Maclean’s Interview: Arianne Cohen

‘Tall expert’ Arianne Cohen on why tall people are smarter, healthier, richer and more attractive—and why we always vote for them


Maclean's Interview: Arianne CohenWhen Brooklyn journalist Arianne Cohen was a five-foot-three eight-year-old, her classmates nicknamed her Amazon Ari. Her pediatrician told her she was going to be “taller than the president,” who at the time was not every little girl’s role model: a six-foot-one Ronald Reagan. Now 28, Cohen stands proudly at six foot three. Her new book The Tall Book: A Celebration of Life from on High is the definitive guide to the tall experience: the unexpected trials and benefits that come with height, and why tall people have higher salaries, IQs and life expectancies than the rest of us.

Q: How do you define tall? I’m five seven. I thought I was tall.

A: Height is relative. Generally, you’re considered tall if you’re in the top 20 per cent, but functionally, if you’re towering over the people around you, you are tall.

Q: You say this is the book you always wanted to read growing up. What do you mean?

A: Height has really defined every aspect of my life, from which sports I participated in to who I dated to what I wore—because I couldn’t wear most clothes—to even what profession I ended up in. There’s been tons of research done on height and tall people but it was all tucked away in different corners of the world. I really wanted to create a bible for tall people—one book of foundational knowledge to really paint a picture of tall culture, because there really is a culture but it has never been written about.

Q: Like the fact that it’s annoying when tall people are asked if they play basketball.

A: There are three big questions that tall people are asked constantly. How tall are you? How tall are your parents? And do you play basketball? Tall people everywhere have been asked these questions thousands of times.

Q: Judging by your book, tall people seem to be sort of all-around better. For one thing, they’re healthier.

A: Yes, height is used by the United Nations and the World Health Organization as a very broad indicator of how populations are doing. Height is extremely sensitive so if the average height of a population dips by a half-inch or a quarter-inch, something marked is going on. They’re not getting good health care, they’re not getting good food.

Q: Is it true that in the United States, people are getting shorter?

A: Yes, and wider. It’s really stunning. In the last 20 years, the average American woman’s height has dropped from five foot four to five foot three and change, and it’s really a statement about our diet, our health care system and people not getting the care they need. In Sweden and the Netherlands, which both have top-notch prenatal care, they have the tallest people in the world.

Q: You point out that tall people control most of the world’s finances. Thirty per cent of American CEOs are over six foot three. Are tall people generally richer?

A: Tall people make $789 more per inch per year than average-height people and this has been proven repeatedly. It’s kind of funny for me to say I’m going to make $500,000 more in my career than you are, but when you look at it in a mass population, in the U.S., that’s $170 billion in income moving from the shortest quartile to the tallest quartile every year. That’s no joke.

Q: No, it seems pretty unfair. Why is it happening?

A: A lot of it is behavioural. Tall people often take on the role of leader at a very young age because their peers relate to them as an older child. So it’s the role they play. Even as a 22-year-old intern in a company, very often the tall guy or girl decides where everybody is going for lunch and is just sort of the ad hoc leader. That’s really important when it comes time for promotions because the boss is going to give the leadership role to the guy who’s already in it. That’s just how it goes.

Physically, tall people are also related to in the workplace as a boss. When friends talk to each other, they tend to lean in about 18 inches apart, co-workers talk about three feet apart, and when you talk to the boss, you give the boss a good four feet. You do not infringe on the boss’s personal space. But tall people are always given four feet, like the boss. So there’s this whole little dance of body language going on from the beginning.

Q: So they’re not necessarily smarter.

A: Tall people are indeed statistically smarter. But before short people everywhere come out and attack me, the reason tall people are a bit smarter is because the same childhood environments that produce tall, healthy bodies also tend to produce sharper brains. It has to do with nutrition, education, health care, and just well-being broadly speaking.

Q: So, basically, tall people are advantaged in every way and we should all resent them.

A: It’s interesting. Because tall people very consistently make more money, two Harvard economists recently wrote a paper laying out a strategy and process for a tall tax. As a tall person, I find this offensive for many reasons, but primarily because the tall life is actually fairly expensive. Yes, tall people make more money but they also spend more on everything from airplane seats that fit to using 30 per cent more of all products: lotions, extra-long towels, food. I eat significantly more than my petite friends do. But American politicians tend to be quite tall—over half of our senators are over six foot—so they won’t be voting through a tall tax any time soon.

Q: American presidents are even taller. You wrote that over the last century, the average president has measured in at six foot one. But not all powerful world leaders have been tall. Lenin and Hilter were short. Last week, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is five foot five, was caught standing on a footstool to appear taller behind a podium. Does it really make a difference?

A: Yes. Even more important than actually being tall is that the general population perceives you as being tall, which is why Sarkozy was on the platform. Politicians are masters at manipulating the image of their height. Campaign managers make sure their candidate is never photographed in the shadow of somebody else. You’ll see foreign dignitaries who go out of their way to be nowhere near Michelle Obama when there are cameras around. It’s just not a powerful image to be photographed under the first lady’s armpit.

Q: Do you consider Michelle Obama a great ambassador for tall women?

A: I am particularly thrilled with her willingness to wear three-inch heels and tower over the most powerful man on earth. That makes me extremely happy and I think it’s a powerful image to send out because before her, there really weren’t any tall female role models. When I was growing up there was a book called Sarah, Plain and Tall—except she’s plain and tall, and not tall and awesome. Let me tell you how non-inspirational it is to be a 13-year-old girl who’s projected to be six three andturn on the TV to find a male comedian playing Janet Reno, our former attorney general, who is six foot two.

Q: It would seem that tall men have it made.

A: That’s a huge misperception. I think many tall men are extremely self-conscious because to be tall is to be public and to walk around with a spotlight on you at all times and that’s a great boon if you’re a natural performer and the sort of guy who really enjoys attention, but a majority of personalities don’t enjoy it. Also, tall men have a harder time fitting. It is frankly alienating to not fit into basic furniture and clothing.

Q: But the dating world is much more treacherous for tall women, isn’t it?

A: Yes, our culture tends to confuse femininity with size and that is very, very tricky for tall women to navigate. If you grow up surrounded by the image that being feminine means being petite in relation to a man, it’s a little rough if you’re taller than 96 per cent of men, as I am.

Q: In your book, you say that junior high school dances were the worst.

A: Dances are created to highlight every single aspect of tall difference all at once. Boys won’t ask tall girls to dance.

Q: But the inverse is also true. Isn’t it just as tough for short boys growing up?

A: It’s true. There’s a kinship there between tall women and short men. They both understand what it’s like.

Q: You personally don’t “date down,” as you call it. Why not?

A: It sounds horrible to say, but it’s very true. Frequently when I walk into a room, particularly at a social event, I don’t even see men who are shorter than me. One of the things I’ve really worked on since writing this book is looking down from time to time because I realize that tall women have low birth rates. They have 0.7 children on average in their lifetime where average-height women have 1.4 children. The reason is very tall women want to date within their own tribe. They want to date up. For me, that really limits my dating pool. We’re talking 3.9 per cent of the male population. And when you add in all of my other ridiculous qualifications for any man I date, we’re talking about a minuscule percentage of the population and if I stick to that, I’m going to end up single.

Q: Is it true that you hate it when tall men date short women?

A: It drives me nuts. Honestly. It really does. It’s a personal hitch of mine. But it’s representative of the fact that tall men are the most successful dating population on earth. Most heterosexual people date somebodywho’s about an eight per cent height difference from them, which is about five inches. Tall men are really the only ones who don’t do this. Tall men date whoever the hell they want. They date, on average, someone who is eight inches apart from them. So when you look at the statistics, what you end up with again is tall women who don’t have partners.

Q: But are there not plenty of men who have a particular attraction to tall women?

A: My inbox is right now full of emails from men who fetishize tall women. Tall fetishes are about power dynamics—a man who wants to be enveloped by a woman if not dominated. Since the Second World War, there’ve been connotations in popular culture between tall women and dominatrixes and sexual aggression. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. It’s something tall women navigate silently. I really would have appreciated knowing this before the time that I went on a date and he requested that I stand on a stepstool and that we make out. I didn’t get it.

Q: What’s the most extreme tall experience you’ve ever had?

A: When I was working in Cambodia as a journalist, I was the tallest person that anyone there had ever seen. I was taller than any man. I was taller than what they remembered of American GIs from the Vietnam War. I needed to get an emergency appendectomy in Thailand. They removed my appendix and took a MRI and came in and told me that my pancreas had a tumour on it. They showed me a picture of my pancreas and showed me where it was supposed to end and it extended five inches past that. It turned out that radiologists have a list on the wall of the range of organ sizes and that mine was more than double the typical Thai person and it was all just a funny misunderstanding. I spent a week in a Thai hospital thinking I was going to die of pancreatic cancer. Then the doctor tells me, “No dear, you are just tall.”


Maclean’s Interview: Arianne Cohen

  1. Could she contradict herself a few more times?

  2. When did Lenin and Hitler become the respresentatives of short world leaders? What about Churchill and Gandhi? Hitler, by the way, was 5'8", which was average for his time, and 2" taller than Churchill. As for other infamous dictators, their heights run the gamut: Mao, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, and Augusto Pinochet, for instance, either are or were all tall.

    And what's with the question about how Sarkozy getting "caught" standing on a footstool? That was a ridiculous item in the press, about as ridiculous as it would be to make fun of tall speakers for stooping to use a microphone.

    Ms. Cohen authored a book extolling what's unique and what's great about being tall, which makes it terrific reading for anybody who feels uncomfortably conspicuous because they literally stand out in a crowd. I think Macleans could have relayed the positive message about being tall without simultaneously including a negative message about being short.

  3. As a tall person, I really feel like I deserve more money to put up with all the crap. I have to sit in a chair all day that's made for a smaller person, at a desk for a small person, people are always asking if I can reach things for them, I have to duck through doors, on the subway and on airplanes, and I put up with stares and comments all day. It's also almost impossible to buy clothes of the rack, and what I can find aren't things I like, all the big and tall stores are for people who are like 6'4 with a 40" waist not for anyone who is tall and thin. People always used to ask me about that Moores commercial where the guy walks around bashing head into stuff…. so pay up!

  4. I agree with Jeff comment "When did Lenin and Hitler become the respresentatives of short world leaders?"

    Such examples both exemplify and perpetuate a cultural height bias —insensitively ironic— against short people. This is nefarious shoddy journalism.

  5. Short, tall, fat, thin, black, white – we all have our advantages and disadvanteges, and no one deserves anything over anyone else as each person has their own physical and emotional demons to deal with each day. The book is interesting and is a fun read for those who are always looking for another perspective, but don't take it to heart.

  6. Other than the idiotic "do you play basketball" question, which I hear more than once a day, throughout my entire life, being a 6'6" man is awesome. Everything she says applies to me, including being able to date any woman that I want. Of course, good looks, confidence and style are also a major component of this.

    • And modesty, obviously.

    • Well, I'm 5'4", good looking, confident, I have toured much of the world playing music, had my share of Woman, (some taller than me) and I have money too! I'm glad you have a great life my friend!, but my situation kind of blows this theory out of the Water!

  7. Hmmm… so where does Sudan fit in all this? Average height is greater than most European and North American countries, yet health care, education, and availability of food is nowhere near…
    What about northern China?
    maybe it's safer to say climate and environmental factors have more to do with height than health and wealth…

  8. This is really frustrating when you consider yourself as a normal and smart human being. I always was smarter than other kids and taller. I always was at the back of the line in the school because I was the taller. Usually in the Fair or amusement park people did not allowed me to use the games because they thought I was older than 12 years old!. Even in Halloween a Lady told me I was really old to be asking for candies! and I was just 10 or eleven years old in Mexico. I had nicknames in elementary school as the "jirafe". I could not use "high" hills because I appeared like I was trying to offend or humilliate shorter girls. People asked me: How is the weather up there?!, How tall you are?, how tall are your parents?, do you play basketball? (I was not really fan of any sports in school, so I hated that question). People used to ask my mother: What did you feed your daughter? coconut milk from the palms? You gave her to eat the babies food with the bottle and everything right?!. Just really, really bad and offensive jokes, however girls and Ladies and people in general always envy me because I am tall at the same time… :P

  9. I guess there is a few research about what she is talking about. Maybe she is just finding the "begining or the tip of the rope" haha about tall people. They are really tall by the way! 6" 2', 6"3'? wow!.
    I consider myself tall but not as tall as her and eventhough I am a tall mexican! (5" 10') I had the same problems as her.
    Maybe she missed to mention more other countries and important people as many of you said but all the other facts I guess are true by experience.
    I did not have as many boyfriends as my average friends because only a few guys would actually approach to me to talk and maybe try to have a deeper relationship. I had a couple of cases of tall guys trying to date me. Usually guys who are 5" 8', or shorter than me were braver! and they used to say to me:
    "Tall ladies eventhough they hit me!???"…

  10. A lot of wonky 'science' behind this 'smart' woman's book. I have never read such tripe in my life.

  11. I'm curious if she ever examined immigration patterns relative to these decreases in the average height of women and immigration relative to income. If she had, I suspect she might have formulated some different hypotheses. It's too bad that with the great view her height has afforded her, that she's unable to see the forest for the trees.

  12. Interesting. I live in Japan and as you probably know, most Japanese are shorter than most Canadians. Everyone says it is diet, environment, etc. but I think it is mainly because Japanese men believe short women are cuter, sexier, and more desirable. Tall women in Japan have an extremely hard time attracting men. Darwin's theory of natural selection at work: if the short women are the ones getting married and having babies … you end up with a short population. Maybe the reason the Swedes are so tall is that Swedish men find tall women sexy. BTW In Japan I am extremely tall. In Canada I am average. It really plays games with my self image.

    • I don't know how it works exactly, but the Dutch have a very high proportion of tall people. I'm visiting my sister and her four (almost adult) kids and the tallest one is 6'4" and the shortest one is 5'10, two boys and two girls and two Dutch parents. I don't know. The father's family members are not exceptionally tall and neither are the members in my family. Yet, these kids are all very tall. My other sister has two very tall boys, (both over 6' and not very tall parents) and one other sister has one tall boy as well. I have one tall one and one small one and one somewhere in the middle, average I guess.

  13. Some interesting points made and interesting statistics given, though on the whole it sounds like someone trying to buffer their own insecurities with faulty logic. A significant percentage of CEOs being taller than average is a trend (or not even), but it does not demonstrate causality! Same thing with supposed intelligence!

    • I completely agree with you, it is a TREND. In a few years people will say the opposite about short people (smarter, live longer, make more money, more confident). Just like how people thought that all this technology would make our life easier, when in fact we all work harder than before now.

      I understand that the author is trying to help other tall people like herself which is cool, but from reading this it seems like she has very high-self esteem which is what masks her insecurity.

      Hell I'm 5'6 and asian, and I live in Canada. I think pretty much everyone here is taller than me, even the girls but that doesn't stop me from trying to get them. I get a few phone numbers here and there, haven't really lead to anything yet but I will keep trying because I know I will come across some cool women.

  14. While some ideas seem logical (e.g. why tall people become leaders and, therefore, make more money), some other conclusions appear to be a bit of a stretch, e.g. taller person = higher IQ (?). Yes, we agree that many people in leadership positions are tall, and the leaders are expected and percieved to be smart; but do they really have a clue? I would be very interested to see a normalized height distribution curve among a group of people with a proven IQ advantage, e.g. Nobel Prize recepients in science and literature (no Peace Prize please, that falls into leadership category again). I think correlation between person's height, abilities, and achivments is not as simple as Ms. Cohen presents it, at least in this Maclean's interview.

  15. In my life experience which is broadly diverse geographically, and I am almost twice the age of Ms. Cohen's, I've seen very successful, creative, and bright people of all heights (as well as dumbest and meanest bastards of all sizes). As to statistics she constantly refers to, everybody knows that "there are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics". Some of her statements claiming tall people's superiority could have been plain offensive if they were not equally proposterous. There are advantages and disadvantages in being tall or short. Being nicknamed "jirafe" in school as in one of the comments above, probably is not half as bad as bullying and beating many shorter kids face. Most really smart people learn to live with their height, and maybe Ms. Cohen should too, instead of trying to hide her insecurity (sorry, still can see it) behind selfconfidence-boosting writing exercises of a doubtful scientific and social value.

  16. Doesn't this show what is the real IQ of taller people?

  17. Cohen is just another Jew stirring up trouble,

  18. Not sure where she gets a lot of these ridiculous ‘facts’…
    I wonder where the data comes from regarding the three foot vs. four foot space that is given.
    Anyway it surprised me that all the factors affecting height were listed as “nutrition, education, health care, and just well-being broadly” –leaving out genetics which is really the main and most important factor.

    As a tall woman at 5’10 I was able to relate to her experiences. I definitely can identify with this: “It is frankly alienating to not fit into basic furniture and clothing.”

    However, I do not believe in this “kinship” between tall women and short men. Short men can always find short women to date. Tall women are kind of just like leftovers that most people do not want…

    Oh and the basketball question is truly annoying.