We're constantly told that women like men to be tall – or, at least, taller than they are.
This generally isn't a problem, given that the average man is 6-7 inches taller than the average woman. But it does mean that some men might be drawing the short straw: if you're below average height, you might feel you get less attention in the dating market than your taller peers. In fact, the use of height filters on dating apps is the source of much unhappiness from men* – how are you supposed to succeed when you're being screened out from the beginning?
Yet when we look at couples across society, they look almost how you’d expect them to if men and women were paired up randomly:
There are slight differences. In 93.1% of heterosexual couples, the man is taller than the woman. This is a bit higher than the percentage we’d expect if men and women were really paired up randomly (89.5%). We can also see that there are fewer couples with taller women than chance might predict, and fewer couples in which men are much taller (8+ inches) than their female partners. But in general, the distribution is pretty normal.
Nonetheless, we’re told that women overwhelmingly prefer taller men. Are they merely ‘settling’ for similar-heighted partners? And what is it about height that women seem to find so attractive anyway? We've reviewed more than 40 studies to find out, and listed the big six factors that researchers think might play a role.
Strength is attractive for obvious reasons: while these days a male partner’s shows of power might be limited to carrying the shopping or moving furniture, in early humans muscle strength was much more directly associated with ability to provide resources, see off competition, and defend a family or social group from predators. Height is a reliable signifier of strength, and therefore ability to provide resources – or at least make female partners’ lives a bit easier.
Until about 150 years ago, almost nobody – not even the rich – grew taller than 170cm (5’7).
Today in the West, the majority of people have access to at least basic levels of nutrition. This restricts the variance in height that we see: most of us are lucky enough to grow as tall as our genetic make-up allows.
One of the most striking examples of the relationship between nutrition and height can be found in China: women born during the peak of Mao’s Cultural Revolution were almost a full centimetre shorter, at 157cm on average, than their peers either side of the revolution (defying an otherwise upwards-trending pattern in height).
A healthy and well-nourished person is more likely to have healthy and well-nourished children, so to the extent that height is a proxy for superior nutrition, it makes sense that women might seek taller male partners.
According to a Swedish study of 950,000 males, men of 6’4 and above are between 2-3x more likely to have obtained higher education than men under 5’5. What’s perhaps even more striking is that this effect holds even within families: a taller man will be more likely to obtain higher education than his shorter brother, even when controlling for birth year (i.e. the position of each sibling in the family).
The study also controlled for socioeconomic status, shared family factors, and cognitive ability. They still found a significant positive correlation between height and education.
This is one of the few pieces of research that suggests that there might be a casual, rather than merely correlational, relationship between height and the benefit studied.
As we might expect, women prefer their partner to be well-educated, despite the fact that men are less educated than women in general (at least in the modern West). And whilst it’s unlikely that many women think “Ah, a tall man, he probably has at least one degree,” it would make some evolutionary sense for an association between height and resource acquisition ability (here proxied by education and relatedly earning ability) to exist. With that in mind…
On average, people with more education are able to earn more money. We can all think of exceptions (or ‘friends with humanities PhDs’ as they prefer to be called), but having a degree of some kind increases earning potential by roughly £210k ($240k) over the course of a lifetime. As we’ve just seen, taller men are generally more educated, so we’d expect them to be able to earn more money than shorter men.
That’s exactly what we do find, but across populations the effect is bigger than we’d expect from education alone. One study found the effect of an extra inch in height to be worth about $789 per year. Adjusted for inflation since the time of the research, that’s $1245 or £1062 per inch.
Men who earn more are usually able to provide greater financial security and a higher standard of living for their families, which is attractive for obvious reasons.
It makes sense that ‘height privilege’ comes with a corresponding attitude: taller men are more confident. In virtual reality, a participant’s decreasing height is associated with increasing paranoia in social situations – not an attractive trait in a prospective partner, nor one likely to lead to long-term marital happiness.
There is a caveat here. In early humans, confidence was likely to be a fairly honest signal of ability. Life in small groups meant that people who misrepresented their own capacity would be found out fairly quickly, so placing a high value on confidence was a logical thing to do. In human life now, particularly in the context of dating, confidence can be misleading: we have no way of checking if a first date is confident because of real talent and ability, or because they want to come across in a certain way.
Confidence is possible to fake, but the good news is that it’s also possible to train; particularly in dating environments. One study in Singapore found that men who watched a video tutorial on how to handle conversation during speed-dating rated their own confidence significantly higher when tasked with doing real-life speed dating, and went on to perform significantly better than those who hadn’t seen the video. Their speed-dating partners rated more confident men as being more attractive.
…shoes, probably. But it is true that height is correlated with penis size – however, the correlation is not a strong one. This is a contentious enough claim that we’ve listed some of the studies directly: take a look at the research to decide for yourself.
Do bear in mind that whilst women are attracted to larger penises (up to a point), 85% are happy with their partner’s size, and men care about the issue considerably more than women.
Whilst we’re on the topic, a spot of mythbusting: the average penis length globally is 5.34 inches. In the UK it’s 5.17in, and in the US it’s 5.35in. Most men either lie or are mistaken about their penis size, inflating it by an average of 1.26 inches (with sexually experienced men being the most likely to exaggerate). More than 40% of men claim that their penis is over 7 inches long; really, only 2.5% of men exceed 6.9 inches.
We’ve listed a few of the reasons women might have evolved to prefer a tall partner. But if masculinity is strongly associated with physical size, it makes sense that we associate femininity with smallness.
Beauty ideals vary across time and space – compare Ancient Greek ideals of female beauty to the fashion models of the last few decades and you’ll find very different women. But in many cultures, including our own, one thing remains: in order to be attractive, women must take up less space than men. Tall, broad, or outspoken women are all susceptible to accusations of mannishness, or the analogous ‘insult’ of lesbianism. To be a big woman is to be undesirable or offensive to men.
This shows up in behavioural data: whilst men don’t select for height in exactly the way that women do, women of below average height have maximum reproductive success (that is, they’re likely to have more children) – even controlling for social class.
In theory, it’s great to be a tall man, and it seems preferable to be short if you’re a woman. So far, so good. But we started out with a graph that showed most couples’ heights are distributed normally. Women aren’t exclusively attracted to giants, and it’s worth being sceptical of those who tell you otherwise. So what’s the picture really like for daters?
One app found that men who received the most right-swipes averaged just 5’8, an inch below the average male height. The most-right-swiped height for women, meanwhile, was 5’5; two inches above the average. British pollster YouGov has similarly good news for the less vertically inclined: women like men to be about 5’11 – and definitely not above 6’3 – whereas men like women to be between 4’11 and 5’6 (well within the normal range).
Of course, taste is highly variable: for some of the sociological reasons we’ve just discussed, tall women may prefer taller men and short men may prefer shorter women. And there’s something to be said for a partner who’s close to you in height: apart from being able to design your living space to accommodate both of you, women with similar-height partners are less likely to need emergency Caesarean sections when it comes to having children. No height should be cause for despair, romantic or otherwise.
To finish, we’ve picked some of our favourite correlations to do with male height in particular. Thank you to all those on Twitter who shared contributions. We can promise no causal relationships in the following data.
*The claim in this tweet – that based on height, 90% of women pursue just 6% of men on dating apps – is not a valid conclusion from the data shown. To evaluate its truth, we'd need to know what proportion of female Bumble users paid for advanced filters, whether those women were a representative group of users (and ideally whether they were averagely distributed by height), how male heights were distributed across users, what the maximum range of heights shown in the filter was, whether the filter had a default setting, and so on.