The Tinker Bell syndrome: Can being small in stature drive ambition?
Updated: 11:56 GMT, 19 July 2010
J M Barrie’s Tinker Bell is as feisty as she is tiny – and she’s not the only one. Hovering around the five-foot mark, Lady Gaga and her pint-sized peers are living proof that despite their size, they make up for it in sheer determination, says Jane Gordon
Kylie Minogue 5′
It was not really a light; it made this light by flashing about so quickly, but when it came to rest for a second you saw it was a fairy, no longer than your hand, but still glowing. It was a girl called Tinker Bell, exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf…
J M Barrie, Peter Pan
Lady Gaga isn’t the first vertically challenged celebrity to create a larger-than-life public persona (she’s just 5ft 1in tall without her giant hats and stilt-like shoes), but she is probably the only one to declare on stage – in front of 23,000 people – that she suffers from a Tinker Bell complex.
‘I am kinda like Tinker Bell,’ she says, as she lies down on stage near the end of every performance on her current Monster Ball tour. ‘You know how Tinker Bell will die if you don’t clap for her? Do you want me to die? Scream for me! I can’t live without you, I need you to scream louder.’ As the crowd responds, Gaga comes back to life rather in the way that Tinker Bell did when Peter Pan implored children to ‘believe in fairies’ in J M Barrie’s classic.
The feisty fairy has, of course, intrigued little girls for 100 years. But Gaga’s impersonation of Barrie’s creation – albeit in a sequined leotard revealing more of her figure than the author probably envisioned – indicates something deeper than just nostalgic affection for a fictional character.
Because Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (Gaga’s real name is almost bigger than she is) is one of the girls who, in a different way from Peter Pan, have literally never grown up. These women, from all walks of life – from singer and actress Dolly Parton (5ft) to Labour MP Hazel Blears (4ft 10in) – have been petted and patronised from childhood, and emerge as undersized adults with an overwhelming need to prove themselves in a grown-up world. It’s long been recognised that small men have a greater need to make their mark than tall men but, says psychologist David Lewis, director of research at Mindlab International, height has just as profound an effect on a woman’s character.
Barbara Windsor 4’10”
Elaine Paige 4’11”
‘The relationship between a woman’s height and her character is often overlooked and is perhaps more interesting than the more commonly cited “Napoleon complex”,’ he says. ‘In evolutionary terms, small women are as favoured as tall men: females between 4ft 9in and 5ft 1in and men who are 6ft 1in or more are the most likely to marry and have children. But the downside of this is that men – and society in general – will often infantilise petite women, underestimating their intelligence, their strength and their ability to perform even the simplest task. Men, it has to be said, do like to be looked up to by their women.’
He believes that this infantilising of small women can breed a sense of resentment and rebellion that makes them more ambitious and more flamboyant than average-sized females. ‘It’s likely that being small could result in a woman developing a Tinker Bell complex. Certainly it explains why we have so many famous examples of tiny women who are larger than life,’ says Lewis.
The high proportion of Tinker Bells in the music industry – Cheryl Cole, Christina Aguilera and Kylie Minogue, to name a few – are further proof that a petite woman is likely to have a more urgent need to be seen and heard. Shakira (5ft 2in) confesses that as a child in Colombia, one of her nicknames was Enaña, meaning dwarf; while Lulu (5ft 1½in) admits that in the early stages of her career she had to battle against ‘cute’ typecasting. ‘They had this patronising idea of positioning me as a cute poppet and, rather like Tinker Bell, I had to develop a fighting spirit to overcome this short-woman prejudice and let my big voice be heard,’ she says.
It has to be said, though, that there is a certain duality in the behaviour of many latter-day Tinker Bells that fits with J M Barrie’s original fairy, who could sometimes be ‘all good’ and sometimes ‘all bad’. ‘On the one hand,’ says Lewis, ‘[Tinker Bells] love the attention that being small and cute brings them, particularly from men; on the other, they are often over-sensitive to being patronised. As a result they are often capricious and contradictory – a sweet, submissive little girl one minute and a bossy, grown-up woman the next.’
Christina Aguilera 5’2″
Amy Winehouse 5’2″
Amy Winehouse, who uses big hair and high heels to make herself look taller, has tried to sweeten her reputation for outrageous behaviour by commenting recently: ‘I’m only 5ft 2in, I’m really not that scary, I’m only little.’ Diminutive singer and former American Idol judge Paula Abdul is certainly aware of the emotional power a small woman can wield: she once described herself as ‘towering under’ people and intimidating them with her 5ft 2in height.
Tinker Bells have carved out influential roles for themselves as comediennes – Ruby Wax (5ft 2in), Joan Rivers (5ft 2in) and Dawn French (5ft); actresses – Imelda Staunton (5ft), Reese Witherspoon (5ft 2in) and Judi Dench (5ft 1in); and even childcare experts – Supernanny Jo Frost is just 5ft 2in.
Not that being a Tinker Bell is the preserve of celebrity. Most families have at least one small but formidably strong member: my beautiful younger daughter is a great example, even if she does, as so many Tinks do, lie about her height (a website devoted to exposing celebrities’ real heights suggests a number of women – among them Sarah Jessica Parker and Anne Robinson – are notably shorter than their ‘official’ profiles claim).
Funny, fearless and fun-loving, the typical Tinker Bell can sometimes be a little manipulative and self-pitying when, in fact, the last thing they need is pity. However much they might protest, and however high the heels they don, Tinker Bells know they have an advantage in life. Even in bare feet, they are capable of achieving heights beyond the reach of many women who physically dwarf them. As Judi Dench once put it: ‘I’ve been called square, dumpy, round, puckish-looking. In my mind’s eye I’m 6ft tall and slender as a willow, and I’ll go through life like that.’
WHO’S THE TALLEST OF THE SMALLEST?
Hazel Blears, Barbara Windsor
Lil’ Kim, Elaine Paige
Dawn French, Kylie Minogue, Dolly Parton, Imelda Staunton, Jada Pinkett Smith
Judi Dench, Missy Elliott, Carrie Fisher, Nelly Furtado, Lady Gaga, Geri Halliwell, Bette Midler, Mary Kate Olsen, Hayden Panettiere, Christina Ricci, Nicole Richie, Anne Robinson
Paula Abdul, Christina Aguilera, Fergie, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jo Frost, Salma Hayek, Avril Lavigne, Eva Longoria, Katie Melua, Dannii Minogue, Ashley Olsen, Sharon Osbourne, Joan Rivers, Shakira, Ruby Wax, Amy Winehouse, Reese Witherspoon