Why Chinese Women Are Obsessed With Men’s Height
One day I was talking with a Chinese friend of mine about relationships. At one point she said something that struck me: “It doesn’t matter if a guy is ugly as long as he’s tall.” I was quite surprised by these words, but I didn’t pay much attention to them.
As I met more and more Chinese, it became clear to me that “height” was a recurrent theme when Chinese women talked about a suitable partner. Many of my female friends mentioned men’s height: “He’s good-looking; what a pity he’s so short!” “I like tall men” “A guy liked me, but I didn’t want to date him. He was short”, etc. etc.
Height was a universal Chinese obsession. In a country that had experienced malnutrition and even famine in living memory, height signaled fortune, and it functioned as a proxy for class.
Height was also an advantage for women, though. The taller they were, the better they performed on the job market:
For women, height requirements were attached to the more glamorous trades. “If I were only ten centimeters taller,” a young woman who worked in a hair salon told me once, “I could sell cars.”
Being less than 160 centimeters tall, or about five feet three inches, guaranteed a frustrating day at the talent market.
Leslie Chang does not discuss the topic in length. She simply suggests that the importance of height is linked to the memory of malnutrition and poverty that were widespread in China before Deng Xiaoping’s reform era.
However, I heard very similar statements regarding height both from mainland Chinese and from Taiwanese women. This points to the fact that the importance of height could have deeper cultural roots. In Taiwan, which was virtually cut off from mainland China for around a hundred years, the obsession with height cannot be explained by referring to the memory of famines. Young Taiwanese people have never experienced food shortage and extreme poverty; they are children of a wealthy society. But you will find that among many young Taiwanese women height remains an important criterion of mate-selection.
Let me first say that the importance of height is not exclusively a Chinese phenomenon. In the West, too, parents wish their children to become tall, because height is seen as a sign of health and strength. Generally speaking, men are supposed to have girlfriends who are shorter than them. And many studies suggest that taller people are more successful than shorter people. There are many examples of successful people who are not very tall (Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, Rupert Murdoch, Nicolas Sarkozy, only to name a few), but on average, taller men seem to be more successful. Perhaps because height signals power or self-confidence.
However, in China and Taiwan height seems to be – as Leslie Chang says – a real obsession. Even though I spent already some time in Asia, I still haven’t clearly understood why.
One possible explanation is the importance of gender roles and social criteria in Chinese culture. As I have explained in several posts, mate-selection and marriage in Chinese culture are not based primarily on love, but on considerations such as status, filial piety, financial security, and the fulfillment of social roles (read my posts about family, marriage, and filial piety in Chinese culture). People look for partners who can fulfill a social role best.
Many women accept such social roles and actively promote them. For example, I have met many women that want a husband who earns more than them, who is taller than them, who can ‘repair the house’ if something is broken, and so on. This means that women have a certain idea of the role of a husband and want to find someone who fits these categories. Height appears to be one of these criteria, according to which a person’s ‘value’ and ‘suitability’ are measured. A man should fulfill his social role as a husband by being the one who takes care of the family, and height signals the superiority of the man in this particular area of family life.