Americans coming up short?

Via the NYTimes Op-Ed section from Friday  June 15, 2007

America Comes Up Short

Published: June 15, 2007

Traveling through Europe recently, I’ve been able to confirm through personal experience what statistical surveys tell us: the perceived stature of Americans is not what it was. Europeans used to look up to us; now, many of them look down on us instead.

No, I’m not talking metaphorically about our loss of moral authority in the wake of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. I’m literally talking about feet and inches.

To the casual observer, Europeans — who often seemed short, even to me (I’m 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s — now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.

The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were “tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,” have now “become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.”

This is not a trivial matter. As the paper says, “height is indicative of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment.” There’s a whole discipline of “anthropometric history” that uses evidence on heights to assess changes in social conditions.

For example, nothing demonstrates the harsh class distinctions of Britain in the age of Dickens better than the 9-inch height gap between 15-year-old students at Sandhurst, the elite military academy, and their counterparts at the working-class Marine School. The dismal working and living conditions of urban Americans during the Gilded Age were reflected in a 1- 1/2 inch decline in the average height of men born in 1890, compared with those born in 1830. Americans born after 1920 were the first industrial generation to regain preindustrial stature.

So what is America’s modern height lag telling us?

There is normally a strong association between per capita income and a country’s average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans: U.S. per capita G.D.P. is higher than that of any other major economy. But since the middle of the 20th century, something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller.

It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix due to immigration: the stagnation of American heights is clear even if you restrict the comparison to non-Hispanic, native-born whites.

And although the Komlos-Lauderdale paper suggests that growing income and social inequality in America might be one culprit, the remarkable thing is that, as the authors themselves point out, even high-status Americans are falling short: “rich Americans are shorter than rich Western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor Western Europeans.”

We seem to be left with two main possible explanations of the height gap.

One is that America really has turned into “Fast Food Nation.”

“U.S. children,” write Mr. Komlos and Mr. Lauderdale, “consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.” Our reliance on fast food, in turn, may reflect lack of family time because we work too much: U.S. G.D.P. per capita is high partly because employed Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts.

A broader explanation would be that contemporary America is a society that, in a variety of ways, doesn’t take very good care of its children. Recently, Unicef issued a report comparing a number of measures of child well-being in 21 rich countries, including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller, on average, than non-Hispanic American whites. The U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary, but ahead of Britain.

Whatever the full explanation for America’s stature deficit, our relative shortness, like our low life expectancy, suggests that something is amiss with our way of life. A critical European might say that America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most, a society that for all its wealth somehow manages to be nasty, brutish — and short.


~ by Lola on June 16, 2007.

24 Responses to “Americans coming up short?”

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  2. As an Australian, I’ve also noticed how very tall (northern) Europeans are compared to Australians. The Scandis, in particular, tower over us.

    It would be interesting to compare US heights with British heights, given that economic policies in Britain are closest of all the European countries to those followed in the US.

    By the way, this difference will not necessarily last. The fact that most of Europe is on the same ‘neoliberal’ political track these days means that the Europeans’ statistics will also change over the next generation. I feel sure that the NEXT generation of Europeans will be much shorter than their parents.

  3. Please make public the research data so we can see for ourselves the measured differences broken down by classes and more closely examine the results. Thank you!

  4. I give it a shot in the dark.
    Could it have something to do with an invasion of 20 or 30 million short malnurished Mexicans?

  5. In Los Angeles I’m a giant @ 6′. I went to Idaho recently and I was one of the shortest. On the matter of neglected children & working too much. remember the 70s & 80s when they talked us into sending our wives & mothers to work because we were a lazy country?

  6. It’s interesting that this article tries to place a political spin on the reason Europeans are teller than Americans as a whole. Conveniently they leave out the huge factor of all the Mexican immigrants living in this country. The average height for a Mexican is only 5’6″. As their population continues to explode, of course the American height as a whole will decrease. It’s really quite a simple explanation, without all the political overtones.

  7. quote from the article:
    “It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix due to immigration: the stagnation of American heights is clear even if you restrict the comparison to non-Hispanic, native-born whites.”

    did y’all READ the article before commenting on it?

  8. I have found this rather interesting web site on Standard Body Proportions at:

    It’s based on statistics collected by the US Army.

    You enter your height in either inches or centimeters, and it tells you how long your legs should be, and your torso length, etc. etc.

    Well, I’m 5 ft 6 in, or 66 inches tall, so my legs are suppose to be between 31 to 32 inches long, and my torso length from shoulder to crotch is suppose to be between 22 and 23 inches long. That is according to the Standardized Body Proportions charts.

    But when I actually measured my crotch height above the floor, and my torso length, it turns out that my legs are only 27 inches long, about 5 inches shorter than they should be for my height, and my torso length is 29 inches, or 7 inches longer than it should be, so my neck must be about 2 inches shorter then it ought to be for one of my height. My head is the right size though.

    I have a larger body, with shorter limbs and a shorter neck. My arms are also a couple of inches too short.

    Yes, I’m obese. I weigh about 395 pounds, and I’m somewhat “pear shaped” measuring only 56 inches around my chest, 64 inches around my waist, 70 inches around my hips, with 36 inch thighs.

    I’ve been told that I’m built like a Teddy Bear, and my girl friend who likes fat guys says that I look like a fat little Dutch boy.

    She prefers to see me wearing shorts because she actually likes my short chunky fat little Dutch boy legs.

    I’ve been fat all my life, and I’m perfectly happy with my body.

    In reference to the “stature deficit”, I don’t consider my shorter then average height to be a “deficit” there is nothing wrong with being short, or even fat for that matter!

    In fact, I have even discovered some advantages in the way I’m built. I have a much higher tolerance to cold weather, and having shorter limbs actually conserves energy.

    True, I can’t walk as fast as the average person, and I waddle when I walk, and my broad hips proudly swagger and sway, and my big round belly leads the way like the prowl of a mighty ship!

    I was once in a motor cycle wreck, and the only injuries I had were cuts and bruises and sore muscles for about a week. But no broken bones. The doctor who examined me actually said that being short fat and round actually saved me from serious injuries. Of course he still said that I needed to lose some weight. Naturally!!!

    I even got to see my X rays, and I could see that I have a large pelvis that is slightly wider than my rib cage. I also have really big round knees, and really thick bones in my legs, and a thick spinal column, So I do have a rather unique physique.

    Actually, I don’t think that my legs and arms are too short, or my torso too long in proportion to my height. I think I’m just right!

    I’m not “too” anything! I’m built the way God intended me to be built!

    There is no such thing as being too short or too tall or too fat or too anything!

    We are as God intended us to be. When God designed the human body, he didn’t use a freaking micrometer to make sure that everything he designed was within a tolerance of a thousandth of an inch.

    We are not machines! We are flesh and blood, bone, muscle, and FAT!!!

    We should stop judging people by outward appearances, and stop discriminating against people just for being different.

    I have many abilities. Artistic abilities, I enjoy doing oil paintings, and building radio controlled model planes. When I was 13, I scored 150 points on a standard IQ test. As a kid, I was no good at sports, and was bullied around because of it. But I have many other abilities that I believe are much more important.

    I have no deficits.

    I love my large plump round body, and short chunky limbs. It give me a more relaxed appearance. It’s a nice soft and comfortable body, I think I’m fine just the way I am!

    I love to sing and dance, and stomp my feet, and really rock your world!!!

  9. right then

  10. OOPS sorry about that,now i am a british male 43 yrs old and 5’0 tall or not so.I come from a family of short people my mum is 4’9 and dad 5’2.I have a brother 4’11 and sister 4’10.I mean how much closer in height could we all be.Sometimes we can even wear each others clothes.My mum does all our alterations which help.When i go away with my brother to Spain yeah we are shorter than alot of spanish.I have spoken to people from Holland and Denmark who always say the same thing about the height of the people living there.They say even their woman are over 6’0 nowadays.It was very nice talking to them about their way of life and ours but we did ask them to sit down when we spoke has they were all hitting 6’0 and just over.The woman were also nudging 6’0.They say that it has been going on for years that the people were very tall.They also thought it funn how we came from a rather short family has they always thought the English were fairly tall.That is the case that there are guys over 6’0 and the woman are mainly over 5’6.It is just that everyone is short in our family so we didnt expect to be hitting 6’0 any of us.Yeah we may be budged out of the way when out but a quick kick in the shins seems to do the trick for me.I remember going to Spain when i was 30 yrs old and my brother came with me.We both tried to get our hand luggage in the compartment and were stretching like mad we just couldnt do it.A nice air hostess said to me can i help you boys but not realizing we were adults.We both laughed and then she clicked she gave us both a free drink has she thought she had been rude.We did say not to worry has we always get treated like that anyway lol.

  11. I was born in London and now live/work in Denmark.I am a rather short person 4’11 tall.Never quite managing to hit 5’0 which would have been nice.Both my parents are pretty average mum is 5’7 and dad 6’0.I do have a sister who is younger than me and taller 5’6.My height comes from my grandmother who is 4’10 tall i do also have a grandad from my dads side who is 5’2.I have lived in Denmark since 1990 after meeting a rather dashing guy from Denmark who was working in the city of London like myself.We got married over here and then moved abroad.Now Denmark isnt a massive country but we do live in Copenhagen has it is still quite relaxing.Now my husband is 6’4 tall so way taller than me but this does come in handy has over here they seem to pile everything up high i just cant reach things.In my office that i work i have 10 people working under me has i teach English in a school.I just happen to teach the children that are 7/8 in my class there are 95% of the children all taller than myself the other 5% are rapidly catching me up it wont be long.When i have meeting at school they have a table that is quite high for people to reach their books off now when i come to do my piece in the meeting.I am having to get a stool and stand has i cant see over it.All the other teachers are between 5’10 and 6’3.They all love wearing high heels has well so that makes them over a foot taller than myself.Over the years the school has changed has they are trying to accommodate things for me.I have a couple of chairs around which lower or rise and that makes alot of difference.I have 2 children a boy who is 9 he is at he moment 5’4 and a girl 7 who is my height at the moment.The doctor says they will both be tall.To the children some cant believe that i am a full grown adult and are always telling me when am i gonna grow up it is funny though.The children that are slightly shorter than myself were worried that they will be short i just say look at your mum and dad you will do fine.While out in the city i do get strange looks but most of the people know me anyway and say funny things.Nothing like the ridicule i used to get while living in London.My best friend Anna she lives next door to us and works with me she usually drives us to work has the cars are just not made for short people.I had passed my test in London but unless you are 5’7 at least dont bother.I have only seen one woman who is the shortest i have seen here in Denmark and she is 5’7 when i talk to her i still have to look up at her has she wears shoes with 4in heels and i dont wear heels has they are too uncomfortable.She was the oldest and shortest in her family the nearest is her sister who is 5’9 i couldnt believe it.I have been to Holland and it is the same there all tall people never mind.

  12. I think that Americans always thought they were the tallest nation.But no one envisaged the Dutch growing tall.I mean even the woman are mainly hitting 6’0.The kids are tall as well.
    What i want to say is that being a boy and short is another thing.I am 18 yrs old and barely 5’0.My mum is roughly 5’0 and dad is 5’2.Now i didnt expect to be a giant coming from my parents.I have a sister who is 24 and she is 5’5 and my brother who is 20 he is 5’2.So my oldest sibling is the tallest.She takes great pleasure in showing of who is the tallest in the family.The way we live is that we dont use all the very high cupboards unless we have to.Julie puts her stuff out of the way of us.When Julie got married last year to Mickey now Julie was 5’8 with her heels on and Micky was 6’0.The wedding pics were quite shameful when we had the family in just our family Mum Dad Me Brother Julie and Micky it looked so funny We were either side of Julie and Mickey and it looked like a hill in the picture.There was Paul(brother) then Dad then Julie then Micky Mum and Me.I was just thinking PLEASE dont shove me next to Micky but mum was there.The rest of the photos to me seemed intimidating has our family was just so short and Micky was all tall.I was the same height has Mickey 11 yrs old sister.At the reception people i couldnt even dance properly has most of the guests were taller than us.I managed a dance with Julies friend who was quite chatty and she was 5’9 has she was wearing heelsusually she is around 5’6 so still taller than me.I am mostly happy in the company of shorter people but you try finding people around the 5;0 mark never.I have tried websites and then has soon has i say my height that is is GONE.

  13. […] a heads-up, America: Not only are you shorter than the Polish, but we just found out you’re gonna die younger than folks in Jordan and pretty much everyone […]

  14. Well I am a 46 yr old male and at 5ft 6 3/4 ins feel well short here in the UK. I would say generally the Brits are growing taller. Teenagers and some women very often tower over me. There are even 7th grade kids as tall and taller than me! Also my feet look small these days. I take UK size 8 wide, but for men the average seems to be 10 – 11. Many females have the same size or bigger than mine.

    Yes I put it all down to diet and perhaps some help from a few tall Polish guys!

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  16. To me everyone is tall i notice it every day when i get up to going to bed.I have always been short and being a guy IS even worse.I am now 17 years old and my height was measured at 4’11.I know so because i had to have a physical to work.I know why i am so short because of my mum she is only 4’10 but dad is 5’11.I have an older sister who is 18 and she is 5’9 then is me 17 guy and 4’11 then comes my younger sister she is 16 and she is already 5’7 last is my younger brother he is 15 and only 4’6 so far.We are hoping that he grows taller has he is already troubled by it.He says that he hates being the shortest in his school there are only 2 girls who are both 4’8 and a chinese boy who is 4’9.We do tell him that he could grow till he is 21 but he wont have it has he says that he hasnt grown since 3 years now.So for some reason my sisters have got my dad’s height and me and my brother take after our mum.I wouldnt mind if it was only a couple of inches for us boys but when the girls are over 7 inches taller than me but for Gary it is even worse being about over a foot taller than him.We have been to Spain on holiday and YES the people from Holland and Denmark are very tall.We saw families where the parents are both over 6’0 and their young children are like adults all over 5’9.It is strange to see but they never feel that they should shout about it neither and are quite reserved people.

  17. If we didnt have tall people and short people the world would be a boring place.I dont like being classed as a short person but that is what i am.I dont like the silly names i have always been called but they still keep coming at me.Okay being 5’1 for a male if hard but we have to live with it.I usually just say that i am vertically challenged.It is just genetics anyway so i dont mind having a short dad who is only 5’0 and me and my brother took after him.Our mum is 5’4 and we have a sister who is 5’6 so obviously she gets it from mum.No big deal there then hey.Of clourse me and my brother would have loved to be like mum and vice versa.We all still manage to live in this world.At the moment me and my brother who work together are being called bookends.I asked why and this tall guy says that we are both exactly the same height.I said but you and Daniel are the same height but he just shrugged that well you 2 are short bookend so i walked off.He is the main person who riddicules us for being short he wont let it drop.We know we are short just let us get on with it.We dont need to be told everyday at work it is annoying.If we answer him back he just says oh that must be the short man’s syndrome coming out of us.

  18. I am Polish on both sides of my family, a woman, and I am only 5’0 tall, in fact I am two inches shorter than my mother, and the exact same height as both my grandmothers who were born in Europe. My mother always made me home cooked meals, so you can’t blame it nutrition. When I was about 16, a family physician offered to put me on growth hormone, my mom refused, she thought I was petite, but not abnormally so. A few years later I was talking with a guy friend who was only 5’8. When he was a teenager the exact same thing happened to him, the ped offered to put him on growth hormone, and he said no, he knew the complications (cancer to the name few) and he was not abnormally short. I noticed that there are so many girls who are over 5’7 and they have short parents. I think what is happening is maybe these Dutch kids are getting injected with a lot of growth hormones during puberty. The doctors make money off of it.

  19. I know that the scandinavians people are quite a tall nation.Even the women are hitting 6’0.In Britain i know that we arent has tall has them.For a guy i am quite short so i would look out of place over there.My height is just under 5’0 and i am generally quite conscious about my height.I always have been and feel that many people look down at me all the time.I dont have that much self confidence due to this.I dont like it when people try to saddle up close to me to check if they are taller or not.It is a pain.

  20. I think for a guy being shorter than his sisters is annoying.I am the eldest and i have 2 sisters 18 and she is 5’5 and the other is 23 and she is 5’6.I am 30 and i am 4’10.Taking after my mum whereas my sisters took after dad.My mum is just under 5’0 so i am similar to her.She may have about 2 inches on me.I used my short height to my strength and went to a gymnastics club for 7 years.I ended up being the shortest boy there during this period.I dont know if i would have been abit taller if i hadnt stayed there so long.Has i have been told that doing gymnastics can stunt your growth.I have a wife who is 5’5 and i think it took a little while to win her over but we got there in the end.We have been married 3 years now and dont get me wrong but i do get the feeling that she may have wanted someone taller than me.I mean 7 inches is quite abit of difference and on occassions when i do cook i am having to get her to reach things that are too high up has i dont like getting on the worktops.When we dance it is okay if she isnt wearing too high heels has i come up to low to her.If she is wearing flat shoes it is better.Out wedding pics were abit awkward has she wore high heels on the day and the pics were with me standing on the step above her so we could get in okay together.
    She does come in handy for reaching things and i find it better when we are seated has it is more comfortable.

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