Last summer, 24-year-old comedian Jaboukie Young-White coined a new nickname for short men. It wasn’t a jokey name – a put-down poking fun at the little guy – but an honorific: “Short kings are the enemy of body negativity,” he wrote on Twitter, “and I’ll be forever proud to defend them.”
In 2019, taking ownership of one’s identity is the ideal mode of being – and those who carry their genuine, multi-dimensional selves with pride deserve respect.
That includes short dudes, a segment of society who, while not exactly persecuted, are certainly prone to being overlooked.
Young-White’s paeans to short kings encourage us to confront society’s overvaluation of men’s height, and recognize the guys under 6ft whose positive attitudes render them nothing short of regal. A short king isn’t just any male-presenting person of modest stature – it’s someone who has the strength of character to flourish in the face of conventional male beauty standards.
As such, 5ft 7in, Spiderman actor Tom Holland is a short king, as are Pulitzer-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar (5ft 5in) trans actor Ian Alexander (5ft) and (short) “king in the north” Kit Harington (5ft 7in), who admits he allowed taller actors on the set of Game of Thrones to ruffle his hair.
Yet celebrity is by no means a requirement to be a short king. Any short man can be a short king (including my own 5ft 7in boyfriend, my match in height and ginger hair). Young-White (himself 5ft 9in) includes all men under 6ft in his movement, though many have pointed out the average American man is 5ft 10in, making that the more accurate cutoff.
Young-White decreed last 21 June as the first ‘short king appreciation day’, kicking off what has become a year of public declarations of short king love.
As to whether or not short men really require kudos just for being secure … well, it depends on your perspective.
Even as society begins to see the danger of shaming individuals for, say, acne or being overweight, diminishing short people is still something Meryl Streep can do on premium cable. (“I find little people untrustworthy,” announces Streep’s character on the new season of Big Little Lies).
Micheal Foulk, 33, a 5ft 7in non-binary comedian from Oakland, has noticed a double standard: “It’ll be like, OK, we’re going to agree that we’re not going to be cruel to people that are heavier set or larger-bodied. But if people are short, it’s like: go off, sis!”
Sizeism is hard to avoid on dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder, where users commonly forbid men under 6ft from contacting them. Tinder even made a 2019 April Fool’s joke about launching a “height verification” update that would prevent guys from exaggerating their stature.
Yet short-shaming isn’t harmless. “There’s a host of studies that show short men are stigmatized in many ways, not only in people’s perception, but in actual real world outcomes as well,” says Joseph Vandello, a social psychologist at the University of Southern Florida. “People perceive shorter men as having fewer leadership qualities,” he says, citing findings that majority of American CEOs are over 6ft in and voters prefer tall presidential candidates (including, at 6ft 2in, Trump).
All this starts early – even in kindergarten, studies have found, teachers perceive the shortest boys in their class as less academically capable than their peers.
Height is also perceived to correlate directly with masculinity. As Vandello explains: “Because of [the correlation between height and perceived masculinity], a lot of men feel kind of a chronic sense of anxiety and uncertainty about their manhood status.” Insecurity generally manifests in oversensitivity to insult (which may contribute to the stereotype of short men as angry, resentful, over-compensating Napoleons.)
Unfortunately, this hasn’t just been the year of the short king. It’s also been a year of increased media coverage and public awareness of incels – online communities of “involuntarily celibate” men whose self-loathing manifests in derogatory, in some cases extremely violent, behavior towards women, and a pathological obsession with altering their appearance to fit a narrow definition of brawny masculine beauty.
The dismaying presence of incels prompts a complicated question: how do we talk about bolstering men’s self-esteem at a time when society is interrogating the injustices of male privilege, and the connection between masculine insecurity and violence?
The answer may lay in a reconceptualization of manhood.
“I think it’s an interesting time,” says Brendan Steven, a 27-year-old, 5ft 5in writer from Ontario. “Many of us sense that our ideas of the masculine and feminine that we grew up with are too constraining. But at the same time, there are such things as masculine and feminine traits and we value them to some extent.”
Like many short men, Steven recalls an adolescence spent believing masculinity was defined by a set of immutable characteristics – like being tall and imposing – and that by not fitting that ideal he was “kind of cursed.”
But as he grew up, he began thinking about manhood as something he could develop by embodying his values, rather than a blunt appraisal of his physical self. “I think to be masculine, to be manly, whatever that word means, is about doing good in the world. It’s about contributing. It’s about finding a way to serve other people, to be kind, to be strong in defense of those who need strength in their corner. The more masculinity is an idea of service the more I think it is helpful.
Now happily committed to a taller woman, Brendan hardly thinks about his height at all. “Once you get into that sense of self-confidence the height issue kind of melts away,” he says.
For Foulk, the comedian, seeing the term “short king” emerge on Twitter was empowering. “I think that sometimes it comes across as kind of silly, but it’s so important. It was a really big deal to me, especially when it came to weight and height, to be like, ‘I’m very into what I have going on.’ Despite many people telling me not to be.”
Now Foulk considers short kingship a badge of pride. “Like, yes. I’m a short king and that is not a negative word.”
Different interpretations of what it means to be a man are the wings on which the short king soars. The short king embodies the dismantling of the height hierarchy and conventional expectations, his masculinity firmly grounded and personally defined. In the words of Young-White, the short king is valid, hot, enough.