GENDER AND SOCIAL
IMAGINE A HUMAN CULTURE in which the physical trait of height was socially significant, and people in that culture were divided into Talls and Shorts. The presence of people at the margins of this distinction did not affect its social significance, and there were arbitrary rules, and even physical interventions, that pushed people of average height in one direction or the other. This was done for their own good. Some rebels refused to identify as either Tall or Short, and they walked on tiptoe or with bent knees to parody and destabilize the culture’s height hegemonies. Some rebels also posed intellectual difficulties by pointing out that the designations “Tall” and “Short,” although apparently labels for intrinsic, physical characteristics of individuals, were actually culturally variable terms that encoded and reinforced cultural norms.1 Imagine further that necessary social functions in this culture were shaped by elaborate norms reflecting the distinction between Talls and Shorts. Dining is one example. Talls always ate before Shorts, who served them and then ate what was left. Perhaps this set of dining norms originated because the Talls were bigger than the Shorts; perhaps the norms were thought to make sense because the Shorts were closer to the table, and hence it was easier and more natural
1. My daughter Anna, who at five feet tall is considered a short American woman, would not be short in her country of origin, Vietnam. Being tall and being short are relational properties, and one of the relata is the social context within which the properties are attributed.