If the woman’s alone, Jared Gerleman finds it a lot easier to approach her.
“When she’s out with a big group of people, she may start worrying about what her friends tell her or think,” said Gerleman, who lives in Las Vegas.
It’s not his big smile, blazing blue eyes, straight white teeth or clear skin he’s worried about. Nor is it that he can bench press 255 pounds, is a supervisor at one of the biggest hotels in America, knows jiu-jitsu and is outgoing, friendly, educated, confident and funny. Instead, what leaves this 27-year-old hesitant to chat with the woman at the bar is his height.
Gerleman is only five feet tall.
Sometimes the women rejecting him make it clear it’s because of height. Other times, they keep it vague. Still, Gerleman’s struggles probably come as no surprise to anyone. In a country that obsessed over Tom Cruise being shorter than Katie Holmes, men under the national average of five-feet-nine-or-10-inches are practically expected to struggle with landing dates, leadership roles and respect, to some degree. But the challenges of short men aren’t slight, nor are they based on sound reasoning. It’s a flat-out discrimination that very few are trying to stop.
There’s no shortage of studies demonstrating that American women prefer men taller than themselves. This year, researchers at Rice University and University of North Texas showed that taller men make women feel protected and feminine. How much taller, exactly? A study from 2012 found that a woman prefers a partner about eight inches taller, whereas other studies have pegged it between four and six inches. (It’s often not enough to merely be taller than the woman, but to be taller than her in heels.) Still, a famous 1994 study that reported many women’s ideal match at six-feet tall largely rings true to this day. In the Western world, taller men are more likely to land dates, have more attractive female partners and be married, a 2011 study confirmed. But when even average-height men get married younger and have more children, it’s short men who lag behind.
Thomas Edwards, dating coach and founder of The Professional Wingman, has had many short male clients. The confident ones struggle less than the insecure ones, he says, but they both find themselves with a limited dating pool (even online, where height filters render them invisible to picky women). Height is sometimes forgiven if the guy has a great personality, but not always: His confident five-foot-seven client recently scored a date with a woman taller than him in heels, whereas his five-foot-six self-conscious client hasn’t had a date in a while. “He thinks height is going to be the reason he won’t find anyone and it makes him appear less approachable,” said Edwards of his five-foot-six client. “He starts to slouch and close his body language and it counter-productively makes him look shorter.”
Height ideals don’t define success in the dating world alone but also in the professional world. Whether a man aspires to be a male model or CEO, the average height is six feet. In fact, Fortune 500 CEOs are almost 10 times more likely to be over six-foot-two than the average American man. Each inch above average height earns people $789 more per year. In 58 percent of presidential elections between 1789 and 2008, the taller of the two candidates won. And out of 467 students interviewed in a study out of Texas Tech University, 64 percent preferred leaders above average height.
In the workforce, people don’t often come out and say “I’m not hiring you because of height,” but the correlations seem too strong to ignore. And sometimes, they do say that, like in the case of Gerleman. After getting turned down for an office supervisor job (which didn’t require reaching any items on the top shelf), he found out later that the hiring manager told his supervisor that she didn’t hire him because of his height. He could have sued for height discrimination, but he didn’t want to hurt his chances of moving up in the company later. (It’s also unclear if he would’ve won: Michigan is the only state that explicitly prohibits height discrimination.)
“I think when people, and supervisors especially, look at me without knowing me or knowing my track record or work ethic, they kind of associate being short with being young or immature,” Gerleman said. “It’s hard to get them to take me seriously. If I were taller, they’d probably have more respect for me before knowing anything about me.”
What’s so interesting about the bias against short men is that none of it is based on evidence. While tall men are often perceived as better leaders and better able to protect women from threats, no height study has established that it’s “height per se that is responsible for these benefits or characteristics associated with height,” according to Michigan State University psychology professor Linda A. Jackson. Evolution is a popular explanation for this tall-man preference; people recognized that taller men could better protect the family or group. Women sought them out as partners while men deferred to them as leaders. But, with anyone being able to get buff in the gym these days—and work becoming more about brains than brawn—these primal instincts are no longer relevant. Besides, there are entire modern societies that don’t perceive taller as better. In Namibia, ethnic Himbas often don’t have height preferences in dating, while the Datoga people from Tanzania often prefer women in the relationship to be much taller than the man. This suggests that the bias against short men—like most biases—isn’t hard-wired, but culturally reproduced.
“Women were raised on princess movies and to believe Prince Charming is this perfect person, who has dark skin, nice hair and is six-feet tall,” said Laurie Davis, dating coach and founder of eFlirt Expert. “In reality, a specific look is not always what makes love happen.” Davis has convinced many of her female clients, who almost always prioritize tall men, to give short guys a chance, and it has sometimes caused women to drop their height preferences and fall in love with short men. It’s just not the Disney kind of love story.
Not every short man lets the stigma dictate his success in life. When Clint Fiore was younger, the five-foot-sevenTexan was picked on in school, passed over by the baseball team despite having a better batting average than most, and rejected by nearly every woman he asked out, even though he’s funny, smart and confident. But then he got in great shape and moved from being a successful telemarketer to co-founding a multimillion-dollar hunting business. Now 31, he’s married to a five-foot-two woman he met at church and has three daughters.
And yeah, he happens to drive a pickup truck.
“I’m not compensating for my height, I just like pickup trucks,” Fiore said, laughing.
Fiore’s wife is pregnant with a boy, who’s bound to be short. Will his son be perceived as less of a man, less able to protect and less able to lead? Or will Fiore’s successes be enough to assure him that he doesn’t have to struggle for love and respect like he, Gerleman and many other short men have? Or maybe by the time his son is a man, people will realize that height has nothing to do with those things.
“I plan to tell my son ‘this world doesn’t owe you anything’ and 'you’re made to be a leader’ and 'you’re perfect the way you are,’” Fiore said.
Jon Fortenbury is a contributor to The Atlantic and USA Today Follow him on Twitter