The royal heads up

Maybe they’re trying to get height right this time.

The British royal family has got a marriage on its hands, and this time it involves a man who appears to be respectably taller than his bride.

Prince William’s father was, let’s admit it, shorter than Princess Diana. But admit it they didn’t. (UPI’s Glenne Currie’s story on June 11, 1981, was bluntly if inaccurately headlined: “Charles is Taller.”) Not in on the day their engagement was announced, with Charles propped up on a step behind her:

And not on the postage stamp subsequently produced, in which the unfortunate, pre-Photoshop Princess was apparently asked to kneel uncomfortably before her future ex-husband — or in countless other photographic mementos to their doomed marriage.

Belinda Luscombe in Time asks what marriage is “good for.” Whatever else it is or isn’t good for, marriage is a good system for getting men together with women who are shorter than them. In that Time article, Dalton Conley is quoted as saying this has changed by “more than 10%” between 1986 and 1993, which he calls an “incredible shift in marital and gender norms.” I haven’t seen the data (if you find it, let me know!), but a 10% change doesn’t seem “incredible,” especially given how strong the norm of taller-husband-shorter-wife is. A 1980 study, for example, found that only 1 out of 720 married couples who walked into a bank included a taller wife (if my math is right, that 1-in-720, compared with a random probability of 2% having a taller wife among the individuals included, means that the taller-wife couple was 1/14th as likely as would be expected by chance) .

This is not insignificant. The median U.S. man is 6″ taller than the median U.S. woman, so chance is on side of the taller-man norm. But the rigid adherence to this norm results in a daily, intimate interaction among almost all couples that reinforces the bigger-stronger/smaller-weaker gender dichotomy.

Imagine a society in which men competed for women taller than themselves, while women competed for shorter men — and those taller-woman couples were celebrated as fortunate or blessed. (I wonder if you can.) Anyways, this royal couple seems to be starting off on the right foot, normatively speaking. Although I can’t see their feet.

16 thoughts on “The royal heads up

  1. I have no data to cite, but I can assure you that far, far, far more short men are willing to date/marry taller woman than the reciprocal.


    1. Interesting — I have no way of knowing whether it’s men or women that drive this more. But in the case of the Prince, the “most eligible bachelor in the world,” you would think that if he wanted a taller woman, he could have found one!


      1. I would guess that the same is true in reverse — that tall women are much more willing to date men shorter than they are than those men are willing to date a taller woman. People on the “wrong” end of the spectrum have few options but to buck the norm, whereas the people they are choosing from have many options for normative-height partners. So we can’t tell from this whether it’s driven more by men or women…


      2. …However, we could tell by looking at data from what online daters say they are willing to accept in a partner.

        I just did a quick and dirty analysis of the online dating data I have (6,048 men and women in four major U.S. cities seeking heterosexual relationships) and the results are strikingly gendered. Comparing the dater’s own height to the minimum and maximum height listed for potential partners, 66% of men are willing to consider a taller woman (99.5% for women) whereas only 20% of women are willing to consider a shorter man (99.3% for men). Now, these aren’t official results because I haven’t finished creating the weighting (and it hasn’t been peer reviewed), but I’m guessing the general finding would be robust to those adjustments. Does anyone know of any published findings along these lines to report?


        1. That’s great, thanks! Why are men more willing to buck this norm? I don’t know. Preference on a dating site is an important thing, that probably differs from partnering behavior in neat ways. I’d like to see where these folks are in 10 years.

          I keep an eye on the OKCupid blog for this kind of thing. They’ve reported on how people seem to lie about their height (and also that taller men have more sex, at least up to 6’2″…): . But not height preferences.


      3. My measure of “accept taller” and “accept shorter” is based on height minimum and maximum relative to the dater’s own stated weight. So if they’re lying, my (preliminary!) finding would be affected. However, if men are saying that they are taller than they actually are, then the error would be on the side of false negatives: that is, we should be missing even more men who are willing to date taller women.

        By the way, I just re-ran the results by age group and didn’t find any differences, for either men or women. I only have ages 18-50, but you could have told an interesting story about a difference between, say, 18-20 year olds and 31-40 year olds.


      4. @Joy Nope, definitely wrong. I’m 5’9″ and when I was dating I had a thing about height–I refused to date anyone under 5’11”. So has pretty much every other tall woman I’ve ever known. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked out by men shorter than I am.

        I worked with a girl who was 6’1″. She would outright say “I have no other standards. He just has to be taller than me.”


  2. Interesting post Philip. Johnny is about an inch taller than me and I am much taller than he is when I wear heels, which is very frequently. While we contradict the norm, Johnny is often asked if HE minds that I wear heels!


    1. Thanks. It raises the issue of public versus private. Unless you wear your heels around the house all the time, you’re still within the rules. Interesting, also, that people often ask him about it — which means it’s a common issue that people think about.


  3. @ Christina — Well, that’s exactly why we test our hypotheses, right? Science in action! My initial guess certainly seemed plausible, but my first tests (shown above) suggest that height preferences are much stronger for women than in men. I just now went a little further and looked at willingness to date partners who are taller (for women) or shorter (for men) based on being especially tall or short themselves. For men, it really matters: men in the bottom 10% of height are more likely to be willing to date taller women (74%) than those in the top 90% (62%). For women the findings are weaker. Only about 20% of women overall are willing to date a shorter man, and it’s not much different for women in the top 90% of height than in the bottom 10%. However, once you get to the top 95% (5′ 10″ or taller), somewhat more women are willing to date shorter men (28%). That means more than two-thirds of very tall women have the preferences you describe (in this data set, at least).


  4. One of the few areas where men really get a harder time in regards to physical appearance than women is height. An overweight or conventionally unattractive guy is going to face much less discrimination than an overweight or conventionally unattractive woman. However, short women are seen as “cute” while short men are seen as shrimps with Napoleonic complexes if they dare to have any self confidence. Shorter men make less than taller men, while height has little effect on women’s earnings.

    I come from a pretty tall family, in fact even though I’m slightly above average height for a woman in the US (5’6″) I’m short in relation to most of the women on my dad’s side of the family (several are close to 6′). Yet nearly universally, they are all with men taller than them even my 6’1″ cousin. It’s really ingrained in our culture that women must be shorter.


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