On the advice of our lawyers, we pause here for a mental-health notice. Tall men are invited to forge on, as are women (for whom it is weight, not stature, that is life's bane--but that is another story). Short men, however, proceed at their own peril. What follows will depress them.
Height discrimination begins from the moment male human beings become vertical. Give 100 mothers photographs of two 19-month-old boys who resemble each other closely, except that one is made to look taller than the other. Then ask the mothers which boy is more competent and able. The mothers consistently pick the "taller" one. As boys grow, the importance of height is drummed into them incessantly. "My, how tall you are!" the relatives squeal with approval. Or, with scorn, "Don't you want to grow up big and strong?"
Height hierarchies are established early, and persist for a long time. Tall boys are deferred to and seen as mature, short ones ridiculed and seen as childlike. Tall men are seen as natural "leaders"; short ones are called "pushy". "If a short man is normally assertive, then he's seen as having Napoleonic tendencies," says David Weeks, a clinical psychologist at Royal Edinburgh Hospital. "If he is introverted and mildly submissive, then he's seen as a wimp."
Dr Weeks is 5'2", so he may have an axe to grind. But he can prove his point. Turn, for example, to the work of two American psychologists, Leslie Martel and Henry Biller, whose book "Stature and Stigma" (D.C. Heath, 1987) is especially useful.
Mr Martel and Mr Biller asked several hundred university students to rate the qualities of men of varying heights, on 17 different criteria. Both men and women, whether short or tall, thought that short men--heights between 5'2" and 5'5"--were less mature, less positive, less secure, less masculine; less successful, less capable, less confident, less outgoing; more inhibited, more timid, more passive; and so on. Other studies confirm that short men are judged, and even judge themselves, negatively. Several surveys have found that short men feel less comfortable in social settings and are less happy with their bodies. Dustin Hoffman, that 5'6" actor, is said to have spent years in therapy over his small stature.
The western ideal for men appears to be about 6'2" (and is slowly rising, as average heights increase). Above that height, the advantages of extra inches peter out, though very tall men do not, apart from hitting their heads, suffer significant disadvantages. And medium-sized men do fine (though they typically will say they would like to be taller, just as women always want to be thinner). The men who suffer are those who are noticeably short: say, 5'5" and below. In a man's world, they do not impress. Indeed, the connection between height and status is embedded in the very language. Respected men have "stature" and are "looked up to": quite literally, as it turns out.
One of the most elegant height experiments was reported in 1968 by an Australian psychologist, Paul Wilson. He introduced the same unfamiliar man to five groups of students, varying only the status attributed to the stranger. In one class, the newcomer was said to be a student, in another a lecturer, right up to being a professor from Cambridge University. Once the visitor had left the room, each group was asked to estimate the man's height, along with that of the instructor. The results are plotted in the chart above. Not only was the "professor" thought to be more than two inches taller than the "student"; the height estimates rose in proportion to his perceived status.
It is little wonder, then, that when people meet a famous man they so often say, "I expected him to be taller." If you still doubt that height matters, look around. At the palace of William III at Hampton Court, London, you will see door knockers above eye level: the better to make callers on the king (who was, in fact, decidedly short) feel, literally, lowly. Or sit across from your boss in his office, and see who has the higher chair.
Now the worse news
Perhaps heightism is just a western cultural prejudice? Sadly not. In Chinese surveys, young women always rate stature high among qualifications for a future mate. Indeed, the prejudice appears to be universal.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas Gregor, an anthropologist at America's Vanderbilt University, lived among the Mehinaku, a tropical forest people of central Brazil who were amazed by such new-fangled gadgets as spectacles. Among the Mehinaku, attractive men should be tall: they are respectfully called wekepei. Woe unto the peritsi, as very short men are derisively called (it rhymes with itsi, the word for penis). Where a tall man is kaukapapai, worthy of respect, the short one is merely laughable. His lack of stature is a moral as well as physical failing, for it is presumed to result from sexual looseness during adolescence.
"No one wants a peritsi for a son-in-law," Mr Gregor writes. By many measures--wealth, chieftainship, frequency of participation in rituals--tall men dominate in tribal life. They hog the reproductive opportunities, too. Mr Gregor looked at the number of girlfriends of Mehinaku men of varying heights. He found a pattern: the taller the man, the more girlfriends he had. As he explained, "the three tallest men had as many affairs as the seven shortest men, even though their average estimated ages were identical."
He went on to note that the Trobriand Islanders of the Pacific, the Timbira of Brazil, and the Navajo of America were among the many other traditional cultures that also prize male height. "In no case have I found a preference for short men," he said. Among anthropologists, it is a truism that in traditional societies the "big man" actually is big, not just socially but physically.
Thread: Short guys finish last