The smalling of America

Height gap with Europe measures U.S. shortfall on social justice

"LET'S GET SMALL," was a wonderfully goofy Steve-Martinism of the past, mocking the '60s drug culture while opening new vistas of ironic irreverence to homeroom comedians everywhere. Martin was just trying to be funny, but it turns out that Americans as a whole have taken him up on the offer.


Before World War II, men in the United States stood head and sometimes shoulders over the rest of the world at an average height of 5 feet, 10 inches. Americans, in fact, had been taller than Europeans for at least two centuries. But, in the 1950s when we towered over the puny 5-foot-3 frames of Holland's average Jan, the Dutch began an astonishing turnaround. They have since surpassed U.S. men and stand tallest among the tall at a lordly average of 6 foot 1.

And the once dominant Yanks? We've shrunk to a diminutive 5 feet, 9 inches, a height most Dutchmen cannot help but overlook in amusement. And the Dutch are not the only ones holding their giant hands over gargantuan smirks these days. Turns out that while our stature has diminished—and American women have smallified even more precipitously than men—the folks in the rest of the industrialized world have been getting taller. Scandinavians and other northern Europeans follow in the increasingly enormous footsteps of the Dutch with parallel growth spurts, and the Japanese and Chinese are growing right alongside them.

So what's up, or down, rather, with America? No longer standing tall among the rest of the world diplomatically and economically, have we unconsciously decided to physically follow suit? (Anti-immigrants might be tempted to blame the height gap on recent Latino and Asian immigrants, however, these groups were excluded from U.S. height studies.)

Part of the problem is the American fat-rich but nutrition-poor diet. In short, our heights may be declining, but our girths are expanding—extravagantly. While the Dutch of the world have to puzzle out new size standards that will mean higher doorknobs and light switches, and longer beds and ambulances, American ergonomics experts are figuring innovative new ways to fatten rapid transit seats to accommodate the manifest destiny of America's bountiful butts.

But our bad diets are only part of the picture. Anthropometric historians, people who actually make careers out of studying the cultural subtext of human height, believe that height could be an uber-indicator of social welfare, a physical composite of the factors that demonstrate a society's well-being. The University of Munich's John Komlos (5-5), says much of our continuing height differential with other industrialized societies can be attributed to the relative economic inequity of the United States compared to our tallish European brethren.

Economists calculate national income distribution according to the Gini coefficient, a number between 0 and 1, where 0 means perfect equality—everyone has the same income—and 1 means perfect inequality—one person has all the income. With their historically equitable income distribution, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries rank at the low end of the Gini scale. The U.S. falls at the high end, and that's where the high ends.

One way to respond to consistent income disparities is to build a domestic social infrastructure that mitigates some of the worst effects of inequity and poverty, for example, the cradle-to-grave social welfarism that Northern European societies developed during their growth-spurt years after WWII. Komlos points out that while the U.S. has high per capita income, 15 percent of its population has no health insurance and some 35 million live below the poverty line.

Apparently a master of understatement, he says, "It's unusual that such a rich country is not willing to invest more in its children." The result of that inattention? Many children in the U.S. have inadequate nutrition and health care, and worrisome growth patterns are not detected early enough to do something about them.

It's a tall order, but given its abundance, the U.S. could better measure up to a vision of a common good that includes everybody, maybe even one that leaves no shrunken child behind. The church teaches that a society will be judged by how well it treats the most vulnerable within it. Height is apparently a new reference point for that judgment, and we Americans are sadly falling short.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the September 2004 (Volume 69, Number 9) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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