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'Heightism' colours view of women's talents

Published Feb 6, 2005


Generations of women have complained about high-heeled shoes and the crushed toes and bunions they suffer for the sake of an extra few centimetres. Ground-breaking research has now proved their sacrifice is not in vain.

Both men and women judge a tall female on first sight as more intelligent, assertive, independent and ambitious. For good measure, they are also judged richer and more successful, whatever the reality.

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Psychologists at the universities of Liverpool and Central Lancashire in England have run the first scientific experiments to prove that "heightism" - which has always been associated with competition between men - colours our view of women's talents, too.

They found that when volunteers were shown digitally lengthened and shortened pictures of women, they made a series of instant judgments about their likely personalities, not all of them flattering. According to Dr Simon Chu, who led the research, it is "the first direct evidence that female height influences perception of their character".

Tall women do not have things all their own way. The researchers also found that the male volunteers judged small women to be more nurturing and likely to be better mothers.

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Shorter women also get support from a separate new analysis from University College, London, which shows that women with an hour-glass figure - associated more commonly with small and medium-sized, rather than tall, females - are seen not only as more attractive, but more intelligent, flirtatious, healthy and fertile.

They found that women whose waist was 70 percent of the size of their hips were thought the most attractive, as well as the most intelligent.

In the Liverpool and Lancashire study, psychologists manipulated pictures of women standing against cars so that the same casually dressed woman appeared in different images to be tall or short. The height of the shorter women was just under 1,54m and the taller females 1,72m.

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A hundred men and women, aged 18 to 62, were then asked to rate the women for eight characteristics. Men believed that shorter women were more considerate, nurturing and homely. However, women on the panel believed that there was no difference between tall and short women for these three traits.

Why men see short females as more caring and more homely is not clear. One theory is that taller women mature later sexually, because more energy is being expended on growing at a time when the reproductive system is developing. Other research has shown that shorter women have more reproductive success - which may be why men see them as more nurturing.

"The accumulating evidence converges on the view that short stature is linked with reproduction, while tall stature is linked with strength," the report says.

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Expending more energy on growing means that taller women are bigger and stronger, both of which are associated with independence and self-reliance.

Certainly, they are well represented on the public stage. Nicole Kidman, at 1,8m, has hardly been held back, although she was unable to wear heels while married to the significantly shorter Tom Cruise. Nor has Uma Thurman, at 1,82m.

Jodie Kidd, also 1,82m, says her height has rarely been a handicap. "I've always been very content with the way I look. The only time being tall has been a problem was when I was showjumping - my feet used to hang down and knock down the fences."

The aptly named Liz Large, who runs a clothing company for tall women, said: "I'm 1,85m and it does mean you are noticed automatically. At work I was promoted very young - people just assumed I was grown up and a safe pair of hands."

Dr David Weeks, a consultant clinical neuropsychologist at the Superyoung Clinic in Edinburgh, said: "In the past in Britain, being tall has been associated with leadership and social class.

"If you go back to the early 1940s, when they were sorting out who was suitable to be an officer, there were three factors - height, dash and moustache. The more you had, the better. Being tall can make a good first impression, but it can also be far more enduring and long-lasting in people's perceptions."

Not that being short is always a handicap. Dr Ros Taylor, a clinical psychologist who has researched image, believes that any advantage a tall person has lasts for a maximum of 30 seconds, after which the positive impression has to be backed up by substance.

"It's not as if, when you are tall, that in itself gives you power," Taylor says. "It is an initial advantage, and it certainly is an advantage, but if you don't have it, there are other compensations."

This is an argument that singers Kylie Minogue, at 1,54m, and Charlotte Church, 1,57m, would support wholeheartedly. - Foreign Service

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