When Size Matters

Why are most men taller than women? This age-old height difference persists to this day, according to research to be published in Proceedings B, a Royal Society journal, because taller than average men and shorter than average women were found to be more successful in attracting a mate and having children.

Dr Daniel Nettle of the Open University used data from 10,000 men and women born in Britain in one week in March 1958 and his study concluded that the taller the men were, the less likely they were to be unmarried or childless 42 years later in 2000.

Dr Nettle’s study showed that there was a positive relationship between male stature and reproductive success: the average man of 1.77m (5’8”) is less likely to have children than a taller man of 1.83m (6’1”). This appeared to be due to taller men’s greater ability to attract a mate.

For the women, by contrast, those most likely to be married and have children by the same age were between 1.51m (4’9”) and 1.58 m (5’1”), well below the average height of 1.62 m (5’3”).

“It seems that tall men and petite women are favoured in evolutionary terms, even in a modern population, so the height difference between men and women is unlikely to disappear,” Dr Nettle explained.

The results corroborate earlier research findings that taller men are found to be more attractive than those of average height. However, men don’t appear to put the same premium on height when choosing a partner. Because men seek out ‘fertility cues’ in their mates, tallness doesn’t seem to matter, Dr Nettle pointed out. This is where shorter women gain an edge over their taller peers.

Dr Nettle explained that shorter women appear to have greater reproductive
success partly because there is delayed fertility amongst tall women. Short women generally reach puberty earlier whilst the bodies of tall women spend more energy on growing rather than entering puberty.

Additionally, due to the tendency for women to choose men taller than themselves, tall women have a smaller pool of available potential partners to select from.

Dr Nettle believes that the results of his research have debunked some long-standing notions about what attracts men to women and vice versa: “We have come to think that men pay attention to physical characteristics of their mates, whilst women pay more attention to status and resources. In the case of height, this is clearly not true; in choosing a husband, size matters.”

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Rebecca Humphreys alfa

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