by Izzy Manfield
Have you ever wondered why you are the way you are? More importantly, have you ever excused your characteristics or behaviours with your gender?
I’m sure everyone reading this has had their own little adolescent identity crisis, but why did you subsequently decide that your gender is what limits your identity? I personally hate the fact that gender differences are all too often attributed as sex differences. (Try not to confuse gender with sex; it tends to close your mind.) It’s become apparent to me that most people’s minds are totally closed when it comes to height, or shortness, or women: there’s no doubt to most lay people (non-feminists and science avoiders) that the reason I’m so much shorter than my boyfriend is being I’m a woman. And we females are meant to be shorter than da boizzz. It’s how biology works.
But – gasp! This gender stereotyping totally incorrect, and while the determining of height or shortness has some basis in sex, it’s really society’s fault that someone will coo, “Ohh, you’re so cute and little!” like it’s perfectly justifiable to be cute and short because you’re female, and that’s an admirable trait in women in comparison to men.
Gender stereotypes appear to have some biological basis to them, but evolution is perhaps the most significant playing card in the success of the development of sex. Genetics and evolution interplay with each other to create diversity in life. Where mutations create new genotypes (types of genes and proteins being encoded) and phenotypes (types of characteristics displayed as a result of the genotype), natural selection selects these phenotypes by acting on environmental pressures. This allows particular phenotypes or traits to be favoured as more desirable traits will potentially be passed on to the next generation and thus will spread throughout the population in only relatively few number of generations. This is exactly how sex and sexual differences arose.
The development of sexual reproduction (and therefore sex) brought a whole new range of diversity to the planet. Suddenly DNA could be passed on to the descendants of individuals not as exact replicas of the parent bar a few mutations as in previous generations, but as a combination of genes from two parents with potentially different genomes in a process called recombination. Sex is beneficial to life because it creates diversity which therefore leads to a better chance of survival as there are varying traits to work with. I regard the development of sex as simply one big mutation that got out of hand. But sex in living organisms does not necessarily mean one male and one female individual like we see in humans; mosses, for example, experience most of their life cycle as haploid (basically as asexual) and only have very small segments and time frames for their sexual stages. In addition to this, sponges (amount many other organisms) can reproduce both sexually and asexually depending on their circumstances. The idea that being male equals this and being female equals that is very, very narrow in popular culture. Some may argue that differences between the sexes exist as fundamental differences in the human genome, which is true. But what we need to expand in our thoughts is the idea that our society existed before these changes. Society came before sex differences such as average height did. Society is humanity’s own form of natural selection. Society selects whose genes will be passed on to the next generation, and whose will be lost in the sands of time. This is an important concept to understand the differences between the sexes.
So, does sex have any correlation to height? Well, yes it does. Height is a polygenic trait, which means it is controlled by many genes. There are many components that can attribute to height; some people may be tall because their legs are long, while others have an elongated backbone. Of course, one gene does not encode for all these things entirely. Each of these features are controlled by the aptly titled growth hormones, thyroid hormone, cortisol and the sex hormones, or rather, oestrogen and testosterone. It is also normal to experience growth spurts in puberty, and girls can experience these two years in advance of when boys experience it. Again, another sex difference. Males have more testosterone than females, which could perhaps independently account for the average male being taller than the average female. What this article is trying to stress is that these differences are in existence because our environment, or our society, has selected those traits as desirable for each sex. Height differences were not inbuilt in women and men because of their sex, but because our ancestors continually throughout herstory have selected their sexual partners on the basis of their height relative to their gender.
Both societal and scientific discourse surrounding height and shortness is important for feminism. Height, in both reality and in our language, is thought of as a display of male dominance to some degree. Height is a desirable trait for humans, particularly for men. Women being shorter than men on average feeds the argument that men are naturally dominant over women. Some anti-feminists will use this kind of information to ‘support’ their claim that women have no right to want more for themselves because they are physically or biologically made to be subjugated by their male counterparts.
I’d like to conclude that this is pure ignorance of evolutionary processes that are truly the basis of height differences between the sexes. Men were not born taller to dominate over women; but because men played a more dominant role in very early western society, over time have evolved to be taller.
My shortness it doesn’t make me less dominant than any man – but in order for wider society to accept this idea, we must educate the masses on the vital difference between gender and sex.
~ Izzy Manfield