It’s no secret that for decades, many people have had a preference for taller men when it comes to dating and relationships (at least in Western culture). It shows up in surveys, studies, and even a segment on height bias on the ABC News show 20/20, which can be painful to watch even though it aired decades ago.
Fast forward to 2022, and nowhere is this bias more obvious than on social media, specifically TikTok, and dating apps.
Even though the average height of men in the US is 5’9”, many people state in their dating profiles that their prospective date must be at least 6 feet tall.
Search for any person-on-the-street interview on social media, and more often than not the answer to “Would you date a shorter man?” is followed by a resounding no. Given the bias, many men will exaggerate or add a couple of inches to their height on their profile.
In one viral TikTok video, user @samanthalea96 marks 6 feet on a doorframe to fact-check the heights of her Hinge matches. Not surprisingly, many of the commenters — mostly men — had strong feelings about that.
Alcidez Banda, who is 5’6” and lives in Pretoria, South Africa, has used multiple dating apps, including Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, and OkCupid. “A lot of people literally will just look at height [and say] ... ‘Oh no, you know, I’m not interested,’” said Banda, who goes by @dezz_lee on TikTok.
However, things may be looking up a bit, so to speak, when it comes to the stature-related stigma of shorter men, and dating them.
The term “short king,” conceived by comedian Jaboukie Young-White in a 2018 tweet, erupted over TikTok this spring with users embracing hashtags like #ShortKing, #ShortKingsWinning, and #ShortKingsAnthem, which together garnered more than 500 million views.
According to Google Trends, searches for “short king” rose during the 2022 awards season, apparently spurred by celebrity couples like Sophie Turner (5’9”) and Joe Jonas (5’7”), Spider-Man’s Tom Holland (5’8”) and Zendaya (5’10”), and let’s not forget the OG height difference couple, Keith Urban (5’10”) and Nicole Kidman (5’11”).
Here’s what experts say about why height bias exists, and how it impacts dating.
The height stigma is real
The bias against shorter men has been well studied. Taller men make more money and are perceived as being more competent, better leaders, and more intelligent; one 2007 study found that even as early as kindergarten, shorter boys were perceived as less academically capable than their classmates.
In a 2014 study, researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found that height appeared to be correlated with the perception of masculinity. When it comes to dating apps, one 2005 study found that men who said they were 6’3” or 6’4” got about 60% more messages than men who were 5’7” or 5’8”. (On the plus side, shorter men actually live longer, on average, than their taller peers.)
Banda said he’s experienced the harsh burn of sizeism and feelings of inferiority on dating apps quite often.
“I think the worst thing a girl [has] ever said to me was, ‘If there’s any man that is shorter than me, he’s just looking for attention,’” he told BuzzFeed News.
Where exactly does the preference come from? There’s a variety of reasons, at least when it comes to heterosexual relationships. One is cultural, including the predominantly Western expectations that reinforce the shorter woman–taller man dynamic, said Natalia Zhikhareva, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles.
“We live in a society where height is still appraised, being tall and being attractive,” she said. “Wherever you look, [whether it’s] social media, television, movies, take even a kid’s story, Cinderella — the leading man is tall. Imagine if Prince Charming got off his horse and he’s 5’5”? We’re inundated with this message that that is what’s attractive and that’s what’s appealing.”
Why some people state on their profile that they prefer taller men
On the other side of the coin, some women may be basing their own sense of attractiveness and femininity in the context of a partner’s height.
Rachael, who’s 25, 5’5”, and prefers men to be her height or taller, said that the increased stature eases any self-consciousness about her body shape and size, making intimacy feel more fulfilling and less awkward.
“In a way, it could also affect our sense of self-worth because it’s like, if you view short men as less compatible partners, why does that say about me if I only have short men rolling up in my DMs?” said Rachael, who asked that we not use her last name. “Does that mean that none of the top fine, muscular men are going to look [at] me?”
On dating apps, men tend to lead with measurements, starting their bios with “Height seems to be important on here so before you ask I’m 6’1”.” They may forgo personalized touches entirely by limiting deets to their height. It’s a tactic that can definitely entice a right-swipe — according to the dating app Badoo, the top keyword for men to get matches was “6ft.” But it also puts women in a tricky situation of having to resort to height as a proxy or signifier for who they are as a person.
“I’m a rather short woman in real life who doesn’t have a height preference for guys that I meet in real life,” Sabrina K. wrote BuzzFeed News in an email. “However, on dating apps, I do see myself wanting taller men. I know I don’t care for it in real life, but on dating apps I do … [because] profiles are not that detailed, and there’s nothing much to care about when swiping for men.”
That’s not to say using proxies is bad. We’re using them all the time when filtering for age, political status, or an undying love of Lizzo. But it seems height in particular prevents us from getting a real feel for a person who may otherwise be compatible in characteristics that aren’t one’s height, said Matthew Lundquist, a psychotherapist and founder of Tribeca Therapy in New York who specializes in dating therapy.
“Dating apps distort the reality of the complex, nuanced, in vivo, lived, chemical complexity of two people being in a room together, whether or not they want to go on a second date, kiss, make out, hook up, or build a life together,” he said.
Height stigma in the queer community
Trans men aren’t exempt from the height disadvantage when dating straight women, said James Barnes, a coach who helps trans people transition.
“I have had trans men who are clients [and] who will meet someone they want to date. The women will say they’re too short, straight-up say, ‘I’m not even against you being trans, you’re just not my type, I want a taller guy.’” said Barnes, who is transgender himself. “Height has impacted plenty of trans men in my life. … I’ve watched them miss out on what I would say would be the possibility of great relationships just because of height.”
This is especially true if passing as male is important to a trans man or masculine-identifying individual, said Zhikareva, who specializes in transgender care and counseling.
“When you go out dating and you’re measuring yourself up against the stereotype — which you presume to be someone tall and strong — and you feel that you’re not measuring up, you’re going to have insecurities,” she said. These insecurities can, consciously or not, lead trans individuals into a self-sabotaging belief their lack of height will prevent any hope of a second date — a mindset that cis men can also have.
For shorter men overall, it can add to a sense of hopelessness, despair, and spiraling bitterness over something physical that they can’t change, which can further compound their risk for poor mental health. (Swipe-based dating apps have been found to contribute to higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety, and depression; a 2020 Pew Research poll reported 25% of online daters said the apps made them feel more insecure.)
Even if you’re a short king who’s vanquished dating obstacles, the struggle may not be over for you. California native Urwah Bangi (5’8”) and her husband Uwais (5’3”), who is originally from the UK, regularly post videos on their height difference on TikTok. Bangi herself never had any height preferences growing up; her mother was taller than her father, and his height simply wasn’t discriminated against in their household. But when Bangi married her husband and they began posting videos on social media, the hateful comments were unrelenting.
“There were a lot of transphobic comments,” Bangi said. “[People online] were saying that I’m a lesbian in the closet and that [Uwais] is a trans man because of him being short. … They feminize him and masculinize me because of my height. If it’s a video of him doing something kind for me, they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s just a little girl.’ And if it’s a video of both of us standing together, they’re like, ‘Oh, look at her standing with her son,’ or something stupid like that.”
Bangi now has every comment on her TikTok videos filtered and asks her husband or a friend to approve the comments; the hate can be too much to bear. It suggests that a fixation on height can lead to toxic behavior and attitudes beyond the dating apps.
What therapists think about height bias on dating apps
In recent years (especially during the pandemic), online platforms and dating apps have worked toward more personal authenticity, compatibility, and real-life interactions. Yet, lurking within the algorithms is the risk of becoming too superficial, at least for some folks, Barnes said.
“I have friends who go on these dating apps and the shallowness comes out, and they aren’t normally shallow people,” he said. “[Most of] these apps are just designed to make it about looks, which is devastating because really everybody’s on there to find a relationship.”
Banda’s height, and what it means for the women he talks to on dating apps, has caused him anguish and made him feel insecure. But he understands that the type of person someone wants to date, their “type,” is just a personal preference.
“I think I’ve grown to understand that preference is a thing. [If] you told me that you don’t like me because you prefer taller men, that’s completely understandable [because] it’s still your preference,” he said. “At the end of the day, I can’t just take that away from you. … I will pick and choose, and another person is allowed to [as well].”
Height is also something we can’t easily change, Zhikareva and Lundquist said (unless you want to go through an excruciating, literally bone-breaking surgery). And if we can’t change it, we shouldn’t waste our attention and energy on it, although often that isn’t easy.
“The first step is really just accepting,” Zhikareva said, likening it to a poker game. “Those hands you got dealt is height and how you feel about it. You still have an opportunity here to play in a smart and clever way or you have an opportunity to sit there and dwell on this to the point it consumes your whole identity. And then you self-sabotage yourself unconsciously every time you go out on a date.”
To that end, confidence goes a long way, Zhikareva said, and that can far outshine any extra inches in one’s vertical real estate.
For dating app users, Lundquist recommends not adhering to any strict criteria about a person’s physical attributes and instead examine our unconscious biases and what we’re hoping to accomplish.
“Are there other ways we can tweak the filter and let something else do the work of discovering?” Lundquist said. “The goal of dating apps is to get as quickly to meeting someone in person because then that is where you actually experience somebody in their complexity and let yourself be surprised.”
He also recommends that people who haven’t had success with dating apps, possibly because of their height, take a break from technology and look offline to have more of an opportunity to meet people where height doesn’t take them out of the running.
It’s important to note that while the negative bias toward shorter men isn’t acceptable, women’s bodies have long been objectified and continue to be on dating platforms.
“Women’s bodies are scrutinized in ways that men’s aren’t,” Lundquist said. “That’s not to deny [height bias] is a painful and frustrating experience. … I think men need to be reminded that that’s a reality that they, in most regards, come out on the better side of, meaning the kind of objectification and rigid limitations that people have on bodies and aesthetics.”
Acceptance and working on what you can control can be a formula for success for those who try. Remember the woman who said any man shorter than her was looking for attention? She’s now Banda’s girlfriend. Love can happen in the most unexpected ways. ❤