Short and sweet

You can look him straight in the eye and even borrow his clothes: Some reasons why smaller men rock.

Published November 8, 2004 5:58PM (EST)

For a person scrolling through any of the major online dating Web sites, it would not be altogether unreasonable to come to the conclusion that the short man is, due to lack of breeding opportunities, in imminent danger of extinction. Take, for example, Salon's own Spring Street Networks, on which attractive women in multiple cities unabashedly express their height preferences: Tikigirl816 is 30 years old and 5-foot-6. She likes the Red Hot Chili Peppers, considers boxers sexy, and wants to date a man between 5-foot-10 and 7-foot-1. Nerfeli, 34 and 5-foot-7, wishes she were currently getting a massage on a beach in Indonesia, though not in the presence of a guy shorter than 6-foot-1. And TBirdieNYC, 28 and 5-foot-8, keeps a bamboo plant in her bedroom -- but if you're under 6 feet, you'll never lay eyes on it.

To be sure, a bias against short men has spanned the ages: Our ancient ancestors associated greater height with a stronger ability to protect and provide. More recently, multiple studies reveal that short men make less money and are less likely to marry or have children than their taller counterparts, that they're deemed less "confident" and "masculine," and that in the United States, this election notwithstanding, they're less likely to become president. (George Bush is 5-foot-11 and John Kerry 6-foot-4). What is new, thanks to the explosion of online dating, is the extent to which technology allows the single woman or man to exercise personal biases, including those surrounding height. Just as you can eliminate a guy who lives too many miles away, or isn't the religion of your choosing, your preference settings can ensure that a guy below your height minimum never even shows up in your searches.

And yet there's an enthusiastic subculture of both straight women and gay men who don't merely tolerate short men, they prefer them. Their message? When you overlook the short man, you don't know what you're missing.

If you keep your eyes peeled, the evidence of this subculture is undeniable: There was, for instance, the episode of "Sex and the City" in which Samantha, initially reluctant to become involved with a suitor so diminutive he buys clothes from Bloomingdale's boys department, ends up dating him for two weeks -- a long relationship for Samantha -- after he tells her, "Give me an hour in the sack, sweetheart, and you'll swear I'm the jolly green giant." Then there was the Aug. 22 New York Times weddings/celebration announcement of lawyers Zoe Schonfeld and Ethan Leib. "It seemed almost experimental to date someone who was four inches shorter than me," Schonfeld, 5-foot-10, told the Times about Leib, 5-foot-6. Meanwhile, out in Hollywood, it's none other than the compactly virile Colin Farrell playing Alexander the Great in November's epic "Alexander." (Farrell is allegedly 5-foot-10, but if he's 5-foot-10, then I'm the queen of Macedonia.)

They don't always advertise it, but all around us -- shopping at our grocery stores, teaching in our schools -- are men and women leading honest, decent, short-man-loving lives. For Lizzie Skurnick, 31, a writer and editor in Baltimore, it's been this way as long as she can remember. As a child growing up in Englewood, N.J., Skurnick, now 5-foot-6, recalls that she was always attracted to the runts of the litter. "Maybe it's a Peter Pan thing, but the little guys always seemed very lithe and appealing while the other guys seemed ungainly and sweaty."

During Skurnick's adolescence, when once-short boys had growth spurts, "I did not find them attractive anymore." Her teenage crushes weren't on Rob Lowe (5-foot-11) or John Cusack (6-foot-3). "I always found the young Woody Allen much more attractive than the other guy in the movie," she says. "People would say, 'Woody Allen [5-foot-5] or Spike Lee [also 5-foot-5] could never get those girls -- isn't that ridiculous?' and I never thought it was ridiculous."

For Bill, a 30-ish end-user support provider at a dot-com in Miami, who declined to give his last name or exact age, a fondness for short men started with a crush on a junior high English teacher. "There were two teachers in that class and one was tall and very blah and the short one was more interesting in every way," Bill says. "He was very hairy, which made an impression on me as a gay youngster, he drank tea with honey when everyone else drank coffee, he came up with more interesting assignments, and he was more engaging speaking to the class."

Bill, who's just under 6 feet, didn't seriously date a short man until he was in his mid-20s -- but since then, he's been an enthusiast and, in fact, he maintains a Web site "for gay admirers of men who stand 5'7" and under." "I like the way short men fit in your arms," he says. "I like leaning down to kiss a guy -- it just feels sexy holding a masculine little guy." Yes, there can be logistical problems. "When I dated a guy who was 5 feet, sometimes kissing was uncomfortable," Bill says, "but luckily he had a split level home so I would just stand a step down."

The initial draw, Bill says, is visual: "Short muscular guys definitely make an impact. When they work out, they bulk up proportionally more than taller guys do -- it's like a walking sofa." Despite the short man's frequent portrayal in the media as wimpy or weak, both Bill and Skurnick see the opposite. "They're like compressed masculinity," Bill says, while Skurnick explains, "There's a potency to them."

Chris Messer, a communications manager at a Washington nonprofit, is attracted to what short men aren't -- space hogs. "I've dated people who are taller than I am, and there's too much of them physically," says Messer, who is 23 and 5-foot-11. "If someone is 6-foot-4, that's just too much of a person, too much of a body." In his last boyfriend, who was 4-foot-11 and three-quarters, Messer found the perfect solution for a crowded bed.

To what degree a man's height affects his personality is a much-debated topic. Invoking the Napoleon complex is, say those who have dated short men, facile. A guy who's 5-foot-2 isn't any more likely to be overly aggressive or determined to prove himself than a guy who's 6-foot-2 -- it's just that there's no name for the 6-foot-2 guy's behavior, except obnoxious. And indeed, because short men can't always win romantic attention based on their looks alone, some people argue that they actually have betterpersonalities.

"I'd like to promote that theory," says Aaron Tax, 28, a lawyer in Washington. Tax is 5-foot-7 -- and, even though adding a couple of inches on online dating profiles is so common among men that some women might assume that 5-foot-7 really means 5-foot-4 or 5-foot-5, Tax lists his real height on JDate. "Why misrepresent yourself?" he asks. "Who wants to start off with a lie?"

Tax has no desire to convince a woman to date him; he'd like to meet someone who's psyched to be his girlfriend. A woman, perhaps, like the 31-year-old Web publisher in Seattle who insists that her reluctance to use her name is due to her job rather than to any shame about her fondness for short men. "It's much easier to find great guys who are short than it is to find great guys who are tall," says the woman, who is 5-foot-8.

"Short men are an underserved market," she explains. "Most women, both short and tall, prefer tall guys and so a comparable short guy with the same qualities as a tall guy -- he's handsome, he's successful, he's funny -- is often more available. A chick can get more value in a short guy because the tall-guy market is overserved. All the tall guys are taken whether or not they're good."

The Web publisher became a convert after dating a short man seven years ago. "People have really set ideas of what happily ever after looks like," she says. "In the wedding photo, you don't want to be towering over your husband." But these preconceived ideas can, she argues, make us blind to the possibilities all around us. "Once you open your eyes, you realize there's this whole other world of men who previously you'd glanced past because you'd assumed, 'That's not someone I'd date.'" Added perks of dating a shorter guy, she says, are that you can look him in the eye when you're holding hands, and that when you borrow his clothes, his shirts don't hang off you like tunics.

The desire for a big, strong boyfriend or husband who will in turn make a woman feel feminine and dainty permeates our culture so thoroughly that it's rarely called into question -- but, as Skurnick the Baltimore editor points out, it's a little absurd.

"It's a lot to expect men to be huge and manly just to make us feel better," she says. "It's depending on men too much, and I don't even mean that in a self-righteous way. It just feels ridiculous to hang the whole idea of your attractiveness on someone being bigger than you." Besides, Skurnick adds, "A man could never be big enough to take away my insecurities. What am I supposed to do, have some 9-foot boyfriend?"

For Bill in Miami, it boils down to this: "Everyone is the same height in bed. There's no practical reason not to like short men. There are no wooly mammoths to fight these days."

And while it's true that humans, like other species, are biologically programmed to seek out large counterparts -- male gorillas stand on two hind legs rather than their usual four when wooing mates, and some fish bulge out their eyes and cheeks -- love can, in the end, overcome biology. Liking a short man "is not the natural pattern," says Helen Fisher (5-foot-5), an evolutionary anthropologist and the author of "Why We Love." But "romantic love evolved to be a mechanism so powerful that it can enable you to overlook basic prejudices."

By romantic love, Fisher is referring less to fuzzy feelings than to quantifiable chemicals in the brain, including dopamine. "You can set out looking for someone that's between 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-4 and someone that's 5-foot-8 walks in, cracks a joke at just the right moment, says something very tender to you, and boom, you fall madly in love with him," Fisher says. And if you can't convince yourself logically to overcome your biases and give short guys a chance, then dispense with logic altogether, and forget about slow, earnest getting-to-know-you coffee dates -- just hop in bed. "I'm not in the business of telling people when to copulate," Fisher says, "but very definitely, it can stimulate the chemistry for romantic love and the chemistry for attachment."

Even the good doctor herself has come under the spell of the short man. "Once, a very short man was walking toward me in the park. He was just beginning to court me and I thought to myself, how could I go out with this guy? He's overweight, he's short, he's bald -- I mean, why? And three weeks later, I thought he was the sexiest creature on earth because I had fallen in love with him."

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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