Thursday, December 30, 2010

A real head-turner UPDATED

Megan McArdle's remark, "Maybe I'm just oversensitive because due to my height, I am frequently actually mistaken for a guy by people who aren't paying much attention," got me thinking. Straight women, it is said, prefer tall men. This preference is the only arena in which it is socially acceptable for women to acknowledge judging men on the basis of looks. But I doubt, instinctively, that this is really what women care about, looks-wise, above all else. I'd think that face, body, hair, (body hair?), in short, so to speak, other factors enter into it. I don't think that height is for women what body-type is for men, if only because only one of these qualities is salient in the classic situation to which physical attraction eventually leads.

However, in many situations, women's heads turn for tall men only. Why? Because in a crowd, from a distance, in an age of gender-neutral dress, in a season of overcoats, it's simply more likely that the person seen from the corner of one's eye is of one's preferred gender if that person is in the 6'-and-up range than if we're talking 5'6". A woman who would be just as delighted to date 5'4" as 6'6", who could just as easily pick a shorter man on the basis of his looks, will nevertheless take a second look at the second man only, because statistically speaking, the chances of the stranger's head turning and a woman appearing are too great to make a head-turn worthwhile.

I'm not so sure it goes both ways. Men's heads turn for miniskirts, for visibly feminine attire, but also, I think, for height. A "striking" woman is not shorter-than-average. Just picture any commercial where a woman struts into a party and all the men's heads turn. She has long hair, high heels, and the men are not all looking down. Well, somewhat below eye-level, but not tilting their heads down to look at the top of the woman's head. A drag queen would, I suspect, get more interested looks from straight men than would an average-looking woman of 5' in a sweatshirt and jeans.

So while it wouldn't shock me if tall women have to contend with women checking them out for a millisecond before sighing in disappointment, I'm not convinced that men look away, or that tall women are ignored for being perceived of as insufficiently feminine any more often than short women are on account of not being in the line of vision of most men. At any rate, by the time interaction has reached the point of conversation, it's generally clear enough which six-footers are women, which 5'3"ers are men, and possible romantic partners know what they're getting into.

Finally, as for women being mistaken for men, height plays into it less than one might imagine. I'm 5'2", not square-jawed, naturally beard-and-mustache-free, thank you very much, and I've never worn my hair shorter than a bob. And I get "sir" every so often. Either it's my refusal to wear uncomfortable woman-shoes, or the gender-neutral grammatical use of "he" has a way of carrying over to interpersonal interactions. But yes, this probably is more of an issue for taller women, women with short hair, etc.


The commenters there are hilarious. I'll be sure to let my boyfriend, a grad student, know that what I care most about in a partner is "celebrity." (OK, James Franco is also a grad student, maybe not the best example.)


Jeff said...

I don't think this seen-in-a-crowd thing about tall men explains much. If this was the case, the fanatical height filtering of many women would be less pronounced in personal ads. But it only takes a few clicks in to assemble a small army of women 5'4" and shorter who insist on 6' men.

I've still yet to see a good comprehensive explanation of this height preference.

One thing I have noticed - women list 6' as their Mandatory Minimum Height much more than they list 5'11" or 6'1". Something about the nice round number? What happens under the metric system?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

To answer this would require a more thorough investigation into how what people put on dating websites relates to what they'd find most attractive in a more natural setting. But I'll give it a shot.

The only social pressure exerted on women in terms of caring about men's looks is that the man be tall. This, in turn, is why height is the only aspect of a man's appearance a woman can care about without seeming like Madonna on a quest for the next boy-toy. But even women who don't care about height in terms of what does it for them physically might well care about the social approval a tall mate confers. I suspect, for various reasons that could make this comment too long, that the criteria entered on a relationship-oriented dating website would be ones tilted more towards attractiveness-for-others.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, how much a man cares about face versus body depends on how long he thinks the relationship is going to last. Long term, men care more about her face, short term, they care more about her body. Study to not be able to cite the study that backs this up.

M.S. said...

"Because in a crowd, from a distance, in an age of gender-neutral dress, in a season of overcoats, it's simply more likely that the person seen from the corner of one's eye is of one's preferred gender if that person is in the 6'-and-up range than if we're talking 5'6""

I don't know about that, personally I've learned to avoid shorter dudes because of their complexes. I've dated a number of guys that are the same height or a few inches shorter than me. Without fail they've all claimed that I'm only taller than them because of heels (which, yes, but also in flats). Or just add a few inches to their reported height. Just saying, there are some of us who aren't discriminating on height or even drawn to height so much as "oh great, another likelihood that someone cannot stand my Amazonian status". After all, if I can crane over a crowd, the short ones stick out as much as the tall ones. Obviously can't speak for the short to average.

And yes, while it's also acceptable, to ladies, man does "I'm really 6 foot!" when it's just a touch obvious they're not, get old.

As for online dating, wasn't there one of those incredibly statistically relevant OkCupid polls finding an average of 2" that guys added to their online height?

PG said...

I'm 5'2 3/4" and discriminate height-wise only against guys who are shorter than I am for the reason M.S. states, i.e. they tend to be excessively self-conscious about their lack of height. But supposedly once they're past junior high, many guys of average height find taller women almost hypnotically attractive (something like that scene with Mag in the novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's").

The average-height guys I know don't seem to be particularly anxious about their height. They'd sorta like to be taller, but it doesn't come up any more often than *my* desire to be taller.

One thing I have experienced, however, is tall women not-totally-joking that they are irked by my having married a 6'+ guy because there aren't enough of them available. There's also a little of this with single women older than I making comments about my being with someone several years older and thus removing him from their field of eligibles. I don't have this feeling myself with respect to any kind of man, but then again it's a lot more socially unacceptable for me to "joke" to a non-Indian girl with a desirable Indian guy that she has somehow stolen him from his rightful partners, than it is for such comments to be made on the bases of height, age, etc.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Re: men exaggerating their heights, being neurotic about being short, it makes sense they'd do so because height is something women are expected to value. Even women who don't value it are presumed to be preoccupied with it, making it so that women who couldn't care less end up with taller guys just to avoid the drama. (Seems like "height" could be a stand-in for something else!)


I've also gotten the remarks that every short woman gets for being with a much taller man. But maybe twice? I've had more experience of being told that I ought to have been somehow reserved for a theoretical Jewish man, and that it's unfair to Theoretical Jewish Man that I'm not available to him. Not that I'm some great catch, but that there are so few Jews, Need Jewish Babies, and all that.

tofast4yall2011 said...

Are you sure that what you care most about in a partner is not a bravolebrity?