Where exactly does the preference come from? There’s a variety of reasons, at least when it comes to heterosexual relationships. One is cultural, including the predominantly Western expectations that reinforce the shorter woman–taller man dynamic, said Natalia Zhikhareva, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles.
“We live in a society where height is still appraised, being tall and being attractive,” she said. “Wherever you look, [whether it’s] social media, television, movies, take even a kid’s story, Cinderella — the leading man is tall. Imagine if Prince Charming got off his horse and he’s 5’5”? We’re inundated with this message that that is what’s attractive and that’s what’s appealing.”
Why some people state on their profile that they prefer taller men
On the other side of the coin, some women may be basing their own sense of attractiveness and femininity in the context of a partner’s height.
Rachael, who’s 25, 5’5”, and prefers men to be her height or taller, said that the increased stature eases any self-consciousness about her body shape and size, making intimacy feel more fulfilling and less awkward.
“In a way, it could also affect our sense of self-worth because it’s like, if you view short men as less compatible partners, why does that say about me if I only have short men rolling up in my DMs?” said Rachael, who asked that we not use her last name. “Does that mean that none of the top fine, muscular men are going to look [at] me?”
On dating apps, men tend to lead with measurements, starting their bios with “Height seems to be important on here so before you ask I’m 6’1”.” They may forgo personalized touches entirely by limiting deets to their height. It’s a tactic that can definitely entice a right-swipe — according to the dating app Badoo, the top keyword for men to get matches was “6ft.” But it also puts women in a tricky situation of having to resort to height as a proxy or signifier for who they are as a person.
“I’m a rather short woman in real life who doesn’t have a height preference for guys that I meet in real life,” Sabrina K. wrote BuzzFeed News in an email. “However, on dating apps, I do see myself wanting taller men. I know I don’t care for it in real life, but on dating apps I do … [because] profiles are not that detailed, and there’s nothing much to care about when swiping for men.”
That’s not to say using proxies is bad. We’re using them all the time when filtering for age, political status, or an undying love of Lizzo. But it seems height in particular prevents us from getting a real feel for a person who may otherwise be compatible in characteristics that aren’t one’s height, said Matthew Lundquist, a psychotherapist and founder of Tribeca Therapy in New York who specializes in dating therapy.
“Dating apps distort the reality of the complex, nuanced, in vivo, lived, chemical complexity of two people being in a room together, whether or not they want to go on a second date, kiss, make out, hook up, or build a life together,” he said.
Height stigma in the queer community
Trans men aren’t exempt from the height disadvantage when dating straight women, said James Barnes, a coach who helps trans people transition.
“I have had trans men who are clients [and] who will meet someone they want to date. The women will say they’re too short, straight-up say, ‘I’m not even against you being trans, you’re just not my type, I want a taller guy.’” said Barnes, who is transgender himself. “Height has impacted plenty of trans men in my life. … I’ve watched them miss out on what I would say would be the possibility of great relationships just because of height.”
This is especially true if passing as male is important to a trans man or masculine-identifying individual, said Zhikareva, who specializes in transgender care and counseling.
“When you go out dating and you’re measuring yourself up against the stereotype — which you presume to be someone tall and strong — and you feel that you’re not measuring up, you’re going to have insecurities,” she said. These insecurities can, consciously or not, lead trans individuals into a self-sabotaging belief their lack of height will prevent any hope of a second date — a mindset that cis men can also have.
For shorter men overall, it can add to a sense of hopelessness, despair, and spiraling bitterness over something physical that they can’t change, which can further compound their risk for poor mental health. (Swipe-based dating apps have been found to contribute to higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety, and depression; a 2020 Pew Research poll reported 25% of online daters said the apps made them feel more insecure.)
Even if you’re a short king who’s vanquished dating obstacles, the struggle may not be over for you. California native Urwah Bangi (5’8”) and her husband Uwais (5’3”), who is originally from the UK, regularly post videos on their height difference on TikTok. Bangi herself never had any height preferences growing up; her mother was taller than her father, and his height simply wasn’t discriminated against in their household. But when Bangi married her husband and they began posting videos on social media, the hateful comments were unrelenting.
“There were a lot of transphobic comments,” Bangi said. “[People online] were saying that I’m a lesbian in the closet and that [Uwais] is a trans man because of him being short. … They feminize him and masculinize me because of my height. If it’s a video of him doing something kind for me, they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s just a little girl.’ And if it’s a video of both of us standing together, they’re like, ‘Oh, look at her standing with her son,’ or something stupid like that.”
Bangi now has every comment on her TikTok videos filtered and asks her husband or a friend to approve the comments; the hate can be too much to bear. It suggests that a fixation on height can lead to toxic behavior and attitudes beyond the dating apps.
What therapists think about height bias on dating apps
In recent years (especially during the pandemic), online platforms and dating apps have worked toward more personal authenticity, compatibility, and real-life interactions. Yet, lurking within the algorithms is the risk of becoming too superficial, at least for some folks, Barnes said.
“I have friends who go on these dating apps and the shallowness comes out, and they aren’t normally shallow people,” he said. “[Most of] these apps are just designed to make it about looks, which is devastating because really everybody’s on there to find a relationship.”