. I remember getting very close – literally and figuratively – to a woman. While sitting close to each other on my couch, she turned to me, looked me deep in the eyes and said, “I would date you if you weren’t so short.”

And then there is professional success. Studies have shown short men (and heavier women) tend to make less money on average. Other studies, creating a Catch-22, suggest that the shorter a man is, the more he needs to make to be desirable to women when compared to taller men. This is why I hated in-person job interviews. I always feared my height would cost me an opportunity. I always felt judged, real or not. If I had a chance for a phone interview, I’d gleefully take it.

It was hard to be confident sometimes. Meeting friends and families of partners made my stomach turn. I would ask them to tell people I was short before I met them so it would take the sting away from the surprise in their eyes upon seeing me. Once, after meeting my girlfriend’s family, an uncle asked her how tall I was. When she told him, he replied, “Wow, I thought he was at least 5-foot-5 or 5-foot-6. He carries himself so well.” As if carrying oneself well can only be a trait of the vertically unchallenged.

Shortness has long been considered a failing. Napoleon was of average height in his time. I mean, by today’s standards he would be short. We could share clothes. So why is “Napoleon complex” used to describe short men who overcompensate for their height? One suggestion is that he liked to surround himself by much taller soldiers, making him appear shorter than he was, combined with his fiery temper. Temper aside, if I’m going onto a battlefield, I just consider that a smart tactic. When I’m out with my running group in windy or wet weather, I also surround myself with taller runners. I may look shorter, but I’m also dryer.

As I get older, and obviously wiser, it doesn’t get to me as much. It’s part of who I am. There are some benefits. I find airplane seats spacious. I am incredible at hide and seek as I have more options. I rarely bump my head. Would I still want to be taller? Of course. Society tells me it’s better. But I wouldn’t be me. I am me because I’m short. And I like who I am.

It’s such a part of me that I cheer on fellow short people. Lionel Messi is the greatest soccer player of all time (and even he gets mocked). Bruno Mars may be the original short king. Tom Cruise was once named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (and more recently John Legend and Paul Rudd, not short by short standards, but definitely not tall, have also earned the title). Small victories.

I don’t remember when I became okay with being short. When I went from hanging my head, feeling like my height, all five feet and nearly three inches, was the thing that defined me, the thing that would hold me back. But at some point, like I have done my entire life, things started looking up.

Brad Needham lives in Kitchener, Ont.

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