In the promotional interviews for the film Spiderman: No Way Home, which premiered in early 2021, the two protagonists and real-life couple Zendaya and Tom Holland got used to a repeated question: did they have issues with their height difference? How, for example, did they kiss? The height disparity isn’t enormous. The actors differ in height only by six centimeters. But Zendaya is taller than Tom, in a culture where that is not normal.
Both gamely followed the interviewers’ probing. Holland stoically withstood the jokes about being a short man (he measures 1.73′ tall). He occasionally brings up the topic himself, once drawing the attention of social media users by liking a post that alleged that short men have more sex. Every once in a while, the couple assures their fans that the difference doesn’t cause them any issues in their relationship, in case anyone was concerned. And for Zendaya, it’s nothing new: her mother is taller than her father.
In reality, though, heterosexual couples in which the man is the shorter partner are unusual. Science calls the phenomenon the male-taller norm. Its explanation is partly statistical: on average, men are taller than women. But studies have demonstrated that the difference in average heights is not the only reason that a couple with a taller woman stands out. The Economics department at the University of Korea conducted a 2015 study, published in the Journal of Comparative Human Biology, in which 10,000 unrelated people were randomly combined into couples. The percentage of men who were taller than their partners was lower than the same statistic examining a population of couples. That is: the height difference in couples of men and women tends to be larger when conscious choice is involved. If the mix were simply random—at least in Korea—couples in which the woman is taller would be much more common.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Family Issues dissected the social and cultural importance of male height. 57.1% of women indicated that a man’s height was important to them. On the other hand, only 40% of men said that a woman’s height mattered to them. The taller the man surveyed was, the more likely he was to say that height didn’t matter. Among women, the opposite occurred: the taller women cared more. The famous male-taller norm was in action.
The study also asked the people surveyed for the reasons behind their preferences. The reasons vary greatly between men and women: women speak of preferring tall men for protection and security, to feel more feminine or, according to 10% of respondents, to be able to wear heels. 30-year-old Carla explained that “as handsome as he is, if he’s short, it doesn’t work. Hugging a short man reminds me of hugging a child. If he hugs me from above, it gives me a sense of protection,” she says. In that study, the men mentioned the physical discomfort of being with extremely short women, as well as wanting to avoid the stigma associated with dating a taller woman.
Outside of dating, studies associate height with other characteristics that are seen as attractive. University graduates are, on average, three centimeters taller than those who only have completed primary-level education, according to a recent study by the University of Jaén. Tall people earn more money, according to a 2015 University of Chicago study. Both outcomes are due to the fact that, statistically, they are more likely to come from wealthier families and more stable environments in which access to food and nutrition has been better for generations.
The attraction of height (in men)
Knowing that women prefer their potential partner to be tall, it is not surprising that height data is key for men on dating applications. Men tend to share their height on apps much more frequently than women. The issue has become a cliché: three years ago, as an April’s Fools joke, Tinder announced that it was going to implement a height verification system—because, of course, not all users who say they are taller than 1.80 are then that tall. “Once a guy didn’t put his height on Tinder. He seemed nice. Before meeting I told him that I was 1.90 meters tall to see what he would say and he replied, ‘I like tall girls,’” explains Laura. “When we met in a bar, he came to just above my elbow. I don’t know what face I made, because the waiter gave us some shots without saying a word. I drank mine and left. Then he called me shallow on Tinder. It bothered me that he said he only liked tall girls.”
The psychologist and sexologist Nayara Malnero, a specialist in couples therapy and male sexual dysfunction, says that she has attended men who have had self-esteem problems due to short stature in her practice. She has also had patients who did not provide their height data in the app but tended to bring up the topic in conversation. “That revelation, that they are short, very often makes the woman they are talking to not want to continue.” Three years ago, Catalina told her therapist that she felt guilty about her obsession with tall men because she was “aware of the patriarchal bias in the matter, the idea of him being protective of her,” as if she could “save her from something,” she explains. Her therapist’s answer calmed her down: “She told me that we have sexual preferences just as we have preferences of cumbia over techno, or one food over another. They are acquired cultural tastes, but I shouldn’t beat myself up for it.”
This may mean, then, that only those whose data place them above the average specify their height. That is the case of Santiago, a 28-year-old Tinder user, who puts his height “because it is an attractive element.” In fact, it is the only information that he provides in the “About Me” section. “Many women do not want to know about height or body, but I am looking for a more sensual and daring woman who likes a tall man. I try to provoke the effect of carnal desire,” he says. He posts his height for the same reason that his profile picture shows him fresh out of the shower with ripped abs: because he thinks they will attract the type of woman he’s looking for.
But not all tall men who put their height on their Tinder profile do so solely for sex. Xevi, 37, says that when he was an active user of the app, about seven years ago, he specified how tall he is for another reason. “I’m two meters tall, and so the chances of tall girls giving a like increased. I also didn’t have any full body photos,” he recalls. In this case, he did care about the height of his potential partners, he admits, “basically for a practical matter: so as not to have back pain or become hunchbacked,” one of the reasons that appeared in the study mentioned above. The trick worked, and most of the girls he dated were taller than average, although he also ended up with some short ones. He clarifies that he has nothing against them. “A short girl even asked me on the first date why I had my height on Tinder and if it was a problem that she was short,” he recounts. He told her that it’s easier for him to be with tall girls, but that “he didn’t really have a problem with short girls if there was good chemistry” and they understood each other.
Likewise, just because a guy doesn’t post his height on his Tinder profile doesn’t necessarily mean he’s below average. “Focusing a lot on physical information can convey the idea that that is what matters most to you and, despite the application’s reputation for superficiality, many users are not here for that,” explains Daniel, 36 years old, who measures 1.86 and says that he does not include his height precisely for that reason. “If you put in your height, you’re already giving the impression that you’re selling your overall physique,” he says. Unlike Santiago, that was not what he wanted to convey. When another user asked him, he shared it, but it is not important to him. He did, however, get the question often. Paula, who is 1.80 meters tall, says that she managed to “find out quickly even if they didn’t have that information in her profiles. I didn’t have it either,” although she clarifies that she doesn’t care if a man is shorter than her: “I usually like them tall, but there are always exceptions,” she says.
Despite all this, heterosexual couples like Zendaya and Tom Holland show that all emphasis on men’s height is a cultural construct. And Tinder’s showcase of first impressions is subject to the beauty standards of our image-obsessed culture: just as it glorifies unattainable physiques for women, it also does for men.