Is height in men a form of “objectification” by women? Obsidian would like to start the discussion.
The recent controversy involving one Ms. Sandra Fluke and one Mr. Rush Limbaugh, opened yet another round in what seems to be a neverending debate concerning a “sexual double standard”– where men are lionized as sexual heroes for having a prodigious bedpost notch-count, while women who have (or are perceived to have) numerous lovers are scandalized and penalized.
The debate fascinates me; for one, it presumes that there only one such “double standard”; and second, it suggests that men are the ones that subject women to any such “double standards”. But this is personal to me as well, because I live on the other side of the “double standards” debate all the time. And from what I see, there is a “double standard” that adversely impacts the lives of men all the time; it is an objectification of men, if you will, and one that is rarely talked about openly – and that is height.
I focus on this one area because, it is perhaps the closest analog to the idea that a woman, deemed a “slut”, is then penalized; for men, it has been shown repeatedly in study after study, both those conducted under the strictest of academic conditions and the more “looser” internet online dating surveys taken by women, that they (women) would prefer a taller man to a shorter one, all other factors being equal of course. Indeed, it has been shown that, even if the shorter man has solid educational credentials and earning potential, that women would prefer a taller man who was a felon. One reality tv show that seeks to pair up couples meeting “cold” showed as its season-ending climatic episode, a woman deciding to leave the compound where all the putative couples stayed, rather than remain with her “soulmate”, who turned out to be short in stature when she could finally meet him face to face. As one might imagine, he was crushed.
I can most certainly relate to what that man on the tv show was going through, and here is where it is my hope that my personal testimony will humanize and broaden the discussion about sexual double standards – because I am myself, a short(er) man. At five feet eight inches (the tallest I’ve ever been in my entire life), I fall two inches shorter than the American national average for male height (which is 5’10″) – and I can assure anyone reading this, that the dating life has been no crystal stair, to borrow a well-known phrase. I have known firsthand what it is like to be rejected for consideration as a date for the evening, or a prom date in high school and so forth, purely on the basis of my height, or the lack thereof – and by “rejected” I mean, being told, flat out, “you’re too short!” in the most harshest of ways. This hurt. Deeply. Not because I lacked a basic compatibility with those who I sought out as potential mates; or because I wasn’t smart or curious or well read enough; or because I was a slacker and wouldn’t hit a lick if my life depended on it; but simply because of something I had absolutely no control over. I was indeed (negatively) objectified in a way that the Wikipedia entry on the term aptly sums up: “Objectification is an attitude that regards a person as a commodity or as an object for use, with little or no regard for a person’s personality or sentience.” I have known, for years, that it was just as possible for women to objectify men, as it was for the other way around. Yet, this fact is never discussed, no matter what the quarter, no matter what the venue or forum, no matter what the circle.
When I look towards the tendency of men like Limbaugh to lambaste women like Fluke as “sluts” –and the tendency of women to desire taller men as mates – I also look towards explanations by the discipline known as Evolutionary Psychology. In both instances, so the science goes, these tendencies are the result of human male and female evolutionary adaptations to the ancestral environment on Earth many hundreds of thousands of years ago; so, in the case of the “slut” appellation, it came about as an attempt to control the sexual activity of women to ensure what evolutionary psychologists refer to as “paternity certainty”; and in the case of the women preferring to choose taller to shorter men, this came about as a simple fact that, in matters of the hunt and war, Size Matters. A larger man had a decided advantage over a shorter one in the ancestral environment; and it was in a woman’s interest to go with the larger man to ensure her survival, and that of any offspring she would have with said larger man. Both of these patterns have engrained themselves on our brains over hundreds of thousands of years to give us what we have today in terms of our (mating) behavior.
Contrary to what some of EvoPsych’s critics say however, it is indeed possible for one or even a group of individuals to alter their behavioral patterns, no matter how engrained; for example, as the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has so aptly demonstrated in his work “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, we as a species have been able to put a collar on violence (which was far and away more prevalent in the ancestral environment), of all kinds — and that includes sexual violence. It’s been a long and arduous process over many centuries, yes — one filled with fits and starts, without a doubt — but, as Pinker shows, we have made progress.
This should fill the hearts of those who wish to change the hearts and minds of men like Limbaugh on the “slut question” with hope, because, if history is any guide, such views can and will change with time. Indeed, the much publicized “Slut Walks” of last year, to say nothing of the dozens of advertisers of Mr. Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated radio show deciding to distance themselves from Mr. Limbaugh last month, are clear and present proofs that despite our “hardwiring”, we can change for the better.
And that brings me back to the topic at hand–examining one aspect of the other side of the “double standard” debate. If it can be proven that men can change in their attitudes–in this case, their sexual attitudes– towards women–it stands to reason that women themselves, can change their attitudes towards men (and their height) as well.
But in order to do that, we have to be willing to acknowledge that we have these tendencies to begin with; and we have to be willing to talk about them. That means that men cannot do it alone; women have to be along for the ride.