Size really does matter

Tall is the height of fashion - and the lofty of stature tend to be healthier, richer, more successful and more popular - yet they say the world isn't made for them. And short people are often better adjusted. The latest research is cutting a few heightist myths down to size
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Indy Lifestyle Online
height has come to signify much more than just our vertical sum of inches - or centimetres. Psychological assumptions about height (or lack of it) proliferate: short men are vulnerable to the Napoleon complex - would Hitler have been a megalomaniac at 6ft 2in? Tall women are ambitious and commanding - would Margaret Thatcher have been such an iron maiden at 4ft 11in?

Anecdotally, most people can probably think of an example to prove the point, yet psychologists say such suppositions are based on little more than popular myth. Select a handful of famous short men with a pathological desire for world domination and you have a profile, but probably not one that would stand up to close scrutiny.

Besides the pop psychology, tallness is a trait that both sexes aspire to. Standards of beauty now dictate lofty proportions: Naomi, Linda and Christy all top the 5ft 10in mark. Film stars are marketed as "larger than life"; "I didn't realise so-and-so was so small" is our common response when celebs are spotted in the flesh. Kylie Minogue's image-makers are masters of concealment, never exposing her minute proportions on record covers or in pop videos. Instead the camera sticks faithfully to facial close-ups.

But the significance we place on stature predates the media age. Everyday metaphors reflect an age-old association between height and superiority: "head and shoulders above the rest", "walk tall", to "look up to" and "high and mighty". In contrast, the sayings "small is beautiful" and "the best things come in small packages" sound like lame reassurances.

Recent studies have shown that those who are taller tend to rise to the top, so to speak, professionally as well. A survey by University College, London, among more than 10,000 civil servants, shows upper-grade workers, male and female, were 2ins (5cm) taller than lower-grade colleagues on average.

According to Eric Brunner, an epidemiologist analysing the survey, these findings are related to health. "People who are shorter are much more likely to die prematurely or suffer ill-health," he says. That is why tallness, in general, is considered to be a characteristic of the privileged classes. He says: "There are also environmental factors: whether the mother smokes, childhood infections, nutrition, and the amount of love received."

Cultural assumptions about the superiority of height may also explain why high-grade civil servants are taller. David Weeks, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, has studied all the clinical and psychological literature on height written over the past 40 years. "It's almost unanimous that tall men have the advantage in job interviews and promotion," he says. "If you're faced with two candidates, the taller one will probably get the post because he's perceived to be the better at leadership qualities."

The taller candidate may well be more confident than the shorter one. "Quite clearly self-esteem is likely to play a major role in explaining these results," says Dr Brunner. He has also compared the civil servants for "differential shrinkage" - how much we shrink as we grow older. A similar pattern occurs, with lower-grade employees losing more inches than their seniors. The evidence suggests the taller the better. "Height seems to be related to coronary risk factors," Dr Brunner says. "The taller you are the less likely the chance of high levels of cholesterol and heart disease."

But now that many diseases are no longer a feature of modern life, all classes are growing taller - roughly 2ins every generation. In the First World War, the average height of a British soldier was 5ft 7in, which had increased one inch by the Second World War. Nowadays the average soldier is 5ft l0in.

R C Floud, Provost of Guildhall University, London, and author of Height, Health and History, believes the upward trend will continue. "We're still two to three inches shorter than the Dutch or the Norwegians. There's no reason why we shouldn't grow as tall," he says, although economic and social factors may slow us down slightly.

It's still the rich who predominantly enjoy the advantage of generous stature. "Ever since records began, the upper classes and the better educated are taller than the middle or working classes," says Professor Floud. "It was literally true that the wealthy classes could 'look down' on the working classes. So all these metaphors had a clear physiological basis in the past. Height is a sign of longevity and other things, like wealth, that most people would like to have."

As opposed to shortness, which seems to signify, statistically and environmentally, everything we would rather disown: poor diet, social inequality, bad health and, according to Dr Brunner, even lack of love. Children suffering from psychological stress can react by switching off their growth hormone secretions. He cites a famous study carried out in the late 1940s in a German orphanage. "It showed that when one very nasty Teutonic sister moved out of the orphanage, all the children there had a growth spurt," he says. "And the growth slowed down in the place she went on to. It was found to be a psychological rather than a nutritional effect."

Professor Floud agrees there is a connection between growth and a sense of well-being. "Certainly there is a lot of evidence that children brought up in orphanages or foster homes don't grow as much as those in 'normal' families. If people are unhappy, it has all kinds of physical and psychological effects."

So if someone is smaller than average and displays so-called Napoleonic tendencies, his or her behaviour is more likely to stem from an unhappy upbringing, where height may be one symptom but not the cause. As Dr Weeks, a modest 5ft 2in himself, points out, "I have only seen about two patients in 20 years of practice whose neurosis is due to their shortness. It's usually to do with personality, not stature."

But what about tall people? Statisticians would have us believe that by virtue of some extra inches, this smug lot have no cause for neurosis. Bestowed with money, class, fine health and advanced managerial powers, surely the most they have to suffer is the envy of others? At 6ft 8in, Phil Heinricy, founder of the Tall Persons Club, believes there are some serious drawbacks.

Although 42-year-old Heinricy and his 1,500 or so members are proud of their height, they feel society is less respectful. They suffer, he explains, at the hands of psychologists and researchers who never tell the full story. "They always quote the American research that shows for every inch of height, people earn about an extra $600 annually. The bit they miss out is that after 6ft 4in it goes into reverse," he says. "At that stage we are seen as freakishly, not admirably, tall."

For people his size, he argues, the world is inadequately designed. "The standard double bed has been with us since the 1860s. Public transport seating hasn't changed its measurements since the 1930s, and car designers use statistics 30 years out of date."

As well as these practical drawbacks, he has also experienced prejudice, which began at school. "If you're tall and you get bullied, you're expected to sort the problem out yourself. But it's Catch-22, because you're not supposed to pick on anyone smaller than you." Heinricy and others like him were also presumed to be more mature and responsible than their shorter peers. "In essence, you find that most tall kids are effectively robbed of about three to four years of their childhood."

The natural corollary would be that smaller children are also bullied and viewed differently. Yet David Skuse at the Institute of Child Health believes this is not the case. He has been analysing perceptions among young schoolchildren over the past two years towards short pupils who were the smallest in their class. "It was surprising. There was really nothing to distinguish them from their peers - they were treated no differently," he says. "If anything they were better adjusted and less disruptive than the others." Dr Skuse concludes that being small in the classroom is not a handicap. "If you're having problems, you'd have had them anyway," he says.

Paul Ross, a 34-year-old marketing manager, is 5ft 1in and felt self- conscious at school. "But I never got picked on," he says. "I was instinctively that bit more aggressive in sport so people knew I couldn't be walked over in other areas." Because of his height, Ross believes, he has developed a "strong" personality. "You have to be confident, otherwise people tend not to notice you, especially in a business situation."

Smaller people may be well-adjusted, yet tallness continues to be the more envied of the two states. Considering the statistical advantages - wealth, health, power and status - who wouldn't prefer a few extra inches? Certainly not Heinricy, despite his well-publicised concerns. "I'd like to be taller if anything," he admits. "When I'm dressed up I know I look the business. If I walk into a room with 200 people, I'm bound to be noticed. At my height I never have to start a conversation - people will always speak to me first."

n Tall Persons Club, 29 Stanhope St, Hereford, HR4 OHA; 01432 271818.


Peter Matthews. Retail assistant. Age 45. Height 6ft 7in.

If I had the choice I would be fractionally smaller because there is a smaller range when it comes to buying things such as clothes. In other ways, no, I wouldn't want to change - I'm proud of my height. If I go into pubs people will often want to come up and make an extremely bad joke about how tall I am, but that's OK. It doesn't bother me at all. One of my hobbies is acting and when I walk on stage the entire audience's attention is directed at me. And I love it.

At school, I was made to feel self-conscious. My nickname was Lurch - the tall butler out of the Munsters. I also found that classmates tried to cast me in the role of someone who was big, strong and able to throw people around. You were expected to be a sort of Arnie Schwarzenegger- type character.

The biggest disadvantage is the design of everyday objects. I've never been able to find a car that I can fit into. I went to BSM for one driving lesson which was in an Austin Metro. My knees gripped the wheel and my feet were all over the pedals - being able to manipulate various bits of the car just wasn't going to happen. So I still haven't learnt to drive.

My height is something I can be humorous about. Sometimes I'll send it up by kneeling at the bar in the pub and still look about average compared with everyone else. In my teens I used to walk around with a slight stoop but there came a point when I decided not to. These days I'm proud of my height and now I always stand up straight.


Teresa Macey. Assistant quality controller. Age 31. Height 4ft 11in.

When I went to senior school I was the tallest in the class but after that I just didn't seem to grow. My height only really affected me when I left school and started going out more - most of the people I mixed with were about 5ft 6in. The men seemed to find it harder to cope with, and they always treated me as if I was much younger. The attitude was: "Come under my wing and I'll protect you." I always tended to attract tall men. Now I'm married to a man of 5ft 11in.

The disadvantages are driving, shopping - I can't reach the top shelves - and trying to find clothes that fit. Shoes are also difficult since I only take a size two. In my car I have to sit on two cushions and then my feet don't rest properly on the clutch.

There's nothing worse than having to admit to someone you're 4ft 11in. They always think you're a midget after that. If I had the choice, I'd like to be about 5ft 3in - that to me is tall. It would be nice to have some extra length in the car, and buying clothes would be easier. Also not being talked down to would be good. People always think: "Oh she's only small. You've got to be gentle with her."

Being small you're not necessarily more aggressive but you have to stick up for yourself. At my height, people like to think they can bully me. I've had to compensate for that and I've definitely developed a strong personality. If you didn't you'd get walked over.


Kevin Hudson. Actor. Age 34. Height 4ft 10in.

I attended stage school, where being small wasn't really a problem. When I was about 12 I went to see a doctor in Harley Street and I was supposed to have growing injections. In the end I couldn't have them, I was told they wouldn't have worked in my case.

I started out wanting to be a footballer when I was younger but that's one thing I couldn't do because of my height. I think the smallest player is about 5ft 3in.

I always felt happy about my size. I've never felt self-conscious partly because in this day and age people are far more understanding than they used to be.

Buying clothes is one disadvantage. At least tall people have got specialist shops they can go to. Small people have to shop around more. I'm in the teenage section for clothes. There are certain shops I go to like Fenwicks but even then I have to take my trousers up.

I feel that being small is less of a hassle for a woman than a man. The majority of small women end up with tall men, but with the exception of Dudley Moore, it doesn't really work the other way round.

A lot of women do prefer tall men - they feel that they're protected more. There are stars like Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen who attract lots of women but that's probably got more to do with their money.


Valerie Sims. Businesswoman. Age 36. Height 6ft.

I grew to within an inch of my final height by the time I was 15. It did affect my school life, because none of the boys were anywhere near 6ft, and so I was the last one in my crowd to ever go out with one.

I think gender has a lot to do with it. I have noticed as a tall woman that some short men are dying to bring you down a peg or two - especially in a business context. I once worked for a short male boss who used to say, "Well, I'm going to have to sit you down before I tell you off." I find it irritating that I can't walk across a pub in London without reactions from men like, "Has someone put fertiliser in your wellies, dear?" Sometimes you feel that you can't go anywhere without it being commented on. I was at a wedding last week and when the disco started I thought, "Oh dear, I should have left after the meal." If you're sitting down in a darkened room and a short man asks you to dance you think, "Who's going to be the more embarrassed when I stand up?"

Finding clothes and shoes can be a problem. There are just so few shops where you can dress well.

But I wouldn't want to be any smaller than I am - it's part of my personality. When I first went to an event for tall people it was an amazing experience to find yourself looking up to most people. It's so nice - and so rare - ever to have eye-to-eye-level conversations.