Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Short Stuff

According to a recent study, conducted by researchers from Princeton and the University of Munich and published in Social Science Quarterly, the average height of Americans has been on the decline while the average height of Europeans has increased. From colonial times (when George Washington stood at 6'2") up until around the 1970s, Americans were the tallest people in the world -- but no longer. Today the average Dutchman stands at 6'2" and the average Dane at 6' while the average American male is only 5'10".

So why are future generations of Americans shrinking compared with their European cousins? Apparently, the difference cannot be explained away by the nation's changing ethnic composition. Rather, one of the likely factors is nutrition. It certainly cannot be said that American children are not getting enough to eat -- obesity is a big problem for our youth, but whereas children may be ingesting too much fat and calories from junk food they may not be getting the nutrients they need from healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat. This would mesh with another article I read which stated that a growing number of Britons who are overweight, or even morbidly obese, have also been found to be malnourished. It has also been suggested that overeating might cause children's bodies to produce too much growth hormone too early which leads them to stop growing at an earlier age.

Another factor cited by the researchers as a likely contributor to this phenomenon is the state of health care and social welfare programs in the US as compared to Europe. European nations have national health care systems which help insure that all children and expectant mothers receive the medical care they need. Thus our nation's shrinking stature is due in part to disparities in access to health care services and to the large gap between the standard of living of our nation's haves and have-nots.

Now I'm a proud 5'7". I do not think that height is really that great a concern (although it has been suggested that taller men have an advantage in finding a mate and even that they earn more). But I do think that Americans' shrinking stature is a problem in so much as it reflects poor diet and limited access to health care and in that height is a general indicator of a people's state of health and prosperity.

On a related note: I first learned about these findings today in this ABC news video clip, and I noticed several interesting differences between ABC's coverage of the phenomenon and that which I later found in the international articles cited above.

(1) Compared with the two German articles, which stress even in their headline that this decline is in no small part due to inferior US health care, ABC seems to deemphasize health care (which appears to be cited by the researchers as a major factor) and instead devotes more time to discussing dietary concerns.

(2) ABC is the only source which claims that Americans are now on average the shortest of all industrialized peoples. Color me sceptical here. Traditionally, the stereotype is that Americans are taller than Asian peoples such as the Japanese and Southern European peoples such as Italians or Greeks due to genetic variations and/or diet. Is this no longer true? I know that Japanese young people are much taller than previous generations due to dietary changes. But whereas ABC cites the average height of Dutch and Danish males (both Northern Europeans) we are given no statistics for other countries nor any indication about which other industrial nations they are referring to. I'm not saying that this claim is necessarily false, but I wish they gave us the details behind their vague generalization.

(3) The ABC video also contains a few -- totally pointless -- interviews with your average, stupid American on the street [I recommend you watch it if only for these]. First there is a 6'3" man who is like "I don't want to live in a world where the Dutch tower over us" and then there is some bimbo who is like "if the men are taller in Europe then oooh la la. I'll start putting mayonnaise on my fries." But best of all is the interview with a shrimpy 4'7" American boy who says that if the Dutch are taller than us now than no way does he want to go over there: he'd "feel terrible" about his short self. He seems to suggest that Americans travel to other countries so that they can point at shorter foreigners and laugh; but who would want to travel abroad only to suffer the humiliation of being the shortest man on the tram?

TV show currently on pause: Entourage
Tonight's beer of choice: Restoration ale
Song I'm currently listening to: The Magnetic Fields - Strange Powers


Josie said...

i hope our men folk do get shorter because i loves me some short mens. know why? cuz little legs dont run away as fast!!!

seriously tho, i love short men.

Jessie Wong - Superhero said...

When i was in elementary school, we learned that the pinky toe was slowly devolving due to lack of use. But now I'm wondering if this is a cultural phenomena rather than pan-human? Like, maybe North Americans lack a certain basic respect for our feet and so we are slowly losing our toes, one by one? BTW, when my kid was born I examined his pinky toe to see if it indeed looked devolved and although it is really really little (cause how weird would it be if it weren't?) I don't see evidence that he is a step towards pinky-toelessness b/c it's mostly proportionate to the other toes and even has its own toe nail...although, maybe he'll get bigger and his toe won't. I'll let you know.

Meeg said...

And my pinky toenail has like become just this freaky little triangular nothing over the years: what's that about?

Also: I'm glad that you're including yourself in all this by talking about North Americans rather than being like "aah, you people in the United States..." ;)

Nicole said...

have you ever heard the theory about why french men are shorter than most other european men? something about napoleon's little complex and that he put all of the tallest men on the front lines so that now, genetically, the french are just shorter? i don't know if that makes sense to me or if it's just plain weird.