Shortcomings.

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I like quantifiable data. In fairness, there's no scientific accounting for personal tastes - experiences, genetics and external societal/familial pressures all play a role in who and what an individual will attractive. So, other than being healthy - which is universally attractive - saying anything definitive about who and what you will find appealing is difficult. However, there are some things we can gleam from large data samples. One conclusion in particular jumps out of the data that I find interesting: people love a bit of averageness.

Average faces.png

I first got thinking about this when I saw this image of the average female faces in different countries (made from some fancy software that compiles thousands of faces and extrapolates an average), and I noticed that all these non-existent average women are all so darn attractive! At first I was surprised - I'd imagined that the average face would be being somewhat "plain", but then I thought about it more, and it made sense. We've all likely all heard a guy on the bus mutter something along the lines of His nose is too small, or Her head is too big, and yet not once have I heard a That guy's chin isn't too big or too small, it's just right, and I find that physically repulsive! While you may be that one exceptional person that has a thing for Quagmire's chin, on average, people like average-ness. This might seem surprising then when you consider that relatively few people are deemed attractive enough to be models, and average-ness almost by definition should be very common! The reason behind this is that to achieve the ludicrously high standards in modelling, you have to tick a lot of boxes! You have to have goldilocks sized cheekbones, goldilocks spaced eyes, a goldilocks sized head, and so on. In short, all those boxes add up to make "beauty" something of a rarity! While it's not unusual for an individual to have an average jaw-line or average ear size, having to tick every single average box is what makes this goal uncommon. Beautiful faces are just the best at being perfectly average. People just love average-ness! 

With height, though, it doesn't work that way at all. People like above average-ness. People like tallness.

This has been suggested as a hangover from our evolutionary history. The idea goes that, aeons ago, before Google Maps and Uber, if your little family/tribe was going to do well in life (particularly if your neighbours were the type depicted in Mel Gibson's ode to insanity, Apocalypto), then you'd be better off if you keep tall, strong people around to help keep you and yours head and shoulders above the rest, and so nature selected for people who find height appealing. Despite there being next to no benefit to being tall in the modern world, this suggests we have a deep down, evolutionary and instinctive preference for the tall ... Don't believe me that we could possibly still be so primitive? Well, let try to convince you with some cold, hard data ...

In the 80's, thousands of Polish men were given compulsory medical examinations, and detailed records were kept. When Professor Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist from the University of Liverpool, waded through the data, he found that childless men were on average 3 cm shorter than those who had at least one child. Many people will indeed agree that height is a crucial factor in dating, and the data agrees. Studies of "man needed" personal ads show a strong preference for tall men, with a significant percentage indicating that dating a man of smaller stature would be unthinkable. Indeed, research by Professor of Psychology Dan Ariely showed that American women absolutely prefer tall men, and demand that shorter men earn more money to make up for their vertical shortcomings. This then seems to have the knock-on effect that smaller men are generally more jealous, which would make them even less attractive. Oh dear.

This trend goes well beyond sex and romance. A paper authored by Judge and Cable (with names like that why haven't they got their own detective show?!) and published in The Journal of Applied Psychology also concluded that an increased height leads to an increased income (after controlling for other variables, like health, age and weight). For every inch of height gained there seems to be a 1.8% increase in income (links, links, links), despite no obvious increase in performance! 1.8% ain't bad! I might start wearing platforms.

Say "dwarf" again. I dare ya. I double dare ya.

Say "dwarf" again. I dare ya. I double dare ya.

The evolutionary explanation may be bunk, however, as recent studies have shown that this trend doesn't seem to span across all cultures. If it isn't evolutionary, it could just be one of these self-perpetuating effects that having a higher social status will inevitably have. Being tall in a tall-applauding society will make one happier, more ambitious, luckier (there's solid science behind what makes some groups of people lucky, and it has nothing to do with touching wood!), and possibly even more intelligent  - though the correlation between height and intelligence seems to be tenuous, but if you really think tall people may be smarter, I present to you Exhibit A: Tyrion Lannister.

I find it interesting that 90% of CEOs are above average height. Even more interesting that only 5 out of 43 American presidents have been below average height.

Poor Lord Farquad never stood a chance.

Poor Lord Farquad never stood a chance.

On the telly, short people (particularly men) are far more often than not written as the butt of jokes, with laughable lives and poor performance in both careers and romance. I find this all the more frustrating because I know I wouldn't put up with it if there were similar trends based on race. While Darth Vader (original!) was portrayed by the 6'5" David Prowse, the laughable spoof version in Spaceballs was a mere 5'0". This may simply have been to make the character less intimidating, but I think there's more to it. Daniel Craig was criticised for being picked for Bond based on the fact that he's 5'10". And Grandpa Simpson gives Homer the compliment that he "was always proud that you weren't a short man". Then there's Tom Cruise, well renowned for being a "short" actor at 5'8" - just an inch below average height for a white male. Tom Cruise does have a few religious shortcomings (pun intended), but does his height really deserve so much attention? People tend to be astonished when they learn that a person in the public eye is short, but wouldn't bat an eye to hear their favourite actor is 6'2".

And then there's the "Angry short man syndrome" (or Napolean complex) myth. So often I've heard the fable of the little guy being angrier and more prone to fighting than his taller neighbours as a means of compensating for their size. This is just not true. What is true, however, is that when a small man gets into a fight, people find it so surprising that they naturally diagnose him with some kind of psychological condition. Woah woah woah there little guy, I know you're angry right now with that fella over there who called your wife a (EXPLETIVE DELETED), but maybe you should go sit down, and take your small-guy meds.

I'll finish off with a nifty little graph of the height distribution of young(ish) white males, to share my personal grievance. I've plotted my height on the left, an unnamed friend's on the right. We deviate from "the norm" by different amounts ... but guess which of us has to roll their eyes after hearing yet another variation on a height related joke? I wouldn't mind so much if there were some other themes to the rib-tickling, I mean, I have many flaws, pick another one! Always, it's the lowest common denominator.

... Yes yes, I'm the lowest common denominator. Har har.


Note: I transitioned from beauty perception to height discrimination without mentioning another obvious aspect in appearance and discrimination: weight. In the past, being overweight was often seen as attractive as it suggested wealth. Today ... it's far more complicated. Western society's obsession with skinnyness, and the subsequent spread of eating disorders, is such a mess. It's hard to untangle these effects without going deep into cultural bias, health, poverty, public shaming and media pressure, so I hope you don't mind, dear reader, that I stayed well clear ... for now.