LETTER from LONDON
A TALL STORY
"....and the runty Yank player Gordy Grebski runs right between the legs
of the giant Dutchman Grunt Van Dingerlingen. Are these
Dutchmen growing too tall for their own good?"
U.S. cut down to size;
even the Dutch are taller
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Can the United States take another blow to its global ego? I dont know. This latest one hurts. The news from Europe is that Americans have been overtaken as the tallest people in the world.
The new champs are not the Zulus, not the Nubians, not even the Germans. The new champs are the Dutch, of all people. Their country is built on reclaimed swampland and they speak one of the worlds least attractive languages. Some say its not a language at all, its a throat disease. Anthropometric historians are trying to figure out how they got to the top of the tree.
I first sensed trouble when I saw Earl Boykins of the Denver Nuggets playing NBA basketball. Something was wrong. The guy is 5-feet-5. Was this the first sign of slippage in a 60-year trend toward bigger and bigger Americans? In a hundred years will the entire NBA look like stumpy Mexicans?
If so, the country is in for a huge psychological adjustment. It is part of the American superiority myth that we are all taller than our parents and that our children are taller than us--sometimes by several inches. Other countries are not even in the race.
I always attributed our height to our open spaces, school sports and lots of food. I was wrong.
Serious researchers have spent a great deal of time and money over the past few decades comparing the average height of ethnic groups and nationalities to determine what makes some grow larger than others. The answer is complicated, as we shall see, and it doesnt make the present-day United States look good.
Whats at risk here is not merely the head-to-toe stretch. Tall people have other advantages: longer legs, bigger feet, bigger hands and bigger other appendages. Studies show that tall men do better in social and career situations, and the advantages start early in life:
The tallest teen-aged boys are the first to get dates with the cutest girls.
As tall men go through life ducking under doorways, they get promoted more quickly in the corporate world.
In the range between 5-feet-5 and 6 feet, males earn an additional $800 per inch per year more than those below them in stature.
All U.S. presidents but five have been above average in stature.
Those of us who measure 6 feet and over are proud of it. We enjoy looking down our long noses at squat little Frenchmen, Italians and Greeks. I am just a hair over 6 feet but I know how it must feel to be at the other end of the scale. An old friend of mine, Erik Ipsen, is 6-feet-8 and I always try to get him to sit down as quickly as possible in my presence.
We 6-footers love sneering at short men because there is no way they can deny their inadequacy. Many of them develop a Napoleon complex and compensate by raising their little voices and trying to bully the rest of us. Nobody has been able to trace this complex to Freud but it has become the most common colloquial term for the inferiority complex of the shorties.
I used to work for an Italian-American who suffered every day of his professional life from the Napoleon complex. He didnt walk like normal men. He developed a kind of unnatural strut, twisting at the waist to extend his little legs ahead. He avoided looking up or acknowledging taller men in the corridor, and when addressing the staff he liked to speak from atop a desk and pretend he was eight feet tall. He was very complex.
Maybe television has helped create the illusion of tallness as the route to power. A few years ago I took a PR client to the BBC for an interview with Nicholas Witchell, a well-known anchor man. Just before going on air, Witchell barked to his secretary, Hey, wheres my seat cushion? When she hurried over with it, he grabbed it and carefully arranged it in his chair and settled his little buttocks in the grooves. On screen he looked 6 feet tall but I could see that his feet didnt touch the ground.
One of the more interesting treatments of human stature appeared in a recent New Yorker article by Burkhard Bilger, Why Europeans are getting taller--and Americans arent. He found one researcher who claims to know that after World War II the Dutch were, on average, four inches shorter than the average American. This was a turning point in the comparative height sweepstakes. While the United States has remained the richest country in the world, Northern Europe and Japan gradually developed greater longevity and less poverty from that era onward.
One of Bilgers sources says the U.S. stopped growing in height around 1955 while the Dutch, the Germans and other Europeans were putting on two centimetres per decade. Now even the Japanese have caught up with the Americans, and Northern Europeans are some three inches taller than Americans.
The reason for the U.S. decline is best explained by the gap between rich and poor. Some 8 million Americans are unemployed, 40 million have no health insurance and 35 million live below the poverty line. This leaves a large portion of the nation on a poor diet, and as a result affects the average height.
One study in Britain appears to prove this correlation. Two groups of schoolchildren were tested on the effects of cheap junk food vs. a sturdy diet of cabbage and corned beef. One group was fed hamburgers and fries. The other group was fed the nutritious rations typical of wartime Britain. Only eight weeks into the study it was clear that those living on the more healthy planned rations were getting both taller and slimmer. The burger eaters got fatter and slowed in growth.
The secret of the Dutch spurt appears to be a combination of excellent state-run medical services from prenatal onward plus a unique diet plus fairly equal levels of prosperity. They love their milk and cheese. Additionally, there is enough to go around because their Calvinist religion has meant relatively small numbers of children. Wealth flooded into Holland from their colonies in the 19th century, and gradually the prosperity has been spread throughout the population. The only thing slowing Dutch growth now is the nature of the human species. They have reached the top of the charts and levelled off.
Watch for the NBA to start discovering men with funny names like Hoop de Due and van Breederhausen and a language that sounds like serious throat trouble.
©2004 by Michael Johnson. The cartoons are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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