The scene: a suburban hairdressing salon on a Saturday morning. A bride-to-be is in for experimentation with various hairstyles for the “big day”.
“Would you prefer an ‘updo’?” the hairdresser asks.
Are you kidding?” the bride says. “I’m almost six foot tall [183 centimetres]. Don’t need any more height. It’d be embarrassing for my fiancé!”
“Have you got some nice flats to wear?” another client asks.
“Wouldn’t want to be towering over the poor guy in your high heels.”
“Yep, I’ve got ballet shoes. Otherwise I’d feel like that terrifying chick Brienne out of Game of Thones.”
Perhaps I’ve been transported to medieval times. I check. Nope, it’s 2017. Why is it still taboo for tall women to date short men? Or for women to appear the same height as their beaux?
Poor Princess Di must have been kneeling in those commemorative photos with Prince Charles. As a newsreader, I copied her head-tilt and small smile for a series of shots with (petite) male co-anchors in the ’80s and ’90s. I looked like some sort of simpering wife.
I know, women are – on average – shorter than men. But study after study shows men and women exaggerate this disparity by seeking out taller-shorter pairings for relationships.
Analysis of Yahoo personal ads by US academics George Yancey and Michael Emerson found that while 13.5 per cent of men only wanted to date women shorter than them, some 49 per cent of women only wanted to date men who were taller.
In her 2008 book Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang notes that height in China was a proxy for class – signifying fortune and a good diet in a country which had experienced famine in living memory.
An Indian friend of mine says he’s attracted to taller women, but fears an assumption by others that she’s the one “wearing the trousers”.
A trawl of wedding websites reveals how far photographers stoop to hide a woman’s height. Th ese include the groom standing at the top of a hill and the bride stepping into a hole. One site suggests, “Ask him if it will make him uncomfortable to look up to you.”
Seriously, sister, if his answer to this is “yes” then run away screaming!
Drilling down, the reasons for this preference are complex. Researchers point to evolutionary psychology, gender stereotyping and social exchange theory.
The first suggests that taller men are seen as stronger, more able to intimidate rivals and to secure resources. But surely we’re beyond the stage of clobbering a challenger over the head with a club. And modern resources are best secured via technology, not brute strength.
The second is societal expectations, in which the “less powerful” man is ridiculed; people still make jokes about short men. I reckon this is at the root of the issue. And so is the third, which centres on status and power. “In a patriarchal society where they operate at a disadvantage, females may have more invested in locating a higher-status partner than men,” Yancey and Emerson write. “Height may play a significant role in establishing the perception of higher status among males and thus is more important to women than to men.”
This is reinforced by women feeling more “feminine” with a taller man. “Many women hold this stereotype to a point where it excludes a lot of people they might be interested in otherwise,” sociologist Dr Pepper Schwartz has said.
We need to break down this everyday sexism by analysing our unconscious bias. Otherwise, our children will continue to absorb images, both in the mass media and at family weddings, of a “dominant” man hovering over a “submissive” woman.
Put simply, our mundane preferences for height in romantic relationships are contrary to our arguments for equality.
Walking out of the salon that day, I placed my hand on the shoulder of the bride-to-be. “You stand proud on your wedding day,” I said. “Don’t be shamed into slumping.”
She looked confused. “I don’t want to upset him,” she said. “But I guess, stuff it! He’s gonna have to live with all six foot of me for the rest of our lives. Thanks.” Sometimes, a few small words can make a big difference.