Men, Women, and Height

Last Sunday, the NY Times ran a book review of How Height Affects the Health, Happiness, and Success of Boys— and the Men They Become, by Stephen S. Hall.

Until recently, I don't think I realized how much being short affects men's self-esteem. (It might even be analogous to how being overweight affects women's self-esteem.) I don't think it ever really mattered to me how tall people were, but maybe that's because I'm 5'8". Mostly, I like being tall because it makes it easier to reach things that are high up, thus effectively giving me more usable storage space. Otherwise I don't think about it much, except to feel grateful that there's really no reason for me to ever wear high heels in an attempt to appear taller.

I remember seeing a photo of myself with a 5'1" friend in high school, and I was shocked at how I towered over her, since in regular interactions with her, I'd always felt that we were close in height. When I told her how surprised I was by our difference in height, she indicated that she was not surprised at all, and that every time we spoke, she was aware of how much taller I was. So maybe, in a way, height matters more to short people than to tall people--it affects their self-image more than tall people's height affects theirs. It wasn't hard to be a tall adolescent, although I actually started out at around 5'2" in seventh grade (thus, short) and then just kept growing an average of an inch a year through senior year. It was a little bit hard to be bigger than my female friends once since they all stopped growing around 7th/8th/9th grade at 5'1" or 5'2" and I just kept shooting up. I wasn't overweight in high school as much as big--tall and broad. I couldn't share or trade size 2, 4, or 6 clothing with the other girls. If someone was staying over and had to borrow something--say, pajamas--they would be ridiculously large on her. It felt somewhat mortifying at the time.

I wonder, after reading the book review, if the benefits that apparently fall into the laps of tall men also benefit tall women, if height makes no difference for women, or if the reverse is somehow true. Am I paid more than shorter women? Do people respect me more? Would I be more likely to win an election? I have found in the dating world that some men who are 5'5" or 5'6" (or shorter) don't really want anything to do with me. They're adamant that they must end up with a woman shorter than they. I, on the other hand, would be fine with a man shorter than I. This would seem to be a disadvantage to being a tall woman, although as a wise friend pointed out, a man who won't date a woman because she is a few inches taller than him is not someone I would want to date anyway. It's a pretty easy way to weed out people who have other issues that would make us incompatible.

Finally, in August, two Princeton-based researchers published a paper ("Stature and Status: Height, Ability, and Labor Market Outcomes") suggesting that taller people fare better economically because they're smarter. Abstract available here. PDF of entire paper available for download here. One (short) blogger's reaction here. I'm not sure what I think about that, although it doesn't seem like a very nice thing to say. The book review I read last Sunday suggested that human beings evolved towards larger brains and greater intelligence because they were smaller than other mammals in their environment. I.e., smaller species that survive do so because of greater intelligence. Not that that says much about the correlation between an individual's height and intelligence, but, still, it may make the shorter people feel better.


Hillel said...

My first thought when I read the abstract was along the lines of one of the comments the petite blogger quoted from the study, that taller children may somehow recieve more attention, resources, and support, but it seems as though the authors acount for that by retreating far enough back into childhood that teachers, and even language are no longer factors. Weird!

As to the book review you refered to about human intelligence resulting from our pre-historic need to comeat for resources with bigger/taller species (I'm grossly paraphrasing), I don't think that directly conflicts with the study, which is refering to relative height within the species. However, it might mean that shorter people will need to evolve to an even higher level of intelligence to compete with their taller friends.

Ariella said...

In general, people who stand out are bound to receive more attention. Being taller than average draws some attention. Having red hair draws attention. (My youngest has it and draws comments nearly everywhere she goes --very curly, too.) But whereas tallness is nearly universally perceived as attractive for a man and indicative of strength, etc., the same cannot always be said for women. Some may find a tall woman not their feminine ideal because they do not want someone who project strength.

alg's mother said...

Years ago I read an article that showed taller men earning more money. Height seems to be associated with authority.

ALG said...

alg's mother (aka Imma),

Yes, I think it has been well-established that taller men earn more money than shorter men. It could be because taller men command more authority than shorter men, but the study that I cited posits that it's because taller men are actually smarter.

I agree that the book review and the study don't conflict, because the book review is speaking about humans as a species as opposed to other species and the study is speaking about individual variation within a species. I doubt that shorter people are genetically selected for higher intelligence within the species. It could be, though, that all genetic considerations aside, smaller/more beat-up kids learn to use their intellectual strengths to greater advantage than larger kids, who don't need to outwit others to survive.

Avi said...

My opinion: If taller people are more intelligent, it's because a certain percentage of the population was malnourished as children, and therefore may not have developed as well physically and mentally. In other words, some short people are short for the same reason that they're unintelligent. As a result, they hurt the average intelligence of short people. Sounds weird, but I think the math on that works out.

ALG said...


Your idea isn't a bad one, except that I am 95% sure that they controlled for nutrional factors in the study cited in this post. That is, they took out all the people who were short because of malnourishment, and found that tall people STILL had higher intelligence on average. I'm not sure what the exact finding was, actually. It might be that the earlier assertion that tall people are paid more or are generally more successful was somehow correlated with taller people being smarter, as opposed to their being respected more because of their presumed authority due to their height.