Category Archives: Politics & Current Affairs

Einstein Was a Refugee

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When Albert Einstein came to the U.S. to escape persecution by the Nazis, prominent Americans like Charles Lindbergh were warning the nation of the dangers of letting outsiders into the country. He and many popular politicians, religious leaders and businessmen (like Henry Ford) got on the radio, lobbied politicians, published antisemitic books and pamphlets and joined with white supremacist organizations to spread fear and hatred toward Jews. Many said that Jews were communist agitators without morals who would infiltrate the American way of life, degrade American culture and destroy Christian values. So this supposedly Christian nation turned away Jewish refugees out of irrational fear based on a lack of understanding of others’ religious and cultural beliefs. And it’s happening again. One state government after another is shutting its doors to Syrian refugees, describing them as dangerous jihadists and assuming that Muslims are all wild desert people without morals. ISIS/ISIL/Daesh wants a religious war, and we’re playing right into their hands. Don’t let us harden our hearts against refugees based on irrational fear. Don’t let the terrorists win.

Child of the Sixties

Laura in GG Park, March 1969

The author in Golden Gate Park in the late 1960s

Among my childhood photo albums are pictures of me wearing daisy chains and sitting on the grass in Golden Gate Park. I have vivid memories of spending time with my father and his friends in the park and in the adjoining Haight-Ashbury district when I was a very little girl. I was tiny, but I remember San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement, during 1967’s legendary Summer of Love and in the years thereafter.

Though I grew up in the suburbs, I often visited what people in the Bay Area refer to simply as The City. All my life I have felt a special pride in my connection to San Francisco. My mom gave birth to me there, in a hospital just a few blocks’ walk from the famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. My dad (whom I only lived with for the first few months of my life, and only saw occasionally from babyhood onward) brought me to various hippie happenings there during his visits with me from the time I was about three years old. He hoped to make up for what he saw as the soulless bourgeois childhood I was supposedly experiencing in the Bay Area’s eastern suburbs.

The PBS American Experience documentary on the Summer of Love shows a San Francisco very much as I remember it during that time, albeit from about three feet off the ground. As a young child, I found San Francisco’s hippies often scary and off-putting. Even as a very little girl I had a sense of the importance of personal space and a desire that things be done safely, with purpose and according to plan. I was much more of a cautious goody-goody than even my mother, a high school teacher whom my father denigrated for being too suburban. I followed rules; my father and his friends generally did not. My dad hated authority, rules and The Man, so he and his friends would take joy in challenging the establishment whether or not I was with them.

I was always the only child present on visits with my father, and was usually ignored, so I spent a lot of time in watchful anxiousness, hoping not to be put in harm’s way. I was frightened by his and his hippie friends’ lack of concern with their actions or with me; they were lackadaisical, careless, loudly vulgar and sometimes stoned, so I felt ill at ease and unprotected with them.

People often talk about how loving and peaceful hippies were, but I saw also an enormous amount of anger directed by them toward rules, history and authority. That anti-establishment anger was often channeled for good in such campaigns as the fight for full and equal rights for African-Americans, women, Native Americans and homosexuals, among other downtrodden groups. The often strident and unpleasant but necessary challenges to the entrenched establishment gave young people in particular the courage to question the wisdom of their leaders and force their government to justify its wars. They gave the populace the courage to stand against unjust laws and corrupt political practices. It was this movement that eventually gave journalists the courage and necessary establishment backing to bring down a powerful sitting president during the Watergate scandal just a few years later.

While the nation often benefited from the outspoken challenges of those who had felt stifled by government, big business and the limiting social mores left over from the 1950s, there was also an upsurge in more generalized antisocial behavior. The rise of the hippies led not only to social activism, peace and love, but also to huge numbers of (mostly) young people breaking rules just for the hell of it. Many wrapped their destructive or selfish behavior in a cloak of righteousness. Some took advantage of the new social openness to examine their psyches and motivations honestly and to try to relate to others in more direct and healthy ways; others just found this newly socially acceptable preoccupation with self an excuse for narcissistic behavior.

The ensuing decade of the 1970s was dubbed “The Me Decade” with reason. During the 1960s, modesty had lost favor while self-regard and constant awareness of one’s own needs and desires became viewed as positive things. Exuberant self-expression and in-your-face sexuality went from being shocking in the early 1960s to being surprisingly common within a decade. In the early 1970s, when I visited the high school where my mother taught (and which I would later attend), obvious bralessness was very common not only among the students but even among teachers. Some of the younger teachers wore hot pants to school. Overt sexuality was, however, considerably less evident in high school teachers’ fashions by the time I myself entered high school later in the seventies.

To be fair to those who were part of the laissez-faire San Francisco hippie culture of the 1960s, I saw plenty of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement even among more establishmentarian suburbanites during that time and in the decade that followed. Social boundaries were not well respected in general in the late 1960s; millions of people (not just hippies) were sharing their formerly private thoughts (not to mention their bodies and lots of adult-themed talk and media) with great abandon and carelessness, and we kids were often exposed to too much knowledge too soon. Those of us who appreciated having some boundaries in our lives were often ignored or denigrated by people who felt superior because of their mod, carefree sensibilities. Some, like my father, mistook the desires of others (like his young daughter) to follow laws, keep order or avoid conflict or offense as being necessarily conservative traits. They are not.

There was a middle ground in which people challenged the status quo more gently; they didn’t want social anarchy but still believed strongly in the promise of liberalism. Yes, many San Franciscans, hippies included, sought peaceful, meaningful, respectful social change and worked hard for it. But from my own perspective, as a very young person, I saw measured, realistic and inclusive social activism in the suburbs, too, even among those whom my dad and his friends found so hopelessly square.

Fat Shaming: Socially Acceptable Bigotry

McCarthy Instagram

Fashion designer and Academy-Award-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy, second from left, shows off pieces from her new 7Seven fashion line, Summer, 2015

When gifted comic actress Melissa McCarthy was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, she went searching for an appropriately elegant evening gown to wear to the ceremony. “I asked five or six designers,” she told Redbook magazine. “Very high-level ones who make lots of dresses for people — and they all said no.” The designers demurred because Ms. McCarthy does not conform to the fashion world’s size-two-to-size-six ideal. Designers had no interest in having her wear their dresses, even though over 40 million people in the U.S. alone saw Ms. McCarthy on their TV screens in one night, because designers feared that being seen to create clothing for larger women would actually harm the reputations of their design houses.

It’s ironic that designers think designing for women size 14 and up degrades and debases their brands since fully two-thirds of women in the United States fall into that category. Over 90 million women in the U.S. alone wear size 14 or larger, yet they are relegated to smaller, sadder “plus-size” clothing departments. They are made to feel that they are not only unimportant but not worthy of attractive, comfortable clothing even though they purchase and wear billions of dollars worth of clothing and accessories each year. They are shut out of many stores and designer’s lines completely, and stores that cater to them often offer them less flattering products for more money. The funny but maddening WTF Plus Tumblr blog shows the range of hideous, sexless, embarrassing clothes designed for larger women that smaller women would never be expected to buy, let alone wear.

While Emmy-winning actress Melissa McCarthy is best known for being a popular comedian who is willing to bear the brunt of jokes about her large size, she actually started out as a fashion and textile design student at New York’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology before her career in entertainment took off. In August 2015 her new line of clothing, 7Seven, debuted a line of clothes ranging in size from 4 to 28. The line is in a relatively affordable price range that matches or meets the prices of retailers like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. With her inaugural collection, McCarthy shows a great eye for proportion, fit, pattern and texture. Her designs are fashion-forward and very wearable.

McCarthy dislikes the term “plus-size.” “Seventy percent of women in the United States are a size 14 or above, and that’s technically ‘plus size,’ so you’re taking your biggest category of people and telling them, ‘You’re not really worthy.’ I find that very strange,” she says.

In response to the news of her fashion line’s availability, Internet trolls came out en masse on social media and news sites to denigrate McCarthy and others for “enabling” and celebrating larger women’s rights to enjoy their bodies. As always happens when women with bodies larger than a size 6 dare to show comfort or confidence in their appearance, people took to their computers to accuse McCarthy and others of glamorizing unhealthy lifestyle choices. Those self-elected arbiters of appropriate body shape and size would like all people size 8 and above to go about in sack cloth and ashes until they starve themselves down to a single-digit dress size.

Disapproval and disrespect shown toward plus-sized people doesn’t obviate their need to find clothes that fit, feel good and look attractive. Those who respond to Ms. McCarthy’s new business venture by denigrating those who are larger than themselves are essentially saying that allowing people to clothe themselves attractively, affordably and comfortably  is the wrong tack—that we should instead shame them into looking the way we want them to and tell them that having the bodies they have is a moral failing. I wonder whether these self-appointed body shamers go out of their way to shame smokers and alcoholics, too. Those who drink or smoke bring on early death from their habits in even greater numbers than overeaters do, but our society shows them more understanding. They have the option of giving up their habits and avoiding people and places that trigger their dangerous behaviors, but EVERYONE has to eat, and every metabolism is different, so larger people can’t just stop the behavior (i.e., eating) that disrespectful trolls find offensive. 

Many larger people are actually regular exercisers who are quite healthy—you can’t tell from looking who is truly unhealthy inside. Large people have higher rates of some deadly diseases, but so do coal miners, house cleaners and beauticians because they choose jobs that expose them to carcinogenic chemicals. Police officers and soldiers die in greater numbers and intentionally choose work that causes great stress that often requires taxpayer-funded medical and psychological intervention later. Do we judge them for putting their lives at risk? Do we denigrate them for their choices? 

Melissa McCarthy is a multitalented woman who designs chic, comfortable and fashion-forward clothing, much of it aimed at a market that comprises over two-thirds of the nation’s adult female population. People who want to shame those women into conforming to their personal preferences are nothing more than hateful bigots who spew venomous tirades in the self-righteous belief that their discomfort over seeing bodies larger than those featured in Vogue magazine justifies their using their supposed concern about health and setting bad examples for youth so they can clobber those with different body types and sizes over the head, shaming and shunning them and telling them that they are unlovable, undisciplined and unimportant, none of which is true.

An ever-growing body of scientific literature points toward the fact that people who are deemed overweight to obese usually have very different gut biomes (intestinal ecosystems) than thinner people do, and that the varieties and sizes of bacterial colonies in their guts have an enormous impact on the speed and effectiveness of their bodies’ metabolic rates, the intensities of their cravings for food, the ways in which they metabolize medicines, and their propensity toward depression, anxiety and other emotional and psychological disorders that may manifest in a compulsion to eat in order to find comfort.

In short, the gut biomes of larger people may send intensely powerful and frequent signals to their brains telling them what, when and how much to eat. We live in a culture in which almost everyone has taken multiple types of  antibiotics that distrupt gut biomes, sometimes with disastrous, even deadly results. We are also regularly bombarded with ads for unhealthy foods and drinks that further disrupt our gut biomes and our endocrine systems, making permanent weight loss exceptionally difficult for even the most determined people. But we are also surrounded with Photoshopped images of impossibly thin, unrealistically proportioned people on TV, in movies, in pornography and in computer games, making it easier to believe that there are actually many more “perfect” bodies in existence than actually occur on this or any other planet. So we compare ourselves to these pretend people we keep seeing, and to make ourselves feel less bad about our own imperfections, we glom onto the perceived failures of others and build ourselves up by ripping them apart and smarmily saying that we’re shaming and shunning them for their own good. How preposterous. It’s cruel, and it doesn’t help people to lose weight.

What does help? Making people feel confident and attractive enough to get up, get out and exercise and take good care of themselves. Helping them to feel less anxious or depressed about themselves by giving them access to clothes and accessories that allow them to feel more attractive, confident and appealing. Success breeds success; those who feel shame are more likely to retreat into self-defeating behaviors that compound difficult habits, while those who believe in their inherent worth and who have hope for a positive future are more likely to get up and take the actions that lead to healthier, happier lives. Shaming and shunning those who are heavy tends to push them toward habits that make them heavier still. Helping them to find attractive outfits for every occasion, including athletic and exercise wear, gives them ways to love the bodies they have and helps them to believe that their bodies are worth effort and care.

Yes, being obese is not healthy, but being slightly overweight actually leads to a longer life expectancy than being slightly underweight. Furthermore, many people who are significantly overweight exercise regularly and do not have either diabetes or high blood pressure, just as some very fit and thin women have serious diabetes from childhood onward and need daily insulin injections. You can’t tell by looking, and even if you could, others’ dietary habits are not your business.

Should we encourage healthy dietary and exercise habits throughout society? Yes! Should we work to eliminate junk food dispensaries from schools and increase the quality of school lunches and discourage teachers from using sodas and snacks as rewards for good work? Yes! But it does not follow from these societal goals that encouraging health requires disparaging and defaming those whose habits or bodies don’t conform to cultural ideals.

Rather than fat-shaming those among us with larger bodies, let us celebrate women like Melissa McCarthy who make larger women feel freer to be active, positive and comfortable in their bodies while living happy, productive, healthy and engaged lives.

Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds Admit Impediments

Laura Pride

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

—from Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare

All year long, I’ve anxiously and hopefully awaited the Supreme Court’s decision on the question of marriage equality, wondering every day for months whether they would do the just and proper thing by all LGBTQ citizens of the United States at last. This week, as the nation awaited the decision with bated breath, I hoped that the answer would come on Friday, June 26, since that was my late mother’s birthday, and I could think of no greater honor to her memory than to have a landmark civil rights decision giving millions of people financial, emotional, legal and medical protection be announced on her natal day. On Friday, my dream came true.

I’m a straight woman who has already been afforded all the benefits of legal marriage more than once. I have never had to worry that a partner would be excluded from my hospital room, disallowed from taking custody of our child in an emergency, denied inheritance rights or social security or medical benefits, or publicly humiliated, shunned and mocked for calling himself my partner without benefit of marriage. I have lived a privileged life because I happened to be born with the prevailing sexual orientation during a time and in a place in which I could choose my partner of my own volition without being abused, threatened or punished for my orientation or my choices. But while I am heterosexual, I also cherish a number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans friends and family members, and my life would be pale and hollow without them. Since childhood, many, at times most, of my nearest and dearest have been and continue to be homosexual or bisexual men and women. They always will be. To watch them be denied basic honor, dignity, respect and rights because of their orientation has sickened and disturbed me since I was a girl, and I have been a devoted ally to my darling LGBTQ loved ones (and to all the millions of LGBTQ strangers out there) for decades.

I cried with joy and relief early on Friday morning when I read the news minutes after the decision was announced, and I look forward to shedding more tears of joy at the weddings and anniversaries of my friends for decades to come. The world is so much brighter, fairer and more hopeful each time we extend justice and equality to those who have been denied it. We are so lucky to be alive to witness this beautiful day.

What Makes a Woman “Feminine”?

Vanity Fair

Caitlyn Jenner‘s photos were published in Vanity Fair earlier this week, as we all know by now. She looks beautiful in them, and I wish her only happiness in her life as the woman she has always felt herself to be.

Since she seems to have taken charge of all aspects of publicizing her transition from Bruce to Caitlyn, we must assume that Ms. Jenner had the final say regarding which of the photos taken by top celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz she wanted to have featured on the Vanity Fair cover. Of all the photos from that spread, the one on the cover shows Ms. Jenner in the most vulnerable possible state: sitting in white underwear with arms pinned behind her and her strong, beautiful legs awkwardly pressed together. All the others show her looking more in-charge and comfortable with herself, not to mention in prettier clothes. For example, here she is relaxing:

Sofa

Here she is about to drive her $180,000 sports car:

Red Dress

In each of these images, she shows herself to be in command of the moment and of herself. In one, she looks away from the camera as if unaware and unconcerned about its gaze; in the other she wears sunglasses and a body-conscious red dress, and she exudes power and control. Compare these to the cover image in which her wrists and ankles could be bound for all we know; they’re certainly pulled tightly back and out of the way, and she looks directly at the camera, unsmiling and very aware that she is being appraised by the viewer in her half-naked state.

After a lifetime of being lauded for physical strength and power, which were so often conflated with her appearing to many to be the epitome of manly attractiveness, it is understandable, but I think a bit disturbing, that she and Vanity Fair should see the opposite—a physical position of seeming powerlessness—as the apotheosis of feminine beauty. While it is true that stripping away clothes could also be taken as a symbol of stripping away what she felt were the public lies about her private self, both she and photographer Annie Leibovitz knew full well that by portraying her without clothes or visible hands or feet they were also using visual shorthand to get across the idea of her vulnerability as part and parcel of her newly-public femininity.

She is in fabulous physical condition, as one would expect a disciplined gold-medal-winning Olympic decathlete to be, and one can understand that she might want to show that off—it must feel great to show the world that she can look so conventionally attractive as a woman. And, of course, Vanity Fair wants to sex up the cover as much as possible to sell more issues. But I wonder: did Ms. Jenner or Vanity Fair think that placing her in as vulnerable a state as possible was a necessary part of making her look most feminine?

If people think that what makes Ms. Jenner appear to be “feminine” is the fact that her near nudity and constrained pose leave her looking vulnerable and fragile, that saddens me, since in that case the choice is clearly not about glamour (which can be strong and empowering) per se; it is instead about playing up weakness as a womanly trait. Caitlyn Jenner is plenty glamorous in all the photos, so the choice must have involved what she and Vanity Fair think makes her look most like a woman, and that appears to be weakness, vulnerability and the impression of greater sexual availability (i.e., fewer clothes, direct gaze, body seated rather than standing and legs and arms out of the way). I’m concerned about underlying sexist and disempowering messages about femininity and beauty that could be sent to the world by this photo spread when the most fragile and powerless-looking of all photos taken becomes the image chosen to symbolize feminine beauty out of all the beautiful, powerful images available.

I am not denigrating Caitlyn’s choice to transition from male to female, nor her desire to share her story and her first photos of herself in a beautiful and powerful way. I support and applaud her in this. I am merely questioning what this episode in popular culture tells us about how we may conflate powerlessness and vulnerability with ideals of female beauty.

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie

French chanteuse Edith Piaf singing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, which is a call to arms against oppression

Let us honor those who fight and sometimes die for the causes of free speech and a free press.

Much of what French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo publishes has been offensive to nearly everyone at one time or another; the quality or appeal or substance of their satire is not the point. The point is that an open marketplace of ideas is necessary for a free society. That includes the right of individuals to share ugly or objectionable ideas, the responsibility of governments to safeguard that right, and the responsibility of citizens to stand up for it.

In an open society, bad ideas get countered, challenged and, over time, often discarded, not despite but because of their publication. It is only when they are shared that enough people can speak for or against them and the general public can make informed decisions. When this right to free speech is attacked anywhere in the world, we are all diminished.

I do not seek to smear or harm those who happen to share the same faith as the terrorists who engaged in the brutal slaughter at Charlie Hebdo—that would be as nonsensical as the evil acts of the assassins. Remember that one of the two policemen killed by the assassins when they rushed to the site of the attack was Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet, who was murdered while protecting the right of Charlie Hebdo to caricature and mock his own religion. No, this was a brutal act committed by a small group of sick-minded individuals, not by a religion.

The rallying cry around the world and among popular commentators like The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart in the immediate aftermath of the attack has been Je suis Charlie: I am Charlie. In his essay in The New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch responds to this by writing, “But the truth is—for better and for worse—that, no, most of us, even in the most free of Western societies, are not Charlie. For better, because so many of us have the luxury of often feeling secure enough in our freedom to take it for granted. For worse, because in taking our freedom for granted, we are too often ready to trade it for a greater sense of security. We are not Charlie, in other words, because we risk so little for what we claim to value so much. We are not Charlie, too, because most of us are relatively inoffensive, whereas Charlie, like so many liberating pioneers of free expression—think not only of Lenny Bruce and Mad magazine but also of Gandhi and Martin Luther King—were always glad to give offense to what offended them. And we are not Charlie, today, because we are alive.”

It is true that we in the United States have many luxuries of expression that others around the world are denied, and that we regularly take them for granted. We forget that what we consider to be inherent and inalienable rights are seen as privileges at best in many places around the world. So it is incumbent upon us to show gratitude and recognition for our freedom, and to stand up for the right of others around the world to be offensive, outspoken, embarrassing or upsetting in what they say or publish, as long as they do not present a clear and present immediate physical danger to others while they do so (as would be the case if a speaker instigated a riot, or example). I do not seek to upset others and generally do my best to avoid offending with my writing, but I stand behind those who exercise their right to upset, disgust or enrage others (myself included) when they speak their minds, even in cases when I detest what they have to say. Let us remember those who face danger in their fight for the right to a free press. Let us prove with nonviolent but outspoken solidarity that, truly, nous sommes tous Charlie: we are all Charlie.

banksy

Above: London-based graphic designer Lucille Clerc’s response to the Charlie Hebdo murders, widely misattributed to Banksy

How Normal is “Normal” Drinking?

Drink

Image source: Washington Post/Wonkblog, “Paying the Tab” by Philip J. Cook

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes 9.8% of all U.S. deaths among adults aged 20 to 64 to excessive drinking, and alcohol is involved in 5% of all U.S. deaths of people under the age of 21. the U.S. alcohol-consumption average is 556 drinks per year (under 11 drinks per week, or 1-1/2 drinks per day), those figures are misleading. Almost 30% of the U.S. population never touches alcohol, and another 30% only drinks on special occasions—once every two weeks at most. That means the other 40% of the population is downing all that liquor.

While the number of alcohol-attributable deaths (AADs) in the U.S. is lower than rates across most of Europe and in much of Central and South America, it is significantly higher than the rate of AADs reported by the United Kingdom and Ireland, despite the high incidence of binge drinking in the UK. This is likely to reflect a difference in the definitions of “alcohol-related” deaths among nations. While rates of binge-drinking vary widely across the U.S., the overall prevalence of binge-drinking among U.S. adults in 2011 was 18.4%. Britain’s National Health Service estimates that over 50% of Britons binge-drink regularly, though official estimates are in the 28% range. In Ireland binge-drinking is a weekly event for 21.1% of the population, and 39% engage in it at least once a month according to official estimates, but underreporting of alcohol use is standard and expected in self-reported surveys. One would expect the number of AADs in these countries to similar to or greater than those in the U.S., but their definitions may vary from that of the CDC, which says, “These deaths were due to health effects from drinking too much over time, such as breast cancer, liver disease, and heart disease, and health effects from consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, such as violence, alcohol poisoning, and motor vehicle crashes.”

While many people have a genetic predisposition to become alcoholics,  the amount of liquor people consume is strongly influenced by social situations and peer behavior: people tend to see their friends’ behavior as the norm and assume that consuming anything less than their most inebriated friends makes them moderate drinkers. According to the CDC, heavy drinking constitutes 8 or more drinks per week for women (just over one drink per day) and 15 or more drinks per week for men (just over two drinks per day). Binge drinking corresponds to four or more drinks on a single occasion for women (which is equal to just under one bottle of wine) or five or more drinks on a single occasion for men (just under a six-pack of beer). Even moderate drinking (one drink per day for women, two for men) significantly increases risk of breast cancer as well as liver, colon and esophageal cancers and cancers of the mouth and throat. Moderate alcohol use also aggravates mental health disorders (including depression) and increases injury risk. About 70% of drinking-related deaths involved men.

Researchers note that the data on alcohol consumption used to calculate alcohol-attributable deaths  were based on self-reporting, which means it’s quite likely that U.S. alcohol consumers underestimated their consumption. Britain’s National Health Service says that people around the world tend to underestimate their drinking by about 40-60%. Also missing from the estimates were data on the deaths of former drinkers. Since former drinkers may have stopped drinking because of alcohol-related health issues that ultimately cause their deaths, it is likely that their absence from the study artificially lowers the number of deaths caused by alcohol, which brings the number of U.S. deaths alcohol-related deaths to well above one out of ten adults and one out of twenty minors.

The Little Guy

Short people

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

You’d be shocked if a coworker said she could gauge the intelligence of a member of your company by the color of her skin, wouldn’t you? If your child’s teacher said Muslim kids aren’t trustworthy, you’d notify the principal at once. If your favorite cafe’s owner said he disliked gay people, his blatant bigotry would ensure that you’d never eat his risotto again. You’re careful not to stereotype people in wheelchairs or wheatgrass juice drinkers, lesbians or limo drivers, Estonians or the elderly. You see how ridiculous it is to ascribe personality traits to whole groups, or make generalizations about ability or behavior based on so little information. You expect your friends, family and coworkers to show the same respect to others that you do.

So, why are so many otherwise sensitive, multiculturally aware folks so willing to put down the little guy? Why does society hold such contempt for short men? Why are smaller-than-average fellows passed over for jobs, relationships and pay raises at higher rates than other men? And why are jokes and snide asides about short men being less confident, virile or capable so pervasive?

Easy laughs at the expense of men who are mere inches shorter than average are commonly accepted in daily conversation, in ads, in TV shows and films, at work. Even the rare man who shares my own height of just five feet two inches is only 10% smaller than a man of average stature in the U.S., and most men who are publicly berated for being short come within 5% of average height. Why do we ascribe so much social importance and status to such a small variance in size?

My own height is below the 25th percentile for American women, so I’ve always been aware of society’s preference for taller people. But as a petite female, I sometimes benefit from stereotypes about small women. Short women are often assumed to be cuter, nicer or more approachable before people even get to know us. Our stature is less threatening, so strangers often assume our personalities will follow suit. Because people expect us to be friendlier, meeker and weaker than average, they might let down their guard more easily with us and be more willing to help us. However, they also condescend more, sometimes assume we’re less capable or even less intelligent, and not infrequently they offer assistance we haven’t asked for and don’t want, sometimes insistently, as if being smaller than they are means we can’t be trusted to gauge our own strength and ability appropriately.

In study after study, the majority of men say they much prefer dating women who are smaller than they are. Shorter-than-average women make men feel bigger and stronger in comparison with taller women. Tall women definitely find it harder to find men who are comfortable dating them, and they say overwhelmingly that they prefer to date men even taller than they. They then hear fewer comments about their height and get less attention for sticking out in a crowd. But tall women also have a lot of positive characteristics ascribed to them. They’re assumed to be more capable and powerful in social, academic and business settings, so they earn more money as a group than their smaller sisters. There are various advantages to being taller than average, of medium height or even shorter than average height for women, and men of taller-than-average height gain noticeable benefits in social, financial, academic, business and governmental realms. But short men? They’re at a social disadvantage across the board.

Surveys of attitudes reveal that people both perceive and treat people of shorter stature as inferior. This is particularly notable in the business sphere. International university studies have shown that short people, male and female, are paid less than taller people, with disparities similar in magnitude to those ascribed to race and gender gaps. Tall people have significant advantages when it comes to hiring, pay, promotions and prominence within their companies. A 2005 survey of the heights of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs revealed that they were on average six feet tall, approximately three inches taller than the average U.S. man. Fully 30% of these CEOs were six feet two inches tall or more. Ninety percent of CEOs are of above average height.

In the U.S., taller candidates have the advantage in electoral politics, though heightism isn’t a problem in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is just over five feet seven and former President Dmitry Medvedev is just over five feet five inches tall. France’s former President Nicolas Sarkozy is just over five feet six. He is married to the former model Carla Bruni, who is five feet nine inches tall, and throughout his tenure this fact was constantly remarked upon throughout the world. Endless jokes were made about his power being enough of an aphrodisiac to make up for his lack of height, which many assume would otherwise make him appear weak and sexually less desirable. As if a man’s attractiveness, sexual skill or ability to be a good husband had anything to do with his height!

Shockingly, heightism has been cited as one of the underlying causes of the Rwandan genocide, in which approximately one million people were killed. One of the reasons that political power was conferred on minority Tutsis by the exiting Belgians was reportedly because Tutsis were taller and were therefore seen by the Belgians as superior and more suited to governance than Hutus. That’s a horrifying price to pay for baseless prejudice, isn’t it?

Why do a few inches of height matter so much that over 90% of women say they wouldn’t want to date someone shorter than they are? Why do men and women find being of short stature so risible? Film and TV directors often elicit laughs by having a short man make an entrance in a scene when a man of power, action or attractiveness is expected, playing off the audience’s expectation that a charismatic individual must be tall. Think for a moment about how often people laugh at the mere idea that a short man could be considered worthy of their admiration, just as people used to laugh at the idea of showing respect to women, black people or gays and lesbians.

Much loved actor Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones and was so moving in the film The Station Agent, has made a career of playing bright, serious men with dwarfism in a world in which people make constant assumptions about their ability, their personalities or their manhood based on nothing more than height. The brilliant economist Robert Reich met Bill Clinton while they were Rhodes Scholars; he went on to be Clinton’s labor secretary and is now a professor at UC Berkeley. He is a particularly witty and pleasant fellow, and is quite willing to make jokes about his four-foot-ten-inch stature. He has to be a good sport about this; it is cited as a relevant fact about him far too frequently. Reich is wise to let this roll off his back; when short men show fatigue or frustration at the frequent comments and stares, the public that so enjoys razzing them about this inane fact is all too quick to turn nasty and attribute a panoply of bad characteristics to them based on, yes, their lack of height.

We’ve all heard that short men are supposed to be prone to the Napoleon Complex, or Little Man Syndrome, an alleged type of inferiority complex said to affect men of short stature who attempt to overcompensate for their height in other aspects of their lives. Yet this supposed syndrome or complex does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Ironically, Napoleon Bonaparte was, at five feet six, taller than the average European man of his time. Yet how many images have you seen of Napoleon depicted as unnaturally short, and how many times has that trope been used for comic effect? He and countless men of less-than-average height have been depicted as angry, pompous and much shorter than they are, and the negative characteristics ascribed to them are often assumed to be related to a burning desire to overcome supposed embarrassment and self-hatred brought on by their height. Interestingly, research by Britain’s University of Central Lancashire shows that the supposed Napoleon Complex (described by them in terms of the theory that shorter men are more aggressive and try to dominate those who are taller than they are) was not in evidence in their experiments. In their studies, taller men were more likely to lose their tempers and be aggressive than shorter men. The Wessex Growth Study, a community-based longitudinal study conducted in the UK, monitored the psychological development of children from school entry to adulthood which found that “no significant differences in personality functioning or aspects of daily living were found which could be attributable to height”; this functioning included generalizations associated with the Napoleon Complex, such as risk-taking behaviors.

Think of how often this cliché appears in television, film and especially advertising. When people need visual shorthand to express negative characteristics, isn’t it remarkable how often they resort to using height as a signifier for social, sexual or business failure? The primary villain in the popular animated movie Shrek is Lord Farquaad, whose most notable physical characteristic is his extreme shortness. He is repeatedly made the butt of jokes about his stature, even in his presence, despite his power and authority. His every entrance is made more ridiculous by his attempts to conceal his lack of height. The idea that his dastardly and grandiose gestures are all efforts to compensate for shortness (or his supposed lack of virility) is not only alluded to tacitly but is explicitly mentioned numerous times. His small stature is, if you will, visual shorthand meant to allow the audience to detest and dehumanize him so that he can be made more hateful and ridiculous in our eyes.

Michael J. Fox has been an extremely popular actor and public figure for over 35 years. He is talented, likeable, attractive and witty, and his articulate and impassioned advocacy for stem cell research brings a huge amount of attention and funding to his cause. He suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, which often causes embarrassing physical tremors and even difficulty speaking, but he has been willing to brave the snide remarks and derision of people like Rush Limbaugh in order to help his others, no matter how difficult or exhausting public speaking are for him, and no matter how much travel and public scrutiny and exhaustion aggravate his symptoms. Yet, despite his remarkable efforts, which have allowed his foundation to fund over $450 million worth of research to help people with Parkinson’s to live better lives, public figures and private ones continue to make jokes about his height and caustically remark on his shortness, as if his size should in any way impact our ability to take him seriously.

Tom Cruise’s having had several wives taller than he is has gotten nearly as much press as his dismaying affiliation with Scientology, and has garnered much more press than stories of his actual acting talent or business acumen. His over-the-top demeanor and outspoken behavior certainly merit attention and even, at times, derision, but why is his height alluded to alongside descriptions of his behavior, as if the two were related? He is one of the most popular, lauded, influential, powerful and wealthy men of all time, yet there is usually a derisive smirk on the faces of commentators and poison in their prose when they refer to him. How many times have you heard journalists laugh because a shorty like Tom Cruise thinks himself worthy of the amazonian goddesses at his side? And how minuscule, how lilliputian, is this allegedly tiny and unworthy human being who thinks he’s man enough to stand next to Katie Holmes (who is five feet eight) or Nicole Kidman (who is five feet ten)? At five feet seven, he’s two inches shorter than the average U.S. male. Two inches. The width of a small lemon. But because he dares to fall in love with women who are taller than he, he is castigated and verbally emasculated by media outlets on a nearly daily basis. How ridiculous is that?

For the fun of it, consider the following list of shorter-than-average famous men. Consider their accomplishments, personalities, their talents, their influences on culture. Think about whether they fit general stereotypes of short men. Then consider whether you have unwittingly bought in to these stereotypes, or carelessly perpetuated any of them. It’s so common, and so easy to do. But it’s not fair. It’s time to stand up for the little guy.

Five feet tall: David Ben-Gurion • Andrew Carnegie • Danny DeVito • Fiorello LaGuardia

Five feet two: Buckminster Fuller • Paul Simon

Five feet three: Mohandas Gandhi • Martin Scorsese

Five feet four: Ludwig van Beethoven • Mel Brooks • Elton John • Pablo Picasso • Rod Serling • Auguste Rodin

Five feet five: Harry Houdini • J.R.R. Tolkien • Lou Reed • Armand Hammer • Gus Grissom • Sammy Davis Jr.

Five feet six: Alfred Hitchcock • Bob Dylan • Peter Falk • William Faulkner • Elijah Wood • Dustin Hoffman • Spud Webb • T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

Five feet seven: Martin Luther King, Jr. • Stephen Spielberg • Robin Williams • Mario Andretti • Bono • Doug Flutie • F. Scott Fitzgerald • David Eckstein • James Cagney • Salvador Dali • Al Pacino

The Times of Harvey Milk

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[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

In 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, were assassinated by Dan White, another San Francisco supervisor. Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. Senator from California, was president of the board of supervisors; she witnessed the aftermath and announced the tragedy to the press, and rose to the position of mayor of San Francisco as a result of the assassination.

I remember the time vividly. When I was a young girl, I had met George Moscone, then a California state senator, at a Democratic party rally I attended with my mother, and I was starstruck to meet someone whose face I had seen smiling on our television during nightly newscasts. Beyond the fact of his familiarity was his personal charm; Moscone was energetic, charismatic and bigger than life. The assassination was shocking, happening as it did at the hands of a coworker of both of the victims, an attractive and clean-cut fellow whose blind rage inspired a dramatic and highly publicized trial in which killer Dan White was convicted of manslaughter, the lightest possible charge against him, based in part on the fact that his attorneys said he’d gone temporarily mad because of the large quantity of junk food he’d consumed prior to the crimes. This “Twinkie defense” outraged people across the country and inspired a change to California criminal law.

The murder also inspired the creation of an odd and controversial work of art by one of my favorite Bay Area artists, sculptor Robert Arneson (who received his Master of Fine Arts degree from my alma mater, Mills College). In 1980 Arneson was commissioned to create a work to memorialize Moscone in San Francisco’s new Moscone Convention Center. It is a mystery to me why the Arts Commission would ask a sculptor as famously irreverent and outrageous as Arneson, who had made a name for himself sculpting wild and ridiculous ceramic self-portraits, to commemorate someone who was best remembered for the brutal and horrible circumstances of his death. The bust of Moscone was done in Arneson’s usual style, which is to say it was bold, disturbing and unflattering, and, most shocking of all, it was placed on a large pedestal which commemorated the circumstances of Moscone’s murder. Arneson was asked to change the work and refused, nor would he consent to have the sculpture displayed with the pedestal art hidden. He returned the commission he had been paid for the piece and resold the sculpture. It is powerful and arresting, singularly disturbing and unlike any official commemorative sculpture I have ever seen.

At the time of the murders, the greatest attention was given to the killing of the mayor; I was aware that another supervisor who was openly gay had also been murdered, but in the general news of the time my memory is that most Bay Area news media treated that as a decidedly secondary part of the story. Since then, however, little has been said or written about George Moscone that most people, even in the Bay Area, would know much about; few would remember much about him beyond his having been murdered and having had a San Francisco convention center named for him, while Harvey Milk has inspired a very successful, Academy Award–winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk” and is the subject of “Milk,” a moving and important biopic by director Gus Van Sant starring Sean Penn as gay rights pioneer and civic reformer Harvey Milk, which won Penn his second Academy Award for the Best Performance by An Actor in a Leading Role. What makes Milk worth such attention and even adulation is of course not the nature of his death but the powerful story of his life and what he did with it during his 48 short years.

The quality of biographical films is often limited by the fact that they are usually conceived of as propaganda of some sort and are meant to elicit certain strong feelings from the audience. Biopics like “Ray” or the disappointingly inaccurate film “A Beautiful Mind” are crafted to make heroes of those they lionize and as a result their realism and subtlety are compromised and the truth is often completely distorted. The best among them may feel stilted or fake at times but may still provide opportunities for actors to make a deep impact on us by presenting audience-manipulating lines of emotionally fraught dialog and fake scenarios built on half-truths with a candor, vulnerability and freshness that transcends the stale, set-up quality of the stories that comprise the film. “Milk” is one of the better biopics, but it still suffers from a prefabricated, lionizing, misty-eyed mindset. However, Sean Penn’s performance as Milk is so heartbreakingly lovely, naturalistic and moving that I can highly recommend the film despite the weaknesses in the script and direction. It is worth seeing in order to learn the remarkable story of the man, who was so incredibly brave, and to see how, in the hands of a truly masterful actor, even a flawed script can be burnished until it breathes and glows.

Harvey Milk spent only a few short years in San Francisco, but during that time he proved himself to be a masterful manipulator of the media and an inspirational force against anti-gay bigotry. A remarkably effective community organizer, he helped the budding gay rights movement to solidify and strengthen not only in San Francisco but throughout California, which galvanized gay activists across the country and coaxed gay and lesbian people nationwide to come out, stand up for their civil rights and prove to the world in general, to people both gay and straight, that honest, openly gay people could live fulfilling, successful lives. Milk said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet also destroy every closet door in the country.” As a tireless, charming and articulate man with an understanding of the concerns and needs of the more conservative elements of society (he had, after all, been a closeted insurance salesman and upstanding member of the establishment for many years in New York), he was particularly well-suited to the role of cross-over politician, making friends among Teamsters and drag queens alike.

While the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is perhaps the better picture in showing a more accurate portrayal of the man, “Milk” will be seen by many more people and will leave a vivid impression on the world in a way that a carefully made but less popular documentary could never do, and for this I’m grateful to Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn for giving life to such an important figure in the history of civil rights in the United States.

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Sean Penn (right) at San Francisco City Hall in a scene from “Milk”

Throughout “Milk” are many scenes of the beautiful San Francisco City Hall, the gorgeous beaux-arts building that is an elegant centerpiece and a virtual wedding cake of a civic building, but also the scene of the horrific murders of Moscone and Milk. I was married in San Francisco City Hall in 1990 (as Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were in 1954—I figured if it was glamorous and gorgeous enough for them, it was good enough for me), and several of my favorite photos from my wedding day were taken on the same steps and in front of the same doors that appear repeatedly in the film. I was married on the first day of summer, and the week of the summer solstice has been designated Gay Pride Week in big cities across the country ever since world-changing riots were held by angry gay citizens in protest after the arrest of gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City on June 28, 1969. (When in Manhattan, it’s worth a detour to stop by the Stonewall on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, as my daughter and I have. It’s not often one can stand at an epicenter of seismic social change.)

It is in part due to the efforts of Harvey Milk and his supporters that such celebrations and artworks were socially acceptable in a San Francisco civic building twelve years after Milk’s death. Another proof of his continuing influence was the presence of an ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) rally which took place just outside the building on my wedding day. We in the wedding party stood behind the line of police officers who were all dressed in riot gear (all except police chief Frank Jordan, later the mayor of San Francisco, who wore his standard uniform), each of them looking grimly beyond his shield and baton at the loud but peaceful protesters outside. We who stood behind them felt we were on the wrong side of the law, so to speak. I would have preferred to be standing in my purple wedding suit outside the building alongside the green-haired protester wearing the Butthole Surfers T-shirt, but we had to wait our turn inside the building to be called to marry.

There was great pleasure in feeling solidarity with our LGBT sisters and brothers on a day when my then-husband and I celebrated our heterosexual union. Since then, laws in nearly 20 states have changed to allow the legal marriage of homosexual couples, and every time another state takes a big step forward toward marriage equality, I think of Harvey Milk and the important place he had in the early days of the struggle that has brought us so much closer to true equality for people of all sexual orientations. I think also of the fact that, over thirty years after his death, so many virulently bigoted people still feel free to spew their nonsensical hatred toward our gay brothers and sisters and to vote to keep them down. We must act up and speak up for each other, even if we are lucky enough not to have to fight this fight personally every day. As Harvey said, “Hope will never be silent.” We must never let it be.