My friend Arianne Cohen is really tall — 6 feet, 3 inches tall, to be exact. I once joined her, and her two dogs, for a walk in Manhattan and learned my first “tall” lesson: blending in is not an option.
Unlike your average really tall person, however, Arianne is also a journalist, and thus uniquely suited to investigating the tall experience. In The Tall Book, Cohen relies on insights from her own life (including a brief stint as one half of the world’s tallest couple), and research from economists and scientists to shed light on the pros and cons of life as a really tall person.
Below, Arianne answer some questions about the book.
I’ve always assumed that all sports are easier for tall people, but you write that some physical activities are actually much harder for tall people.
I call this The Myth of Tall Excellence. The truth is that roughly half the time, tall people are bad at sports. Really bad. The myth was created mostly by apparel and sports drink companies, who for the past two decades have spent billions plastering billboards worldwide with images of long-limbed athletes flying through the air (Shaq, Michael Jordan, Gabrielle Reece, etc.). The companies were trying to sell shoes and beverages, but long limbs play well on film, and billions of advertising dollars later, the connection between talls and athletics stuck.
In reality, talls only excel at sports when leverage is on their side. Long limbs allow the body to exert force with less effort. (Imagine lifting a couch with a six-foot crowbar versus a two-foot crowbar.) So as a general rule, any activity that involves generating force from the abdomen through a long lever arm, like baseball pitching or swimming or rowing, works well. But activities that involve supporting weight far from the core–weightlifting, gymnastics, many calisthenics–are akin, in terms of efficiency, to stabbing oneself with a fork.
When I was a national-level swimmer, my swim coach once got down on the floor with me to demonstrate how to do a pushup. He thought I didn’t understand. It wasn’t a comprehension problem. My arms were like two feet long.
So are tall people better?
Talls rule! Quite literally–U.S. presidents average 6’1″, a full four inches more than average; our senators average 6’0″, and more than half our governors are six footers. And there are lots of semi-masturbatory statistics: tall people consistently make more money (to the tune of $789 more per inch per year), have slightly higher IQs (because the same childhood environments that produce healthy bodies also produce healthy brains), and live a bit longer (no one knows why).
That said, it really is a two-way street, and my motivation for writing the book came from my struggles with being tall. To be tall is to be very different, and very public.
“It’s like living with a spotlight on you all the time, where everyone sees you and knows who you are and where you live…”
It’s like living with a spotlight on you all the time, where everyone sees you and knows who you are and where you live, which can be quite tricky for shy personalities. And society is simply not built for tall folks. I found it alienating to not be able to find clothing that fit, and to spend my airplane rides pinned to the seat, bruising my knees. I wrote The Tall Book because height is such a defining experience, and I really wanted to honestly talk about both pros and cons.
Is it true that the country’s only tall women’s store just closed? How can that be possible?
Amazing, right? Especially given that there are 22 million tall women in this country, and a booming petites market. Tall Girl Shop, the only nationwide brick-and-mortar tall women’s store, just closed its doors after more than half a century in business, and my inbox was full of messages from women upset about it. A wonderful British tall company, Long Tall Sally, purchased their warehouses and website, and just launched in the U.S., aiming to fill the gap.
The lack of tall women’s clothing is indeed a case of Freakonomics. Most mass market clothing chains and designers cater to a niche market (say, hip tweens or moms). Tall women’s stores must cater to a broad range of women 18-65, all while ordering clothes in much smaller (read: pricer) batches, and rotating 3-4 collections per year (unlike men’s stores, which can leave the same khakis on the rack for five years). It’s paramount that tall folks who want to see tall clothing chains succeed support these stores.
Tell us about your Fitting Manifesto.
In short, most products–everything from clothing to bus seats to lawn mowers to couches–are designed to fit people in the 15th-85th percentile or 10th-90th percentile. This is a tall outrage! It’s particularly egregious at box stores, which profit by selling one-size-fits-all products. Companies could profit greatly by meeting the needs of the 35% who don’t fit a size medium. Jet Blue was among the first to figure it out–they blatantly advertise to the tallest 15% of the marketplace, and are profiting from that. There’s a lot of money to be made there.
At the end of the day though, this is a problem tall folks can fix themselves, simply by putting their dollars behind products that fit: tall clothing stores, airlines that offer reasonable legroom, cars that don’t cause knee pain, doorways that can’t cause head injuries. Us tall people are so used to being squished up like pretzel people that we often buy products that simply don’t fit us.
Are tall people successful in the workplace?
Yep. Tall folks earn $789 more per inch per year, a figure that’s stayed steady for the past five decades in both the U.S. and U.K. And I found that much of it is behavioral. Tall people consistently display a few behaviors that are directly correlated to success, which can be mimicked by anyone. For example, sociologists find that coworkers tend to give tall people four feet of personal space, about the same amount they give to their bosses. And tall people are also more likely to be the “leader” in any group, whether choosing a lunch spot or a corporate takeover target, a habit that develops young, when other children naturally relate to tall kids as older peers.
What’s the world’s tallest country? Why are people there so much taller than in the U.S.?
The Netherlands is tall heaven. It’s the world’s tallest country, where men average 6’0″, and women 5’7″. Height is a very sensitive indicator of nutritional and health well-being: when the U.N. or W.H.O. are going into a new region, they use average heights as a quick indicator. The fact that the Dutch are three inches taller (a huge margin in height research) is attributed to the country’s far superior childhood and prenatal environments. It’s not genetics–with a few exceptions, populations from all continents have the same height potential. Americans have a per capita income roughly $10,000 greater than the Dutch, but that extra income is not spent on wellbeing in America.