How's the View Up There?: A Q&A With the Author of The Tall Book

Arianne Cohen Arianne Cohen

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.

Q.


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.

A.

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.

Q.

So are tall people better?

A.

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.

Q.

Is it true that the country’s only tall women’s store just closed? How can that be possible?

A.

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.

Q.

Tell us about your Fitting Manifesto.

A.

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.

Q.

Are tall people successful in the workplace?

A.

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.

Q.

What’s the world’s tallest country? Why are people there so much taller than in the U.S.?

A.

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.


Paul

A journalist who writes " Us tall people are so used to being squished up like pretzel people..."

Yikes. Hope she doesn't get hired at the Times.

Pingry

I'm so thoroughly average in height, but I'm way too skinny in weight, and so I can understand the troubles of being +-3 standard deviations from the mean. It's virtually impossible for me to find pants that fit!

--Pingry

myron

I'm 6'2" and teach in Japanese elementary schools. Kids can't get past the fact that I'm tall.

B B

Thanks! And don't forget that the average person reclining that airplane seat is about 5'4". I spent 8hrs flying home from Paris with one of these yahoos trying to jam my kneecaps into my femurs. He was 5'6" tops.

Jonathan

I am 6'4" and Dutch. From what I've heard, Dutch people are so tall because of their insistence to drink milk throughout childhood. Our infant death rates are actually higher than the European average.

What I want to know is: why is my country unable to produce successful basketball players?

Kevin

#6, one candidate for the world's tallest couple is Yao Ming (7' 6") and Ye Li (6' 3") (Chinese basketball players).

Kevin

I'm 6 feet tall, which is about 3 inches above average in the USA. But it took a while to think of myself as being tall. In grade school, when the boys and girls were lined up in height order, I was always one of the shorter boys. Out of roughly 15 boys, I was usually between 3rd to 5th shortest. This may have something to do with my having a late birthday (September), so some kids were 8 months further developed than I was. It wasn't till around my junior year in high school that I started getting taller than most of my friends. A friend of mine has a picture of us in 8th grade where we are the same height, now I have 4 inches on him. I know I'm not freakishly tall, but I never really got comfortable with thinking of myself as being tall.

Chupatribra

What I've always found odd is that when I see a tall female, she is bound to be wearing high heels. It's not just the environment because the short or average height women beside her typically aren't. This happens so frequently that I've commented about it to others. And, no, the heels are not the cause of the height disparity I'm perceiving.

If being too tall were such a burden, it seems that this would never happen.

Mariela

Chupa, you completely miss the author's point.

Being tall is its own burden in many ways.....but I bear that burden just by getting out of bed in the morning, no matter if I'm wearing 4" heels or scuff slippers. I don't blend in, and the world isn't created for my height no matter what, whether I choose extra tallness or not.

Finally now, at 40 & 6', I understand that, and wear the crap out of my heels. I spent 20 years (at my full height) wearing flats & trying to fit in & not 'make it worse', but it just isn't happening (and won't), so why let the short chicks have all the shoe fun? Legs & outfits look better with heels.

As for the 'tall tax", I already pay it. Long jeans & pants (in the cheaper brands, when you can even find them) are often $5 or more extra than the same exact pants in 'standard' inseams (except at the western wear stores). What? Surely those extra 5 inches of fabric aren't $1 an inch!! I don't understand why men get pants in various lengths (32x30, 32x32, 32x34, 32x36, etc) and women get "here's the size 12" Or, at the very most, you can choose 12 Reg or 12 Petite.

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Meghan

Not only am I tall (just under 6'0), but i'm also a red head. Upside, my friends will always find me in a crowd; downside, people can always find me.

Rianna

I am 6'5, and as a 20 year old woman of this height I have often felt ridiculously abnormal in everday life. Finding clothes that fit, travelling and even just walking down the street can be a pain. I've had parents point me out to their children, to get them to ogle me and notice just how different I am, and it sucks. But I am lucky in that the rest of my family is also very tall (although I am the tallest of my siblings), I am on a collegiate athletic scholarship and I have embraced my height. FYI my favourite pair of heels are 2.5 inches, and I also pull out my 4inch heels on special occasions.

David

Height is an issue that is entangled with gender. This article would have been a whole lot more interesting had the author focused on being a woman and being tall.

As a shorter than average male (in the US), I have had to cope with said and unsaid prejudices. With being overtly belittled (not meant to be a pun) to being completely ignored or unnoticed. If I try to get people's attention, I might be labeled as having a Napoleon complex. If I were a woman at my height of 5'5", this would rarely happen. Especially if I, say, had large breasts.

Height is phenomenon that affects short men in relationships and professions (most especially if you want to run for president, as the author indirectly alluded to). Women are usually benefited in the workplace by being taller, but because there are always men that are above 6 feet to be had, it is not nearly as difficult to find a partner in our American culture that insists that men be taller than their female partners.

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Eugene

I'm a white male who is 5'8". For some reason, it's very difficult for me to find a height-appropriate White girl here in the US. I'm from Eastern Europe originally and we tend to be a little shorter than the Western-European ethnicities that form the genetic fiber of North America.

The only girls who are reasonable matches for me height-wise when I go out to bars or clubs are non-European: Indian, Hispanic, and Asian. I'm not kidding. Unfortunately, I'm not interested in these other ethnicities because they're very different from me culturally, and I have a hard time relating to them. For a relationship I'd like to find a girl who's white European like me, and who is also a good match height-wise (i.e. perhaps 5'5 or below, for a 5'8 guy). Yet, absolutely no luck in that department. This has frustrated me for years!

Noumenon

Doesn't make sense to me that the tall premium stays the same. If being tall makes you a "winner," it should be much more valuable now that an ever-increasing proportion of wealth goes to the winners. Could the premium really only be for reaching high things?

Stacy

#29 Mariela, I completely agree with you. I often wonder who pants are actually made to fit - at 5'3x120, I'm a 4 in waist but a 0/2 in length, and there are rarely if ever petite-length. I usually end up wearing them rolled. I also gave up wearing heels a while ago, figuring that if I'm short, I'm short, and I shouldn't keep tripping myself up in platforms (although I'm a 6, which is *perfectly* the display size in shoes).
Do you have difficulty with shirts riding up as well?

Other issues: I, too, feel cramped in plane seat. Must be awful for anyone taller than me. However, my knees are most cramped in my car, as the distance I need to be to reach the pedal does not match the height of the interior engine cover... and today I had to ask someone to reach a high-shelf item at the grocery store.

Someone should write The Short Book and complain how the only benefit we get is being good at hide-and-seek.

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Marcus

re tall tax- why not an IQ tax, a good-looking tax, a gender tax, an ethnicity tax, an inheritance tax, a citizen of the first world tax etc.... Or maybe just settle for progressive taxation and let all the 'earned' and 'unearned' bonuses contribute proportianally to how much they may have affected earnings.

BTW 6'5" if relevant.

Scott

I'm a 6'5" American male. It's good to see a book written about being tall. Not that I consider my height as something that I should whine about or others should pity me for, but it does come with a unique set of challenges that most people seem to roll their eyes at. She mentioned a few: airplanes, doorways, etc. The same goes for low-ceilinged subway cars, roller coasters, theater seats, and many many back seats of cars.

Then there are the social aspects: total strangers feel it's acceptable to grill me why I don't play basketball, to ask how much I weigh, or to call me "Lurch" "Stretch" or "Sasquatch." Again not friends or acquaintances, but total strangers.

There is a certain comfort, however, in knowing what your first impression on others will be 95% of the time.

Migstradamus

I'm 6'4" with broad shoulders and long arms and one thing I've learned is that "XL" is for fat, not for tall. Most off the rack large clothes are wider, not longer. XL shirts are often too big, and I'm far from slim at 240. And while we sort of get a clothing subsidy since we usually pay the same price for more material, more often we end up paying a lot more for "tall" sized clothes. So that extra money we earn per inch goes to good use. Online shopping has been a salvation since few stores stock B&T sizes even when the line produces them. Try finding 36" inseam jeans in a store.

I lived in Mexico for a few years and never got used to being stared at like I was Godzilla whenever I entered a crowded space where my height was obvious. I only feel self-conscious in crowds, like seeing the tops of all the heads on a subway platform. I used to think California was taller than New York, but eventually I realized this perception was because I was more often in big crowds in NY. Nothing like thinking, "man that guy is tall!" only to realize he's barely as tall as I am when he walks by to give you that Godzilla feeling.

On the pro side, the basic physical advantages of being able to lift, move, and reach things is great. (Constantly being asked to lift and reach things is less good, at least as you get older.) Hitting your head on everything, not so great. Travel is a major downside, as mentioned by the author and others above. Planes are bad because of the duration, but I don't even bother trying to sit on city buses. Takes longer to extricate myself than the trip takes.

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cartman

Like Jonathan (#25) I'm 6'4" and Dutch. I've also heard that drinking lots of milk made the Dutch tall on average, but I'm not sure how that's supposed to work. Through growth hormones in milk? I'm not considered tall in the Netherlands, but kinda tall in California. I was a freak show on a trip to Thailand (people pointing, taking pictures, etc.)

I'll admit that begin moderately tall is great, and the pros outweigh the cons easily.

I doubt you can mimic something the Dutch (may) have done to become tall on average (but feel free to drink milk with every meal just to be safe). Rather, I suspect people in other countries are doing or eating something that prevents them from reaching their height potential. Too much sugar? Corn? Fat? I don't recommend trying the Masai diet.

Folks in the Northern part of the Netherlands (e.g. Frisians) are noticeably taller than average.

bifyu

For sports where it matters, such as basketball or volleyball, it's an inescapable truth that you can't coach height.