I recently listened to a programme on the BBC World Service which explored the reasons why humans have got taller in recent generations, and why people in some countries are generally taller than in others. The programme grabbed me from its opening sentence, which asserted that the Netherlands was the tallest country for men (for women, Latvia just nudged ahead). As I am half-Dutch, and have always been one of the tallest women amongst my friends and colleagues, this interested me.
There is not, it appears, a consensus as to the cause of this increase in height (nor is it consistent – in some places, such as the United Kingdom, the rate of increase has slowed markedly, and in others, such as Uganda, it has actually reversed). There are two main theories: firstly, it’s genetic. The predisposition to be tall is inherited, either individually or in certain groups of the population. Secondly, it is attributed to the improvements in nutrition and healthcare during the past two centuries or so, together with (arguably) greater equality in society. This, it is argued, explains why the historic differences in heights between the privileged classes and the poor (evidenced by archaeology) have narrowed in recent generations as nutrition and healthcare have improved in the general population. This theory is also espoused by Dutch researchers, who attribute the Netherlands’ position as a country of unusually (by international standards) tall people to a national diet which is big on dairy produce, an excellent welfare state, and a more equal society.
I’m no scientist, so I’m not qualified to evaluate the detail, but on the face of it this second theory is quite plausible. It also avoids the slightly queasy overtones of eugenics which inevitably attach to any theories which posit that one group of people is genetically better than another – and undoubtedly human society regards being tall as a Good Thing. Small may be beautiful, but higher is better – just think for a moment about all the words and phrases which include ‘high’ – can you think of many that are negative? Would you rather be high status or low status? High class, high quality, the moral high ground, high-minded, the high life – altitude equals advantage. Studies show that taller people are more successful, healthier, richer. Taller men are deemed more attractive to women. It has a wide range of psychological advantages – most humans equate height with status and leadership. Who wouldn’t want to be tall?
The programme offers a third theory, however – that increased height is linked to increased optimism. Where a society is hopeful about its future, its children and grandchildren grow taller. Until fairly recently, the USA was the country with the tallest people – might this be a result of the American Dream? The programme cited the case of Germany after the First World War, when the rigid stratifications of society broke down and there was the prospect that people could improve their situation. So many children grew so tall that it was thought to be a medical problem, an abnormality. Proponents of this theory cite sub-Saharan Africa, where height increased significantly in the middle of the 20th century, arguing that this was as a result of a wave of optimism after the end of colonialism; in many countries where there has been ongoing instability that trend has since reversed, with adults now being, on average, shorter than their grandparents. Also, this theory suggests that the famous tallness of the Dutch was due to a surge of optimism in 1848, the ‘Year of Revolution’ in Europe which in the Netherlands saw the creation of a constitutional monarchy.
So – can tallness be caused by optimism, self-confidence, a positive view the future? Could a physical change like this be the result of a psychological outlook – a psychological outlook on the part of a society or community, moreover, rather than the individual who is growing up tall? I find it a fascinating idea. I was born in the late 1960s, which was, I gather (I was a bit young at the time to experience it first hand), a time of optimism, social change and liberation. More specifically, my parents were at that time turning their backs on the constraints of society and looking ahead to a life of fulfilling their dreams of travel and freedom. My father (of Welsh ancestry and a working-class background) was born during the First World War and at 5’6” (168cm) was significantly taller than his parents or siblings. My mother was a shade shorter than him, and the tallest person in her (Dutch) family was my grandfather (born in 1900 into a professional middle-class family), who had peaked at 5’7” (170cm). By the age of 13 I was the same height as my grandfather, and a final growth spurt while at university took me to 5’ 7 ¾“ (172cm).
This makes me quite a bit taller than the average for a woman in the United Kingdom (figures vary, but it’s somewhere around 5’4” or 162cm), and also taller than the average for the Netherlands (5’6” or 168cm). In the UK, it is very unusual for me not to be the tallest woman in the room – so much so that it’s quite disconcerting when I meet a woman who is taller than me. I had always put my height down to Dutch genes and good nutrition – but what if it’s actually a product of being born to idealistic parents at a time of promise and societal optimism about the future? And how does that fit with my mindset, which is definitely not positive or optimistic – wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if my tall body was the product of a psychology that my mind doesn’t share?
If you are interested in the programme which inspired this piece, it’s available to listen at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct064s.
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