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The Tall Man’s Burden

A man on stilts walking on Nassau Street in Manhattan. Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images

It was late-ish at the bar when we got to talking about height. As a guy of average height (five-foot-nine) who’s always wished he could be taller, I envied my friend Jack his size. (Some names have been changed.) Whereas I’ve tried any number of tricks to become taller (chunky soles, posture exercises, setting the stationary bike seat just a hair too high), Jack actually was tall. At six-foot-three, he always drew the attention of the room, would make more money over a lifetime than average-height folks like me, was more sexually attractive to women (which, as gay men, is maybe less important, but hey), and was perceived to be a more effective leader. The idea that, for men, taller equals better has such a stranglehold on our cultural understanding of height that some parents give their shorter children — who are otherwise healthy — growth hormone, and limb lengthening has become a popular and dangerously unregulated sector of India’s medical tourism industry.

Jack looked at me quizzically. “It’s more of a burden than anything else,” he said. He described the expectations that come along with his height — the masculine personality traits of being dominant, aggressive, the leader — and all the ways he would feel even worse about himself when he couldn’t measure up. As he said this, my mind flickered back to all the times he would adjust his height (slouching, leaning against walls, crossing his legs) in an effort to take up less space. “I think for some guys, being tall is a great personality boost,” Jack said, “but for me, it’s another way to feel different and inadequate.” The gentle — and reluctant — giant.

Russell, a 47-year-old, six-foot-ten man in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, found his height particularly challenging as a child. We all know how adorable and precocious small kids can be, but what does the tall childhood look like? “As a kid I wasn’t allowed to play with other children because some parents thought, ‘He’s too big to play with my child,’” says Russell, who was five-seven in the fifth grade. “Adults would call me ‘retard’ because they assumed I was an adult at 16. I didn’t realize until I grew up just how much my childhood affected me.” Russell works as a self-employed electrician and has the wariness of someone who’s been hardened by formative experiences. “Don’t write that I’m bitter because I’m not, but people think that every second of my life has been lucky, and it hasn’t been that way at all. I have a finely tuned bullshit detector thanks to people who’ve tried to take advantage of me. They see me, this big guy, and assume I’m stupid.”

The stigma for taller children is common, says Dr. David Sandberg, a pediatric psychologist who’s studied children and height. “When we do see taller-than-average children, there is a phenomenon of others mistaking their age for someone older,” he explains. “People expect more of them than they’re developmentally able to deliver, and suddenly they are treated as if they’re mentally or emotionally delayed.”

In certain situations, height can have more immediate physical consequences. Carlos, a 31-year-old tool designer for an aerospace company in Washington State, has learned to avoid the four nightclubs in his area because his six-foot-six stature makes him such a visible target, his height a provocation for any drunk guy with something to prove. Even though he loves concerts (and mosh pits especially), those are off-limits to him too. “I’ve had broken noses, burst blood vessels in my eye, and shattered three bones in my foot from people injuring me to prove they’re hardcore,” he says.

The question of how height plays into a taller man’s romantic life is more complicated than it would first appear as well. While a tall man might attract the notice of a partner more easily — he literally stands out, after all — a relationship can quickly sour once illusions about his personality are shattered. “I’ve had success with women I’ve definitely considered out of my league,” says Carlos. “They think I’m going to be the tough guy. Some women, not girlfriends, but women on the second or third date will get into it with somebody while we’re out and expect me to physically defend her honor just because I’m taller. I’m not that guy.” For tall men who are gay, the idea of the aggressive tall guy can be more uncomfortable, leading to a sexually awkward case of mistaken identity. “This may be TMI,” says Jack, “but even though I’m naturally shy, a lot of guys automatically expect that I’m going to be some dom top because I’m tall.”

In a work environment, too, the height-leader connection can be a tricky stereotype to navigate. Russell recalls a prior job where strangers in meetings would assume that he was the boss because of his height, even when the actual boss was right there. “Everyone in the meetings would gravitate toward me as the leader when I truly didn’t know anything. They’d ask me questions and direct conversation toward me, and it angered [my boss] because he easily had 15 years more experience in my line of work.” It’s not just professional jealousy that tall men confront; the fear of failure — especially to live up to perceived expectations — can lead them to retreat from leadership roles entirely.

“In group situations, people look to me,” says Carlos. “It’s odd because my personality is to take consensus, but I’m usually thrust into this role of leader that I’m not prepared for. What’s worse is that if something goes wrong, I’m the one who takes the fall.” Of course, some tall men rise to the occasion, developing real leadership qualities to match perceptions. But others must learn to manage those expectations — always fearful of disappointing people when they fail to measure up.

Russell and Carlos both began to check themselves, making sure never to step on other people’s toes and holding back from taking active leadership roles. The professional implications of that kind of passive behavior, though, aren’t insignificant. While taking a backseat can help in the short term, a defensive crouch will rarely lead to a promotion.

The truth is that the taller man probably does experience nearly every advantage thanks to his stature. And yet, that’s not to say that the advantages make everything better. Beyond the discomfort of an economy-class flight or the joint pain associated with longer limbs, being tall has attendant emotional consequences that manifest in surprising and individualized ways. “My dad drilled into me when I was younger that I would be held to a different standard for being tall,” Jack says. “I think that’s had a lasting effect on me. It’s probably why I tend to be such a perfectionist.” Russell’s take on his height is saltier; he holds it responsible for a certain amount of his emotional stuntedness. “Being a tall kid just made me grow up really fast. I felt robbed of a childhood because everyone treated me like an adult. So now people will tell me I act a little weird or aloof,” he says. “It’s made relationships tough. At 47 years old, I should have 20-year-old kids, but I don’t have any children.” He pauses. “I guess I can reach things other people can’t though.”

The Tall Man’s Burden