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'Short' Guys and 'Tall' Girls: Why Are We So Hung Up On Height?

'These stereotypes are real. They're very gendered, and they go back basically as far as society has existed.'

by Kyndall Cunningham
January 20, 2020 | Love

Two popular internet videos of 2019 dealt with the fraught issue of height.

In July, a video surfaced of a short Long Island man ranting in a bagel shop about the rejection he faced from women after he assumed a female employee was mocking his stature. The disgruntled man became known as “Bagel Boss Guy” on social media where he was quoted, laughed at and criticized for his reaction.

Then, a few months later, Netflix released the trailer for "Tall Girl," a rom-com about a teenage girl who gets picked on and has trouble with boys because she’s 6 feet tall.

“Let’s face it, Jodi,” a classmate says solemnly to her. “You’re the tall girl.”

That prompted a series of memes and jokes on social, with people claiming that the premise of the movie was exaggerated and unrealistic — after all, even if she's tall, she's a white, blonde, thin girl.

Where height preferences come from

These online discussions were a reflection of the frustrating and unnecessary role height plays in our attraction to other people, particularly for heterosexual folks who are fed, and perpetuate, gendered notions about size.

While gay couples can also reinforce biases about size, the principle that men should be tall and women should be short (or shorter than the men they’re partnered with) is rooted in heteronormativity, or the belief that male-female pairings are the norm.

Sociologist Philip Cohen wrote for The Atlantic that height differences between men and women are a “matter of social construction” that humans exaggerate in “the realm of love and marriage.” The average American cis man is 5 and a half inches taller than the average American cis woman, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But the way in which this height difference is overwhelmingly shown in movies, television shows and advertisements makes it seem like the reverse is an oddity.

“Society tells us that men should be taller than the women they date, and couples that don't look like this are often made fun of,” said Erika W. Smith, a sex and relationships writer for Refinery29. “For example, just look at all the jokes made about Nicole Kidman's relationship with Keith Urban and, before that, Tom Cruise.”

It hurts us all

These notions align with traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity. We’ve taken this evidence about cis men and women’s heights and assigned value to them.

For men, physical dominance is essential to what patriarchal society has deemed the ideal guy. We assume tall men have a decent amount of strength, can play sports, fight off attackers and protect smaller women from harm.

Women, on the other hand, are expected to be small and short (but not too short) to adhere to European beauty standards but also appear non-threatening to men. Even tall women, like supermodels, who are idealized in fashion and advertising, are expected to be thin to appear feminine and delicate.

These expectations of height, based on measurements of cis people, can have an extremely harmful effect on trans people, who are burdened with the pressure to “pass,” or appear indistinguishable from cis men and women.

“These stereotypes are real,” Smith said. “They're very gendered, and they go back basically as far as society has existed.”

It goes both ways

Like all of the physical expectations society has for women and men, height is another strangely important factor in the world of dating. And it's not just that men want to be with women who are shorter than them. Research shows that women want to be with men who are taller than them, too. They might even care about it more than men do.

"In general, women were more likely than men to think that the man should be taller and they tended to not want to be in a relationship in which they were taller than their male partners," psychologist and professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne wrote for Psychology Today. "Men liked being taller than their partners, but they didn’t care about the height difference as much as women did."

Shame and expectations around height, and fear of rejection because of height, are so deeply ingrained that it actually influences daters' behavior online.

In 2010, the dating app OkCupid found that both male and female users were overstating their height by about two inches. Despite some women’s decision to exaggerate their height, shorter women received the most unsolicited messages, highlighting men’s general preference for smaller women.

In 2015, dating app CoffeeMeetsBagel found that the average male user described himself as being a half-inch taller than the height of the average man.

Short people often feel they need to disclose how short they are in their dating profiles. Tall men will include their height as a selling point.

“Anecdotally, I'd say that more straight cis women have height-based dealbreakers than straight cis men do,” Smith said.

Aside from the rude and ill-tempered shouting, did Bagel Boss Guy have somewhat of a point? Is height-shaming a legitimate social problem? Is it a serious act of discrimination for women to choose male partners based on size?

“I'm not sure about the legitimacy angle here,” said Justin Myers, an author and columnist for GQ. “I guess it is an easy win if you want to annoy a man because we are conditioned to be sensitive about our height because of some weird idea that shorter men are less masculine or more feeble. (On the other hand,) you could argue that women have been putting up with men commenting on every aspect of their appearance since time immemorial.”

Smith said that women making fun of men for being short is a problem we should work to eradicate as a society. After all, setting problematic expectations around masculinity hurts everyone, not just cis men.

“But straight cis women face so many more appearance-based dating requirements than straight cis men that it's not really a comparable situation,” Smith said.

We can all do better when it comes to evaluating potential partners, not just for ourselves but for other people. There are a lot of short men and a lot of tall women, and traditional but untruthful expectations for men and women ultimately make the world a less tolerant place. Do we really want to reduce our chances of finding love over a few inches?

Kyndall Cunningham
Kyndall Cunningham is a freelance writer from Baltimore. She writes on a range of topics including film and television.
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