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How men and women find a partner – the long and short of it


When it comes to choosing a mate, both sexes are heightist*.

Men choose shorter females as partners and women choose taller males. That should cause no surprise: men are, on average, taller than women. But evidence shows that partnerships such as that between the diminutive jazz pianist Jamie Cullum (5ft 4 in), and the model Sophie Dahl (5ft 11in), are even less common than statistics would suggest.

In the first study to examine how partner preferences translate into actual choices, researchers analysed results for 10,000 couples across the UK. They found that in more than nine out of 10 couples (92.5 per cent) the man was taller than the woman. On average, men were 5ft 10in tall and women 5ft 4½in, a difference of 5½in.

As some women are tall and some men short, it would be expected that the height relationship would be reversed in some partnerships. On average, if men and women were randomly sorted into couples, one in 200 pairings would involve a woman who is taller than the man.

Yet in practice, that is true of only one in 720 couples. Jamie Cullum and Sophie Dahl’s relationship is rare indeed.

Past research has suggested that taller men are more likely to be married and to have more children (except in societies affected by war). However being too tall, like being too short, reduces attractiveness.

Unless, that is, there are countervailing factors. When 35-year-old Brazilian lawyer Fabiana Flosi, 5ft 10in in her stockings, married Bernie Ecclestone (5ft 3in) last year, observers wondered what attracted her to the 81-year-old billionaire Formula One chief. Mr Ecclestone is used to the jibes, having previously been married to the 6ft 2in Brazilian model Slavica, the mother of his towering daughters.

There are other influences on partner choice, of course, including physical attractiveness, weight and educational level. Tall men also give women a licence to wear high heels.

However, though tallness is sought after in the male, women do not like partners who are too tall. In a sample of undergaduates selecting dates, the largest acceptable height difference for both sexes was a male partner 17 per cent taller than the female – equivalent to a height advantage of 7 ins for a 5ft 10 ins man.

The new analysis by Dutch researchers claims to be the first to demonstrate that this preference – that the man should be taller but not too tall – translates to actual choices. Couples in which the man was more than 10ins taller than the woman were rarer than expected by chance.

The findings, published in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) One, show that while the preferences of both sexes regarding the height of their partners were reflected in the actual choices they made, the effects were “generally modest”.

In some respects, however, the sexes are doomed to disappointment. Gert Stulp and colleagues from Groningen University, whose analysis is based on the Millennium Cohort Study of the parents of almost 19,000 babies born in the UK in 2000, say. “Men and women do not agree on their preferred partner height, as women prefer larger partner height differences than men. Mutual mate choice is thus likely to produce couples in which partner height preferences for either the male, or the female, or both are not optimally satisfied.”

*heightist: an act or attitude that seeks to discriminate against people on the basis of height