It’s Tuesday night at London’s Roundhouse music venue and my husband Rob and I are sidling through the crowds, beers in hand, trying to find an angle from which we can glimpse the stage. In front of us a good-looking guy of about 5-foot-4 says something to the willowy redhead in heels next to him. She laughs and puts her arm around him. Next to me Rob mutters something. “What’s that?” I ask him. “Oh, I was just thinking, ‘Get in there, mate!’” he grins.
At 5-foot-7, Rob is hardly a giant himself. And he admits his attitude hasn’t always been charitable. “I used to look at guys who were shorter than me and think ‘Poor bastard.’ It was a mix of relief and schadenfreude,” he tells me later. It’s no surprise. Short men, we’re told, are worse off in almost every way. Taller men earn more, they live longer, women prefer them and they have better reproductive success. Not only that but height is inextricably linked with masculinity; taller equals more manly. Is it any wonder short dudes are pissed?
These days, though, many of them aren’t. Rob, for one, says his height no longer bothers him. “Obviously there are times when it’d be nice to be taller but I got to a point where I realized I couldn’t change it so there was no point worrying about it.”
This sentiment was echoed by the other short men I interviewed. “I realized in my teens that I was not going to get any bigger and I think I made my peace with it,” says Sam Oakley, 5-foot-7 and a policy adviser for the UK tourist board. Similarly, Kenny Mammarella-D’Cruz, a personal development coach and founder of MenSpeak men’s groups, says his 5-foot-6 stature is “not a big deal.” (The average height for men in the U.K. and U.S. is 5-foot-10.)
The idea that short men exist in a permanent pint-sized maelstrom of anger, aggression and ambition has a long history. The “Napoleon Complex” — named, of course, for the diminutive French emperor who conquered Europe in the 19th century — emerged from Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler’s work on feelings of inferiority and the ways people compensate for them. A 2015 study linked “masculine discrepancy stress” — anxiety about a failure to live up to societal norms of masculinity — with increased sexual violence among adolescent males.
Not one of the guys I spoke to could relate to such feelings of inadequacy. For Oakley, playing rugby from a young age meant he never even questioned his manliness. “I played hooker and for my body shape that’s the perfect position. So I’ve always felt there was a role for me and never had an issue on the masculinity front,” he says.
“My height is my advantage,” business development manager and DJ Hagop Matossian tells me. “I’m a keen snowboarder and wakeboarder. Lower height equals lower center of gravity, lower mass, faster rotations, less impact.”
It becomes clear through these conversations that being associated with something other than your height makes a big difference. For my husband that was music. “Being ‘Rob the drummer’ meant I wasn’t known as ‘Short Rob,’” he explains.
“My height made me look young,” Matossian says. “But I got into DJing; I started producing dance music and skateboarding so I guess I used these to feel cool.”
D’Cruz found it was other aspects of his appearance that drew attention. “In the ‘80s and early ‘90s I had a flat top. Later I had long curly hair, so people noticed me.” Furthermore, as a Ugandan-born refugee from a Portuguese-Goan family, D’Cruz had far more pressing things to worry about. “Growing up the issue wasn’t height—it was being the only colored kid in a white community,” he adds.
All the men I spoke with described themselves as confident, even outspoken. “I generally have something to say; I’m not shy,” D’Cruz says.
My husband, for his part, points to a tendency to be “mouthy” as perhaps the result of a desire not to be overlooked.
“I think you do have to do that,” Oakley agrees. “I work with politicians and many are tall, so when you’re networking or having drinks, you have to find other ways in.”
That’s not to say they have never felt uncomfortable or annoyed. “Once at work I overheard someone refer to me as ‘the little guy’,” Rob says. “That pissed me off. I wouldn’t have minded him saying ‘the short guy’ because that’s just factually accurate but ‘little’ is awful. It’s infantilizing.”
Frustration at being treated like or compared to children is a common theme among short dudes. “At 16 people constantly told me I looked 12, which was quite depressing. In bars I was always the one who got rejected so I would go home while everyone else partied,” Matossian says.
D’Cruz admits: “I absolutely hate it when women bend down to hug me. It feels like ‘auntie smothering the little boy.’”
Is this evidence of so-called Short Man Syndrome or just normal indignation? “Choosing not to be mistreated because of something you have no control over doesn’t mean you have a complex. It means you are human,” writes Harold Everton, founder of the online community ShortGuyCentral. Adler himself could not have agreed more. “Everyone […] has a feeling of inferiority. But the feeling of inferiority is not a disease; it is rather a stimulant to healthy, normal striving and development,” he wrote in 1929.
Psychologist Jessamy Hibberd says that while research shows a correlation between height and confidence, ultimately it depends on an individual’s self-esteem. “It could be personality, it could be family. Temperament plays a part, how your world is,” Hibberd tells me. “It’s not just shortness. Any negative experience is going to affect how you see yourself, just like if you were spotty or overweight or skinny.”
That’s not to say there are no angry short men out there. “I worked with a guy who, as a child, would cry himself to sleep at night because of his height,” D’Cruz says. “On Saturday his father would call the kids and do notches on the door frame. He would dread it and hate himself. Now he is absolutely enraged.”
Despite not experiencing it himself, D’Cruz is convinced Short Man Syndrome is real. In fact, his client who really suffered from it was a relatively respectable 5-foot-9, barely even below average. “At school he was one of the shortest and he still suffers from that,” D’Cruz says. “Inside, he may as well be 4-foot-9. There’s a real lack of self-worth, wanting to be accepted by the other guys and not picked on.”
In fact, the man who stands nearly average height may even be more insecure about it than the man who is properly short. “In our culture, men who are 5-foot-8 don’t see men who are 5-foot-1 as comrades,” writes Reihan Salam at Slate. “They treat their shorter brothers as strangers, or perhaps even as objects of pity or contempt.”
And research suggests that taller people are often more concerned about being short than short guys themselves. In 2014 a study at the University of Oxford used VR to reduce the perceived height of participants and discovered they were more likely to report negative feelings and increased paranoia when their height was lowered than when they took the test at their usual height.
But unlike the study participants, short men have always been short. Far from being anxious about their lack of physical presence, most of the dudes I spoke to talked about the advantages. “Small people are comfortable in any car,” Matossian says. “I remember getting a lift to a festival once because the driver thought I wouldn’t take up much space.”
And, as Oakley pointed out, anything built before the 20th century tends to favor the short. “If you go to the theater, especially old theaters, you notice it’s the tall guys who are patently uncomfortable,” he says.
Asked whether he’d prefer to be tall, Oakley says: “I definitely think it would have altered my personality and I don’t actually think for the positive. I don’t define myself by being short, but I think it has helped form my personality. It’s not overcompensating, it just means you have to do things differently.” Napoleon would have approved.