Beauty is in the eye of the beholden

Alison was six feet two inches tall, and told me she would never date a man shorter than herself
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The Independent Online

According to research from the University of Miami, good-looking women are likely to earn more than those lower down the scale of pulchritude. The findings were different in the case of men, for whom height is apparently more of a factor than looks. Mind you, nobody appears to have told the high-achieving Robert Reich, Labour Secretary under Clinton, whose letter to The Independent yesterday pointed out that although he is 4ft 10 and a half inches tall, he did not fall out with Clinton over the President's remark that he could live in a Lego model of the White House.

On the other hand, if a mature man (I was going to write fully-grown, but if might confuse the issue) includes a half-inch when declaring his height, the chances are that he would like to be taller. It is akin to asking a little boy how old he is and him saying "thix and thwee-quarterth". As every parent and grandparent knows, the three-quarters are all-important. So is the half-inch. Incidentally, I am five feet 10 and seven-eighths. There is a mark on our kitchen wall to prove it.

We'll come back to the Miami University research as it relates to women's beauty, but let me first deal with the issue of height-related chippiness in men.

A couple of years ago the television company September Films made a documentary series called The Real Sex And The City, following a bunch of Manhattanites whose lifestyles were not dissimilar to those of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte in the HBO drama. The publicists at Sky kindly offered to fly over four journalists to accompany these women to some of New York's most chic restaurants. And as my colleague Robert Fisk was unavailable at the time, doubtless pursuing some other assignment, I got the job.

One of the women, I recall, was a model called Alison. She was 6ft 2in tall, and told me that she would never date a man shorter than herself. When my article was published, quoting Alison, I was bombarded with furious e-mails by a reader who basically accused me of colluding in a vendetta against short men. His e-mails have continued, intermittently, for a year. The last one arrived only last week.

"Tall men get the birds and short men who are second-class citizens get rejected and humiliated," he thundered. "Short men must know their station, just as black men used to have to. You're obviously tall, otherwise you wouldn't have been so gleeful in telling the readers that a 6ft blonde wouldn't look twice at a short man. If you were short or a cripple, I'm sure you would have found her comments upsetting."

One can only guess at the disappointments my correspondent has suffered to provoke such rage, and, of course, I don't know what he does for a living, but his passion is interesting in the light of the Miami University research. There is a correlation, say the researchers, between professional success and men's height, professional success and women's looks. Their study is supposedly the first to quantify the value of good looks; plainer women earn, on average, 8 per cent less.

But these statistics need some psychological interpretation. Obviously, taller men are no more competent, but are they not, as a general rule, more confident? And is that not also true of better-looking women? Confidence can generate success in the workplace no less than competence. And confidence, rightly or wrongly, often springs from physical attributes, even if they are entirely imaginary.

Conversely, perceived physical shortcomings sometimes accelerate rather than impede the rise up the corporate ladder. It is surely no accident that a disproportionate number of powerful tycoons have been either very big men such as Robert Maxwell and Tiny Rowland... or very small men such as Bernie Ecclestone and Ross Perot. It is relatively easy to project your personality when you tower above everyone else; but to project it from belly-button height takes even greater charisma and determination.

The interesting thing about this research is how it was gathered. A confidential questionnaire was completed by 1,800 people. Each was asked to rate his or her physical appearance, taking into account height and weight as well as "regularity and comeliness" of facial features. When this was cross-referenced with income, it was discovered that women who rated themselves as of "above-average appearance" had higher earnings than those who reckoned themselves merely average.

The women who rated themselves, note. They may have been plug-ugly but thought themselves rather gorgeous, or (more likely) very pretty yet unable to acknowledge it. In other words, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder as much as in the mind of, as it were, the beholden. Therefore, the research is valid, but not in the way the researchers think.