Without scientific evidence that short stature negatively affects social adjustment during adolescence, much of the general public and medical community alike have historically assumed that being far below average height is potentially damaging to a child’s social adjustment and self-worth. And with the recent widespread availability of growth hormone, doctors now have a tool to “correct” the problem by helping some of these short children catch up with their peers.

Children who respond to steady treatment with growth hormone grow faster and become taller adults than they would have without treatment. Furthermore, growth hormone’s beneficial effects on metabolism may help regulate weight into adulthood. The treatment, however, is expensive and commitment-heavy. The medication must be taken for years and is given by injection between 3 and 7 times per week. Moreover, its long-term safety remains largely unknown. Given these considerations, it’s certainly reasonable to question the wisdom of growth hormone therapy, especially if the negative impact of short stature has never been well established.

In the first well-designed study of its kind, researchers in New York found a surprising lack of correlation between height and social adjustment in adolescents. Their results, published in the September issue of Pediatrics , suggest that a child’s stature simply does not predict likeability or quality of social relations.

About the Study

Researchers examined the relation between short stature and social standing among students in grades six through 12 at one public school district in Western New York. An equal number of male and female students participated, totaling 956. Target groups included those students of short stature (shortest five percentile), tall stature (tallest five percentile), and average height (middle 50 percentile). Psychosocial functioning was assessed by self-report and peer-report, through measures such as overall acceptance, number of friendships, and reputation for leadership (positive dominance), bullying (negative dominance), sports ability, and school ability, among other characteristics.

The Findings

Almost no correlation was found between students’ heights and measures of their social standing or likeability. For example:

Results did not vary according to gender, whereas height has more often been stereotyped as an important quality in men.

Friendships were no more likely to form between youths of similar heights than between youths of dissimilar heights.

One significant effect of height was that students of short stature were more likely to be described as “looks young.” But, in this case, looking young (like being short) was independent of having other personality traits.

A very slight association was found between height and both positive and negative dominance, with a slight increase in perception of both dominances as height increased.

Findings also indicated no social benefit from being very tall in comparison to peers.

How Does This Affect You?

The results of this study call into question the practice of prescribing any kind of treatment for short stature based on the belief that it is socially debilitating. According to these results, height has no significant influence on social adjustment. In fact, it may be counterproductive for parents and doctors to assume that symptoms of social maladjustment are simply due to short stature. They may be missing something much more important.

One angle that the present study did not address, however, is whether there are other elements of quality of life that short stature may indeed influence; for example, being extremely short may hamper certain day-to-day functions that may influence a child’s success.

On a larger level, this study questions our basic assumptions about how various physical attributes influence our social acceptance of peers. If height doesn’t make us more or less likeable, how about weight, facial features fashion sense, hairstyle, and a myriad of other aspects of appearance? To many, the findings of this study may be both surprising and refreshing. It might not be worth the time and effort it takes to upgrade our own perceived physical deficiencies. At the very least, this study cautions us to ask, “where’s the proof that it is?”