What Women Want: Will We Ever Stop Stigmatizing Short Men?


Thanks to recent sites and apps you name it that have made dating all the more casual (and thus more fitting for millennials), I've rehashed plenty of my and my friends' quasi-blind dates over the past six months. Some were great, some were bad, some seemed great until they went bad (hey, Andrew! I think Taylor Swift is on to something…), but no matter how the story went, one question always surfaced: "How tall is he?"

In an age when young women complain that their male peers write the rules of dating (spurring the advent of our hookup culture) and put too much emphasis on female physical attractiveness, we often overlook the unfair standards we hold our male counterparts to as well. Though its origin is much discussed and remains somewhat unclear, the term "heightism," discrimination based on height, and usually male height, was coined in 1971 by sociologist Saul Feldman. It is clearly something that still exists today. There is no denying that shorter than average men are stigmatized in the media, workplace, and particularly relationships; research shows that women prefer taller men. So will this stigma ever go away? Short answer ... no.

There are many theories as to why this stigma exists, and the blame reaches all the way back to early humans. When fighting over female companions, early humans possessing the ability to stand on two legs were able to deliver harder punches and therefore had better chances of winning the girl in a fight. They could also better protect their females than their on-all-fours counterparts, and in a time when "survival of the fittest" couldn’t be more true, that had to be uber-attractive. So it’s totally biology’s fault, right?

Well, and then there’s another stigma to be addressed that directly plays into the stigma against shorter men: The stigma against larger women. This isn’t an "eye for an eye" vendetta to show guys that they’re just as bad as we are, I swear. But while women may prefer taller men, research also shows that men prefer smaller women. Perhaps a result of biology (shorter women have higher estrogen levels than taller women, which innately attract men), taller and larger women are often stigmatized. Sure, runway models are often taller than average and their looks are celebrated, but generally speaking, taller women are made to feel awkward in everyday life. Many avoid wearing heels and assume that shorter men wouldn’t be interested in them, and, to be fair, that’s often the case. So just as men who are shorter are considered less desirable, taller women suffer from the same plight.

These stigmas are reinforced by the media. Movies and TV shows fall back on the "short man" joke time and time again, one notable example being E! comedian Joel McHale’s constant bashing of colleague Ryan Seacrest, who is 5'7". To compare, the average male height in the U.S. is about 5'9". Dating sites such as OKCupid and Match.com emphasize the importance of height by asking users to fill theirs out in the standard profile, and both Match.com and eHarmony address the issue in advice columns that acknowledge that women generally prefer taller men. Research shows that women find height to be the third most important physical feature in men, after sense of style and handsome face. These columns attempt to soften the blow by offering "reassuring" lines such as "height isn’t everything." Well, you just made it seem like it was in the profile, so ...

Of course, not everyone feels that shorter men are less powerful, desirable, or attractive. History proves that this is false. Napoleon Bonaparte clocked in at 5'7" and remains one of the most powerful political figures of all time. But though his achievements (and failures) are major topics of discussion, rarely is his name brought up without at least a mention of his height. After all, the term "Napoleonic complex" is still used today and conjures up a picture of a short, angry little man not a good look. Similarly, plenty of famous actors and musicians Danny DeVito, Tom Cruise, Bruno Mars, and Kanye West, just to name a few are shorter than average, but almost everyone is very much aware of it. While plenty of women do not find shorter men less attractive, a taller woman with a shorter man is almost always notable; reactions are generally not negative, but they nonetheless acknowledge the abnormality in a sort of "good for them" response.

The average man is about six inches taller than the average woman, so it is abnormal for a man to be shorter than a woman. But statistics and even science can’t defend a stigma against shorter men. Nonetheless, I don’t see the stigma going away anytime soon. Blame the media, blame our general reactions to "short man" jokes, blame peer pressure, but almost all of us unintentionally or not stigmatize shorter men, and this stigmatization has remained relatively stagnant over the past several decades. This is not to say that it can’t go away, but it is to say that there are many other factors and influences that also must be changed in order for it to disappear.

And we can all probably see eye-to-eye (no matter our height) on that.