Why Are People Still Hung Up on Height in Relationships?

We're all aware that men are slightly taller than women, so it should follow that in hetero couples out in the world, you would expect men to be taller, on average, than their female companions. That's true. But it turns out that it's more than just true by chance, it's also true by choice. Culturally, we've taken an average height difference between men and women — about six inches, or, coincidentally, the size of the human penis — and made it into an exaggerated one. In other words, what makes a man feel like a man and a woman feel like a woman really is just one average dick. Ba-dum-chum.

This Atlantic piece from sociology prof Philip Cohen says:

The author then compared the British data to the height distribution of 4,600 U.S. married couples in data from 2009, and found that the common arrangement was also a taller man and shorter wife, with a median difference of six very hard inches in favor of the man. In 3.8 percent of couples, the wife was taller.

But when the author randomized the information as well to see what would come up by chance, he found something surprising: Most couples had taller husbands, as it to be expected, but left to chance, the wives were taller in 7.8 percent of couples— twice as many as before. Meaning, people are choosing to maintain this six inches of difference by going out of their way to pair up according to this distinction. (The study also found few romantic pairings where the man was considerably taller either, by as much as a painful nine inches.)

Humans could couple up differently, if they wanted to. If it were desirable to have a taller-woman-shorter-man relationship, it could be much more common. In these data, we could find shorter husbands for 28 percent of the wives. Instead, people exaggerate the difference by seeking out taller-man-shorter-woman pairings for marriage (or maybe the odd taller-woman couples are more likely to divorce, which would produce the same result).

Individually, this can be chalked up to taste, but on the whole, it can be chalked up to cultural constructs. Why does having a dude be six inches taller feel so romantically right? Why are we still hung up on six inches of height difference? Are men more hung up on it, or women?

Either way, it's because we're still hung up on old notions of femininity and masculinity, and what they mean. In other words, men are bigger and stronger, and women are smaller and more petite, and we'd prefer our romantic relationships reflect that.

That's all fine and good, except for all the rest of us who (literally) don't fit. Ask any woman who challenges the smaller, more petite framework, and you'll hear a therapy session's worth (or twelve) of anecdotes about the impact of size rebellion on a dating life.

Ask me, for instance. Please? OK. I'm 5'11" (not even really that tall, and I also slouch), and while the height has certainly worked to my advantage in plenty of ways (hello, top shelves and assumptions of leadership abilities), I am also a textbook compilation of dating doh's filled with jokes about higher altitudes, basketball, Gumby, long legs, things one is assumed to be able and want to do with long legs, skyscrapers, and an assortment of well-meaning confessions from shorter female friends who have let me know more times than I could count that they could "just never imagine" dating a guy shorter than them, as they assumed I (tragically) had to do.

And to some extent, I've internalized those values. I'm not that feminine, I assume, because I'm not petite. This isn't logical — plenty of tall women counter that notion on the daily, but if you hear a message enough, you're bound to eventually buy in, whether you realize it or not.

Still, I never felt I was making some kind of concession by dating men shorter than me — I just dated people I was attracted to. But since most men are shorter than I am, had I eliminated them on the basis of shortness, I'd have been sitting out all those dances I never actually went to. In order to find a guy six inches taller, I'd have to find a guy who was 6'5. That happened once, but it didn't work out. (My husband is a few inches shorter than me.) And also, the majority of my difficulty was up through high school, but once I hit college, there was no shortage of guys who preferred taller women.

I know that shorter-than-average men have similar tales of dating woe, and then there's this Sex and the City episode I always think of, the one where Samantha gets stuck in a few dates with a dude who shops in the boy's department. It always made me cringe, because it implies he's literally less of a man, and that the only way to make up for his lack of height is with sexual prowess. Not to mention that shorter people are discriminated against in a myriad of other ways in general. Not to mention that even extraordinarily tall men are also rebuffed, especially when they don't play basketball.

But what I'm most intrigued by is why we're still caught up in this arrangement, when we know it to be based on averages and little else. I wonder if it's merely the bias of sight, i.e., are antiquated notions about what's "appropriate" for men and women like these more difficult to confront and overturn because they are rooted in the visual and the physical? We can intellectualize the politics of change and equality, but sometimes, what simply "looks right" can be harder to move past, and we aren't even always aware of it. (Also, I wonder if, in the gay community, where the concept of appropriate-looking pairings isn't based on notions of opposite-sex height, if it all boils down to preference, practicality, or is just less of an issue altogether.)

Because even when we choose otherwise in the height department, such as with the pairing of a man and woman of the same height, we've still been known (historically) to cover it up or create the illusion of that six-inch difference in the man's favor, lest anyone snicker:

Because everyone knows men are taller on average, straight couples in which the man is shorter raise a problem of gender performance. That is, the man might not be seen as a real man, the woman as a real woman, if they don't (together) display the normal pattern. To prevent this embarrassment, some couples in which the wife is taller might choose to be photographed with the man standing on a step behind the woman, or they might have their wedding celebrated with a commemorative stamp showing her practically on her knees-as the British royals did with Charles and Diana, who were both the same height: five foot ten.

I've only ruminated on the romantic difficulties of living life guilty of the crime of challenging statistical averages, but Cohen, the author of the Atlantic piece, does point out another way our insistent choice on a certain height display isn't exactly harmless:

What difference does it make? When people—and here I'm thinking especially of children—see men and women together, they form impressions about their relative sizes and abilities. Because people's current matching process cuts in half the number of woman-taller pairings, our thinking is skewed that much more toward assuming men are bigger.

There's another real-world reason this unquestioned assumption of the greater physical superiority of men can hurt us, too.

Men are bigger and stronger than women. That generalization, although true, doesn't adequately describe how sex affects our modern lives. In the first place, men's and women's size and strength are distributions. Strong women are stronger than weak men, so sex doesn't tell you all you need to know. Otherwise, as retired colonel Martha McSally put it with regard to the ban on women in combat positions, "Pee Wee Herman is OK to be in combat but Serena and Venus Williams are not going to meet the standard."