DESPITE ITS author's disclaimers, "Short People," Randy Newman's pop hit, reflects a remarkably widespread prejudice. Yet so subtle is this bias in American society that I was never fully sensitive to it until I saw a similar pattern in a very different setting -- among the Mehinaku, a tropical forest tribe of central Brazil.

My wife and I first visited the Mehinaku in 1967, when the tribe, which lives on a reservation nearly 175 miles from the nearest permanent Brazilian settlement, was little known.

The Mehinaku, curious about their unusual guests, asked us many questions: "Where did you come from? How long will you stay? What gifts have you brought? How have you gotten so tall?"

That last question was lunexpected, as was the questioners' admiring tone. From the villagers' perspective, however, we were tall. I am 6 feet tall and my wife is 5 feet 6 inches, while the average Mehinaku man is only 5 feet 3 1/2 inches.

Subsequently, as we made our home in the village and tried to participate in Mehinaku life, I realized that my height was one of the few things in my favor. Even my strongest village advocates had to admit that as a would-be Mehinaku I was something of a failure.

Long treks through the forest to hunt monkeys or birds hardly seemed to faze my companions but left me lacerated with thorns, covered with ticks and utterly exhausted. And my efforts to shoot a fish with a bow and arrow while standing on the prow of a canoe became a permanent joke, publicly imitated by the younger boys. But at least I was tall. Moral Failing

TO BE HIGHLY regarded a Mehinaku must be physically attractive, and to be attractive a man must be tall. Such a man is respectfully described as wekepei . He is said to be tough in his bearing, a powerful wrestler, a successful hunter and fisherman and a person of political importance. Ideally, all village chiefs are tall. In fact, the present Mehinaku chief is the tallest man in the village. In his regular public speeches he tells of a golden age when all the villagers worked hard, disease was nonexistent and men were taller and more heavily muscled than today.

Very short men are referred to -- behind their backs -- as peritsi . This term has a derisive, mocking quality, and it is seldom applied to an unfortunate villager without a sneer or a nasty laugh. A peritsi is not only short; he is ridiculously short. He has only himself to blame for his condition, however, for being a peritsi is not only a physical shortcoming but also a moral failing.

Growing up tall and strong is not viewed as a roll of the genetic dice but can be insured by following the rules of adolescent seclusion. During this period a young man takes medicine, winds cotton ligatures tightly around his calves and avoids sexual relations.

This last prohibition is particularly important since sexual intercourse is regarded as weakening and likely to stunt growth. Peritsi rhymes with the word for penis (itsi ); in derisive jokes and puns the peritsi is a person whose itsi is "too hungry" for intercourse.

Lacking the self-discipline to follow the rules of adolescent seclustion, the peritsi winds up ridiculously small, and for this he pays a high price. Short men, for example, have a hard time finding friends much taller then themselves. Awana, a tall young man and a wrestling champion of the village, told me, "I don't want a peritsi for a friend. They don't make good wrestlers. I don't want people to see me walking with them. Everyone laughs at a peritsi ."

Indeed, perhaps the most serious liability of the extremely short man is his failure to inspire respect in other men. Itsa, one of the shortest men of the village, has apparently accepted the villagers' disrespect and made himself a kind of village fool and jester. When he wrestles, the lmen shout mock advice at him from the bench in front of the men's house, and he exaggerates the style of the more successful wrestlers to earn their laughter. He is also continually teased about his usually unsuccessful amorous exploits. Sexual Disadvantages

SHORT MEN not only are rejected by their own sex; they are also unattractive to women and prospective parents-in-law. No one wants a peritsi for a son-in-law. One of the shorter villagers told me, "once I went into Wairuma's house to speak to her. Her father saw me and got very angry: 'Get out of here! I want a champion wrestler for my daughter, not a peritsi like you!'"

Kama is the shortest man in the village, shorter than some of the women. He is abused behind his back in many ways. Some men conduct affairs with his wife and show very little concern about his knowledge of liaisons. They do not openly flirt with the woman when her husband is present, but they make passes at her when they think he is away.

A villager's height correlates closely with the number of girl friends he is likely to have, the frequency of his sponsorship or participation in village rituals and his wealth. Among the sexually free Mehinaku, the number of a man's extramarital sexual engagements is a particularly significant measure of the effect of his height. In our village, the three tallest men had as mamy affairs as the seven shortest men, even though their average estimated ages were identical (37).

A man who has many girl friends, who is actively engaged in the ritual life of the community, who is rich and who is a chief is generally regarded as a solid citizen. He is particularly likely to be called an awujitsi , a term of praise for those who are sociable and have earned the community's respect.The individual who only minimally participates in community affairs, however, is more than likely to be viewed as asocial, a "trash yard man" (miyeipyenuwanti ). The three villagers acknowledged by most of their fellows to be trash yard men were among the shortest in the community.

Still, for the Mehinaku, height is only one of a number of important determinants of social participation, and not every short man is doomed to be openly teased by his fellows, have few girl friends and be labeled a trash yard man.

Thna, for example, was only 5 feet 1/4 inch, the second shortest man in the village, yet he had no less than six simultaneous extramarital affairs. And Itsitya, also very short, was greatly feared as a powerful witch before his untimely death in 1871 villagers.

Although many societies other than the Mehinaku favor tall men, only a few rival the Mehinaku in the strength of their distaste for short people. Among these, we must surely count modern America. Especially during courtship, Americans become acutely aware of the importance of being tall, but actually at asny time stature may influence our self-esteem, the opinion of others, and even out chances of economic and social success.

"American society," writes sociologist Saul Feldman, "is a society with a heightist premise: to be tall is to be good, and to be short it to be stigmatized."

Feldman points out that a rich vocabulary of abuse impugns the human status of the short man: he is derided as "puny," "sawed-off," a "shorty," a "pipsqueak," a "shrimp" or a "runt." This attitude, Feldman argues, finds its way into our ordinary speech, for "when we degrade people we 'put them down' or 'belittle them'... The ideal man is viewed as tall, dark and handsome. Impractical people are 'shortsighted,' dishonest cashiers-'shortchange' customers, losers get the 'short end of the stick,' electrical failure are known as 'short circuits' and individuals with little money... will state, 'I'm short' A few years ago, a well-known politician spoke at a midwest liberal arts college and referred to a former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations as 'that short little pervert in Washington.' It is rare that one hears of tall perverts for in many respects, just to be short is to be a 'pervert.'" Height Requirements

THE PREJUDICE against short men goes well beyond pejoratives to include economic discrimination. Arbitrary height requirements bar the short man from certain jobs, notably in police and fire departments and in the armed forces. In the United States Army, Air Force and Navy the present cut-off height is 2 feet, while the Marines, unaccountably, accept applicants who are 4 feet 11 inches. For police and firemen, height requirements are commonly more stringent.

even when not a formal part of the job description, unreasonable height requirements may be present as an unspoken prejudice against the short man. Feldman cites a study, orginally appearing in The Wall Street Journal which reveals some of the hidden biases:

"David Kurtz, marketing professor at Eastern Michigan University, asked 140 recruiters to make a hypothetical hiring choice between two equally qualified applicants -- one 6 feet 1 inch and the other 5 feet 5 inches -- for a sales job. Seventy-two percent 'hired' the tall one, 27 percent expressed no preference, and 1 percent chose the short one."

Let a short man break into a profession despite the odds, and he still faces economic discrimination. Leland Deck of the University of Pittsburgh conducted a three-year study of recent university graduates. Deck concluded that not only does "the great American six-footer" get the choice job, but in his first year he is paid better than 10 percent more than his shorter classmates. This finding is all the more remarkable given that many of the jobs in Deck's sample were in fields such as college teaching that have little to do with physical appearance of abilities.

Deck's findings suggest that economic prejudice against women, Orientals, Mexican-Americans and other groups who are generally shorter than most American men may be partly explained as height prejudice, rather than simply ethnic and sex prejudice. Thus, "women who are 5 feet 7 inches make the same money as 5 feet 7 inch men."

More pervasive than economic discrimination, and perhaps even more damaging, is the prejudice against short men that is built into our culture and our attitudes toward others. Consider psychologist Paul Wilson's elegantly simple experiment, relating our perception of a person's height to his position in a hierarchy.

Wilson introduced the same visitor to one of his classes as "Mr. England, a student of psychology," and to another class as "Prof. England from Cambridge." Later the students were asked to estimate England's height. To the average student, the visitor grew nearly 2 1/2 inches when he was introduced as Prof. England. Wilson's experiment has been replicated by a number of other investigators who also show that persons from racial and ethnic minority groups are often seen as shorter than they actually are. Games and Movies

FINALLY, for the short man, no experiment in social psychology is necessary to convice him of the stigma of his height. Teased in school by his taller classmates, lined up in "size place" by his teachers and rejected in courship by taller women, he quickly gets the message. Should he fail to understand it, it will be repeated in many guises. Once again, according to Saul Feldman:

"Games such as basketball glorify height. Few baseball or football players are short. Boxing interest is not among flyweights or bantamweights but among taller middleweights and heavyweights. The one sport associated with short people is horse racing...however, the short jobkey is given second place to a horse... and despite the great popularity of horse racing, a jockey's face has never appeared on a bubblegum card.

"In the movies the short actor is rarely the romantic lead. The average American cannot identify with the hero unless he rides 'tall in the saddle.' Thus the short actor is reduced to playing the buffoon (Mickey Rooney), the archvillain (Peter Lorre) or the small tough guy with the big Napoleon complex (Edward G. Robinson).

Like a short Mehinku, a short American man confronts prejudice in popular attitudes, in his dealings with the opposite sex and in his economic activities. A possible reason for the widespread prejudice against short men is that a preference for tall people is part of a tendency to value all large things.

A second origin of the preference for tall men can be found in political relationships. Although in no known society is leadership allotted primarily on the basis of physical size or strength, a tall, well-built man will no doubt have the edge over a shorter competitor.

Among the Mehinaku, a tall man has a clear political advantage over his shortr rivals. He is kaukapapai -- worthy of fear and respect -- while they are merely laughablke. Americans may follow the same pattern.

For short Americans, if not for short Mehinaku, there is one ray of hope Over the long term, American society has moved toward assigning an individual's position in the community on the basis of ability, rather than on irrelevant qualities such as sex, race or ethnic background. Not only is discrimination on the basis of these charcteristics usually unlawful, it is often bad business in an economy that values skills and job performance.

For the moment, however, the bias that confronts short Americans is subtle, and progress is likely to be slow. Randy Newman may have written "Short People" as a spoof of prejudice, but it is lan all-too-accurate reflection of theattitudes of our society.