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The Long and the Short of Being Tall

February 29, 1996|VICTORIA CLAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is it the height of vanity to obsess about one's stature?

In American folklore, heroes tend to be tall, dark and handsome. And there are discernible advantages to being tall in affairs of the heart, business and politics. But like everything, lofty stature has its price.

While there isn't nearly as much pressure for women to be tall, our images of beautiful women--mainly conveyed through ads and television--strongly encourage it. A slight 5 feet, 5 inches is now the average for women, but, according to a study by Brandeis University, the image of the ideal woman has been growing steadily taller.

The average American male is 5 feet, 10 inches, but the magic number for men--even if it requires they stretch the truth an inch or two--is 6 feet.

"Guys are intrigued by tall women," admits Lisa Rostalski, a 25-year-old San Fernando Valley marketing assistant who describes her stature as "5 feet 12."

Rostalski and other tall adults often speak of their height in a cavalier manner, but most admit that as children they paid a high psychological price for those future advantages.

"I remember being 12 years old in the sixth grade and I was already 5 feet 11," recounts a now-confident 6-foot-2 1/2-inch Deborah Kucharik of Torrance. "Other kids called me a goon, a geek or Lurch. Being that tall, nobody wanted to know you. It affected me tremendously."

After the painful childhood, however, the rewards started. By the time she reached college, Kucharik had stopped hiding in her brother's sloppy hand-me-down jeans and found pants that actually covered her long legs. She began modeling for a tall women's clothing store.

Buoyed by the charge to her self-esteem, she had lots of friends and was rarely dateless. She was, however, usually the taller one in a couple. While the shorter men in her life didn't seem to mind, Kucharik did. The practicalities alone were irritating.

"I remember going out with short guys and they would just hit my breasts. Hugging them was, like, 'Oh, gosh, don't do what I think you're going to do.' "

Eventually tired of dating shorter men, on her 26th birthday she joined the California Tip Toppers, a social club that limits membership to women 6 feet or taller and to men 6 feet, 4 inches or taller. Being around physically similar people made her feel even less of an outsider.

"I used to think I was an ugly duckling. Now I would describe myself as tall, vivacious, beautiful, a good head on my shoulders," Kucharik says.

As a testament to her evolution, Kucharik was crowned Ms. California Tip Topper last March. She now boasts about using her height to her advantage.

"People look up to me no matter what," says Kucharik with a laugh. "They say, 'Wow, she's tall. She's pretty.' They always ask if I model or if they can have my legs."

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As a society, we respond more favorably to tall people. In 1994, two Dartmouth University researchers found that boys who were tall adolescents wound up earning considerably more money as adults.

Other studies compared adults to one another. At least one study suggested that there may be an increased income of about $1,000 per year per inch of height above average. Both studies were conducted on male subjects. Researchers do not believe that the height-wage correlation is consistent when comparing women to women, but it may be one reason women statistically earn less than men.

Male or female, height may play a part in acquiring employment and receiving favorable performance reviews. One 6-foot-4 Los Angeles man says he has been offered every position for which he has interviewed. A 6-foot-tall woman says her height helps her project competence, even when she doesn't feel completely confident.

Celebrities know the power of perception. If they can help it, few celebrities will admit to being short. One well-known 5-foot-tall television actress, who declined to be interviewed on record, admits that she has turned down offers for lucrative deals that draw attention to her lack of height.

"Everyone knows I'm short," she says, "but I don't want to point it out. It's not good for my career."

It is sometimes difficult to get an accurate answer regarding the height of celebrities. Television talk show host Oprah Winfrey is a prime example. The Current Biography Yearbook lists her height as 5 feet. Other publications have listed it at around 5 feet, 4 inches and her publicist contends Winfrey is 5 feet, 6 1/2.

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Attitudes like these have helped contribute to a "short scare" and the use of drugs to help some short children grow taller. Since 1985, drug manufacturers have been able to synthetically reproduce human growth hormone. This drug is intended for extremely short children who are not producing adequate amounts of their own growth hormone, but parents of mildly short children who are not growth hormone deficient have begun to request it.

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