Wednesday, March 19, 2008

But do men need to be taller?

Biologists argue that women stop growing at an earlier stage so that they can get on with what they are supposed to do: reproduce. It is argued that girls cannot waste energy on growing when this energy is needed to produce children, and that growing and reproducing at the same time would place too many demands on the body's reserves. Montagu has pointed out that, for the first few years after the start of menstruation, girls are rarely fertile, even though they may appear so, and it is at this time that the remainder of their growth occurs. This suggests that we are responding to a history of shorter life expectancy, and that we should reproduce as often and as early as possible. For men, this pressure does not exist and so they can grow for a longer period of time. In addition, anthropologists argue that men need to be taller in order to compete for female partners.

As a result of these biological differences men do tend to be taller than women. In America the average male is five inches taller than the average female. However, improvements in diet and living conditions in the western world have meant that not only are western women frequently taller than men from other areas of the world, but there is also a greater overlap in male and female heights within the same community. Ten per cent of women are taller than 10 per cent of men and 5 per cent of women are taller than the average male.

Diet Start

So tallness means maleness. Even though women can be tall and men can be short, tall things are masculine and short things are dainty and feminine.

This association comes from a biological difference but is also used and perpetuated by social expectations and media images. The media, with phrases such as 'man-size tissues' and 'man-size portions' and images such as 'large cars are for men', promote this association. It is also obvious in our traditional behaviours such as 'a man holds the umbrella over the woman' and 'a man puts his arm around the woman's shoulders'. Princess Di is only half an inch shorter than Prince Charles if she wears flat shoes, yet in the postage stamp commemorating their wedding she has shrunk to such a degree that she looks up into his eyes. Either she was crouching or he was standing on a box!

And as women we promote this idea. Being five foot ten myself I am well aware of the traumas of having shorter boyfriends. I have spent many an evening slouching, walking in the gutter and working out which way the pavement slopes so that I can make myself that little bit shorter. I also know the embarrassment of having a boyfriend put his arm around me, resulting in his left shoulder being wrenched nearly out of its socket. As women, we expect men to be taller, and men perceive this expectation.

At the extreme end of this preoccupation with height, Erving Goffman in his book Stigma examined the effects of height on

men who are well below average height. He discusses how such men are either excluded from enjoying normal lives or can play the traditional role of short men as 'jesters' or 'favourites of well-to-do ladies'. It has been observed that if short men marry short women the 'mating sequence' is often accelerated, with the dating, engagement and marriage taking less time than usual. Goffman concludes that short people marry short people because they have found an opportunity at last, and because they are expected to do so.

Men worry about their height. It is a weakness in some ways comparable to that of women and their weight, but does it have the same damaging effect on their self-image?

There are certain props available to the man who wants to be taller, such as built-up shoes and tall hats, yet these tend to be regarded as slightly ridiculous. They appear desperate. Unlike weight, which it is possible at least to attempt to change, changing your height is not a physical possibility. Perhaps, because of the absence of feasible alternatives, men simply have to get on with their lives and cope with this disagreeable area of their physical appearance. If the medical profession were to develop a means of adding extra inches or perhaps to suggest that a certain combination of foods would solve the height problem, then maybe men would become more preoccupied with their height, which would develop a more central role in their self- image. The absence of possible change reduces the importance of the problem.

Are there other physical characteristics which are specifically important to men?

A study in 1973 asked a group of men to rank a list of physical characteristics in the order that they felt they were important in determining their physical attractiveness. From a list consisting of characteristics such as chest, body build and face, the men rated hair texture second only, to facial complexion. Facial complexion appears to be of significance to men in their teens and early twenties, with the fear of acne and concern about degree of facial hair. However, hair texture and the fear of baldness appear to play a central role in determining body-image.

... andjoyohoxing