Your height is a simple biological fact that you can do little to change, yet it may be influencing your destiny in ways you didn’t realise. BBC Future combed through the evidence to size up its impact on everything from your sexual allure to your bank account and your lifespan.
Money and power
At 6ft 4in (193cm), Abraham Lincoln would tower above Barack Obama – but even he is around 3in (8cm) taller than the average American. Confirming the correlation, a recent study found that taller candidates do indeed tend to receive more votes.
Beyond the race to the White House, taller men and women are considered to be more dominant, healthy, and intelligent, and are more likely to be chosen for more competitive jobs; they also earn more money. It could be that we naturally associate height with “greatness” and “dominance” – two traits that are important for leadership. But height also reflects nutrition as a child – so perhaps it simply acts as a more general indicator of your upbringing, which may in turn influence your education and success later in life.
Not all high achievers are giants among men, of course (Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King exuded charisma despite being on the short side). But on the basis of first impressions alone, taller people may have the edge.
Verdict: It’s easier for taller people to have the upper hand.
Towering, statuesque men do tend to have more allure. Study after study has found that taller men and women are generally considered more attractive. Intriguingly, you can even guess someone’s height from their face, meaning a mugshot on a dating website is not going to hide a more diminutive frame. But although they may be prized as supermodels, tall women do not seem to enjoy the same advantages in the dating game, however – an average height generally seems to be preferred.
Even for men, a lanky body could be mixed blessing, if it means people also pay greater attention to your other endowments. One study recently examined women’s judgements of penis size. Curiously, the taller the man, the more important his penis size seemed to be in determining his overall attractiveness. Perhaps men of greater stature raised the women’s expectations, and so they were judged particularly harshly if they failed to make the grade. It’s not always true what people say about “men with big feet”, after all.
Verdict: Taller people might seem to win the dating game, but that doesn’t always translate into success.
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Sport and athletics
You only need to look at a basketball court or the race track to realise that longer legs are an advantage across many events. Longer limbs can cover the ground faster, and they can reach further. What’s more, in team sport like American Football, taller players are able look over the heads of their competitors, making it easier to pass the ball.
Yet sometimes a smaller body can be a bonus. It takes less time for a nerve impulse to travel the lengths of their limbs to their brains, meaning that their reaction times should be quicker, and they may be more nimble – which might help certain martial artists like Jackie Chan. It is also more cumbersome to bend and twist a taller body, whereas smaller people can achieve greater “rotational acceleration”, meaning that they excel in gymnastics, snowboarding, skating, skiing and diving.
Verdict: A clear score draw. It really depends on the sport.
Think of your body a bit like a car: in purely mechanical terms, the larger it is, the harder it is to slow down if you need to avoid a collision. What’s more, the greater momentum means you face a more painful impact during collision. And of course, shorter people have less distance to fall. According to one estimate, someone who is 20% taller will build up twice as much kinetic energy during a fall. (You need only watch the comedian Miranda Hart to see this principle in action.)
Perhaps this can explain why taller people are much more likely to suffer from injuries across their lifetime; women taller than 5ft 8in are twice as likely to fracture their hip as women who are just 5ft 2in.
Verdict: Smaller people are less accident-prone than taller people.
Lifespan and health
Villagrande Strisaili in Sardinia is known to have the highest proportion of centenarians in the whole of Europe. While many factors may contribute (including the Mediterranean diet and a lively social life) – one possible reason may be that the people are a little on the short side, with an average male height of around 160cm (or 5ft 3in) for the oldest generation.
That’s surprising. Since healthier children tend to grow taller, you might expect height to be a good indicator of overall fitness. When other factors such as diet and healthcare have been taken into account, however, taller people seem to suffer as they get older. For instance, the bigger you are, the more cells you have in your body, increasing the risk of mutations developing that could cause cancer. A larger body may also have to burn more energy, increasing the build-up of toxic by-products that could contribute to general wear and tear.
The results could knock years off your life; among those long-lived citizens of Sardinia, the tallest people lived for about two years less than their shorter neighbours. Another study, of 1.3 million Spaniards, found that every additional centimetre in height shaved 0.7 years from the total expected lifespan.
Verdict: A shorter body means a longer lifespan.
Despite these slight risks to your health, there is a silver lining to being tall: various studies have found that the greater your height, the higher you score on measures of happiness and enjoyment of life. This probably returns to the fact that your height can influence your career prospects and helps you to earn more money, meaning that taller people may have a slightly easier ride through life.
Verdict: The taller you are, the happier you are.
All of these factors are mere correlations, of course. There are plenty of exceptions that break all the rules. We have all been subjected to biology’s lottery – but it seems the prizes have been spread evenly, whatever your body size. Perhaps all these statistics really just prove the old adage right: it’s not the size of your body that determines your fate, but the way that you use it. And that’s the long and the short of the matter.
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
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