A few years ago when I was still single I had my good friend Michael Emerson spend the night with me. We went out to dinner and I regaled him with stories of my exciting adventures as a single man (that did not take very long). I also talked to him about surprising lessons I had learned. One of the biggest surprises was the advantage tall men gained due to their height. That was good for me since I am 6’-3” but it still surprised me since I did not see what the big deal was about being with a tall guy. Yet I had more than a few women, some of them quite tall, indicate that they would not date a man shorter than them and a smaller, but nontrivial, number of women indicating that the man they dated had to be several inches taller than she. Why height was so important to women just bedazzled me.
As I talked to Mike about this, it became clear that he did not have any answers to that question either. Then we both realized that we were social scientists and could actually design a research study that could satisfy our curiosity. Only nerds would think of such a study as fun but we are nerds. Since we both have tenure, we did not mind wasting some of our research time on a “fun” study. Well it was not a complete waste of time since the research comes out this month in the Journal of Family Issues. With research like this, maybe after I am done with sociology of religion, I will just become a relationship counselor.
We used some of my old data from online personal advertisements, which I collected when investigating issues of interracial dating, and collected data from open-ended questions sent to students at a public university. The advertisements provided a quantitative context for the qualitative findings from the open-ended questions. Whenever possible I prefer using mixed methods to gain a holistic perspective on the particular research question to be studied.
Some of our findings fit with previous research on height and heterosexual attraction. First, height is more important to women than it is to men. In the dating world one is better off being a tall woman than a short man. Second, the taller a woman is, the more open she is to dating someone shorter or only as tall as she and the shorter a man is the more open he is to dating someone taller or as short as he. This makes sense given that a tall woman and a short man eliminates more potential dating partners if they see someone who is respectively several inches taller/shorter than her/him. Finally, the height preference reflected height disparities between men and women. The average height desired by the women was not very different from the average height of men. The same is true for the average height desired by men.
Much of those results can be found in previous work, but what I liked about what we did was that we asked the respondents in the short answer questions why they had their height preferences. Here is where the results got interesting. For example, although we know that men prefer shorter women and women prefer taller men, it is interesting to consider if a woman can be too short or a man too tall. The answer is yes, although rejection of tall men and short women did not happen nearly as often as rejection of short men and tall women. When men indicated a floor to their height preference or women indicated a ceiling, it was generally because they envisioned physical, and possible sexual, difficulties with that partner. For them it was simply a practical concern.
Why is it that women preferred taller men? What we found was that this preference was shaped by the height of the women. Women of different heights preferred taller men, but they did so for different reasons. For taller women they talked about wanting to have a man tall enough so that they could wear heels. They also sometimes talked about wanting to feel smaller than the man. This made them feel more feminine. For shorter women they talked more about feeling secure and protected if they were with a tall man.
My interpretation is that both tall and short women were findings ways to express traditional gender values given their height. For the tall woman she may feel less vulnerable to being physically attacked. In fact her height may give her physical confidence but rob her of confidence to be feminine. Wearing high heels can help her feel more feminine. Yet wearing these heels may only accomplish this if she is with a man who is tall enough to allow her to still be shorter than him. Thus, having a tall man helps her to fit into the traditional feminine role she has learned in our society. On the other hand, a short woman may fit into the role of a woman needing a man to protect her quite easily. Her lack of height can help her feel more physically vulnerable and thus she can look to a man for protection.
Even though I am tall, I do not think I am better able to protect a woman than a short man. A gun is a great equalizer in physical confrontation. Yet whether a tall man can actually protect a woman better, and thus fit into that traditional gender role, is not really that important. Short women believe that a tall man offers better protection and that is enough to make a taller man more attractive. The advantage of a tall man to a tall woman is clearer in a society where a man is supposed to be taller than a woman, even one in high heels. Social critics have pointed out that wearing high heels makes women more physically vulnerable and plays into a traditional patriarchal mindset of women being helpless. The need to have a vision of the man being taller than the women says something about societal patriarchy in that men must be seen as being stronger than women. We even had some women state that they prefer taller men simply because they envision the man as the leader of the relationship. Others talked about wanting to look up into a man’s eyes. Thus, in many ways, traditional gender roles play themselves out in these height preferences.
Of course, Mike and I have barely touched the surface of physical preferences in the context of our current society. This is not a major research topic for either one of us. Speaking for myself, I have other projects I see as more important than issues of physical attraction. But even the research question of physical attraction can offer us insight into gender dynamics in the United States and hopefully someone will be able to build on the work Mike and I did for “fun.”