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.


Billy

I thought I was tall (6'4') until last night I saw a guy at dinner that was easily 7'8"ish. Blew me away. Now there's a guy who will have issues with using everyday things. I believe he was English.

Hmmmmm

As a shortie I find this look at the other end of the spectrum interesting. I do have a hard time feeling sorry for someone that can reach cabinets without a stool and whose feet touch the ground when they sit in a chair (VBG)

I do agree that the world is marketed to the middle these days. Woe be to those of us at either end of the spectrum.

A man

She asserts that former presidents are all tall so tall is better than short.

By her rationale, all former presidents are men, so men are better than women.

PaulD

My son was a wrestler in high school and it is well known that being tall is a disadvantage. Not only do you "waste" weight on bone instead of muscle, but it is apparently easier for the opponent to torque long limbs than short ones (just as it is easier to turn a bolt with a longer wrench).

Nitin

i'm 6 feet tall, that's a good 6 inches above the national average for men in India. i used to attract a lot of attention, which was quite painful since i'm one of the shy variety you mention. but ever since i moved abroad, the problem disappeared, now i'm just average height. love blending in.

DaveyNC

I used to know a couple who might qualify for the world's tallest. The wife was 6'4" and, though I never asked him, the husband had to be about 7'. They had three kids, one of which was the same age as my daughter. In the 5th grade, she could look me in the eye and I am 6'2". Her older brother is a 7 footer.

They renovated their house to their specs, so all the counters were higher, the doorframes taller. It made me feel very tiny to go to their house.

John

#3 Correct. So what was your point :)

In her defense she did make that reference in the same paragraph where she listed several other statistics as "semi masturbatory". Lighten up.

PeterW

Since being tall is an unearned advantage, I think we should tax height, to improve equitability.

CK

I went to high school with Arianne and I'm 6'9" so I couldn't be happier to see all the great reviews this book has gotten.

CK

@8 sound like you should add Greg Mankiw's blog as he's covered a 'tall tax" several times as well as writing a paper on the economics of height based taxing.
http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2007/04/optimal-taxation-of-height.html

Vin

It seems to me that people who are tall, but not freakishly tall, have it best. Say, men who are about six foot, and women who are around 5'7" or so. They get the advantages of being tall without too many disadvantages.

That said, as a slightly-below-average height male, I can say that blending in has its disadvantages.

Ryan Phelps

You're forgetting the other half of the 35% market, well, at least for men you are. I'm a 5'3" man, and I can assure you, my problems are just the opposite end of the same stick. One of my good friends is 6'9", and neither of us can find socks, pants, or shirts that fit us. His knees hit everything, my feet don't reach the floor. He bumps his head, I need step ladders.

Also, what's your policy on dating short men? ;-)

Rudiger in Jersey

If geneticists could gift future parents the ability to predetermine their offsprings height, how tall would the next generation be?
I ask this 'cocktail' question and get surprisingly modest answers.
The average American male is 5'10. Ideal height is just over 6 ft, around 6'2 or 6'3. Over 6'5 is too tall by survey opinion.
The average American female is 5'6. Ideal height is 5'7 or 5 '8...Any taller is too tall in heels. Over 6 ft is too tall for women.
So if science could make a child any height from 3 ' to 12', in truth, parents would only want a 1 or 2 inch height advantage.

Contrast this to intelligence. IF future parents would predetermine intelligence, anywhere from an IQ of 50 to 250, what would be the intelligence in a generation? By my experience, parents prefer an IQ of 175 -225; the level of IQ for genius or supergenius. That is 3+ standard deviations above the mean and the equivalent of a 10 ft giant. That despite the fact that with intelligence and education comes a sense of unhappiness and unfulfillment. Go figure.

Read more...

David L

Wait--there are 22 million tall women (notwithstanding the absent definition of "tall")--that is 15% of the female population of the U.S., or about the same proportion as blacks or latinos. So this sort of fails my test as a human interest story.

That said, the dearth of clothing is interesting--and presumably short lived, now that the market opportunity has been blown wide open in the NYT.

Also, 6'3" might be tall for a woman, but it's not really that tall for a human, so quit your griping about not enough room in airplane seats, etc. A large proportion of men face those same issues.

KarenS

"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."

How on earth can an average person mimic this? The behavior she's talking about is the coworkers' behavior, not the tall person's.

EIleen Wyatt

If tall women have to be urged to support shops like (failed) Tall Girl, this suggests many of us have already found acceptable substitutes for its frumpy and over-priced clothing.

Junker

Woe to the minority woman who is short.... The cumulative disadvantage has to be crushing.

jonathan

In general, tall men get the benefit of prejudice while tall women get the burden.

Sarah

I don't know if you ever shopped at a Tall Girl store, but the big problem this store had in my opinion was not meeting their target audience. Just cause I'm tall doesn't mean my jean or dress size starts at 14. And even my grandma wouldn't wear some of their outdated mumu clothing. I hope the new owners will bring tall women's clothing into this century but also be cognizant of the thin tall woman out there unless they want to rename it Big and Tall Girl. And a little tip on clothes buying, designer Jeans and Pants bought from say Nordstroms are meant to be hemmed for our shorter counterparts, and tend to fit my 6'-2" figure right off the rack!

Doc

most of these comments seem like either sour grapes or heightism. I'm 6'0" and often feel very tall and also often feel very short. My doppelganger is a famous movie producer/writer/director. I'm taller than he except when he sits on his wallet. People are different. Get over it. BTW the President thing is a bit misrepresented. The history is that the tallER candidate has typically carried the day but that's more of a modern phenomenon, Washington's height notwithstanding.