Height Matters: More for Boys Than Girls

by Jack Ludwig

What Americans believe about the importance of height for preteens and teenagers

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

For young people whose bodies are still growing, height can be a volatile characteristic. Uncertainty about the timing and intensity of growth spurts can leave teens and preteens shorter than their peers at one point in time and taller at another. This volatility makes it interesting to wonder about how much a young person's height really matters. How much real importance does youthful stature have for success and social development during these formative years? Does it affect their ability to make friends, to be involved in sports, or to approach social situations with self-confidence?

In a recently completed Gallup/Pfizer Survey of Opinions on the Social Impact of Stature, we asked a random sample of U.S. adults to give us their opinions about the relative fortunes of young people who are noticeably shorter or taller than their peers. Although the survey did not directly assess whether taller or shorter young people actually experience different outcomes, we found compelling evidence that American adults believe that stature has important consequences for preteens and teenagers.

We asked separate questions about preteens and teenagers and about boys and girls in each age grouping, a feature that lends interesting nuance to our findings. While opinions are largely the same whether the questions focus on preteens or teenagers, height is believed to have a very different significance for boys than for girls.

When asked whether noticeably taller or noticeably shorter young people have an easier time getting involved in sports, the results are similar whether the questions are asked about preteens or teenagers. Adults overwhelmingly believe that noticeably taller young people have an easier time getting involved in sports than noticeably shorter young people, regardless of age grouping or gender of the child. However, in both age groupings, height is believed to be a more important asset for boys than for girls. Eighty-seven percent of adults believe that noticeably taller preteen boys will have an easier time, while 10% say that noticeably shorter preteen boys will have an easier time.

For preteen girls, 81% of adults believe that taller girls have an advantage in getting involved in sports, while 13% say that shorter girls have the advantage. Essentially, the same pattern exists when the questions focus on teenagers -- Americans believe that height has a decided effect on involvement in sports for young people, and that the benefits of height are somewhat greater for boys than for girls.

Question wording: If you had to guess, who do you think has the easier time getting involved in sports -- (preteen/teen) (boys/girls) who are noticeably shorter than other (boys/girls) their age, or (preteen/teen) (boys/girls) who are noticeably taller than other (boys/girls) their age?

We also ask about the impact of height on young people's ease in making friends and their ease in feeling self-confident in social situations -- dimensions extremely important in a young person's social development. On these dimensions, opinions differ dramatically depending on the gender of the child -- much more dramatically than when the questions focus on athletic involvement.

When we asked whether noticeably shorter or noticeably taller young people had an easier time making friends, adults give a slight (but statistically significant) edge to shorter girls. Fifty-eight percent believe that noticeably shorter teenage girls have an easier time making friends, while 33% say that noticeably taller teenage girls have an easier time. But when teenage boys are the subject of the question, opinions are much more lopsided and in the opposite direction. Seventy-three percent of adults say that noticeably taller boys had an advantage in making friends, while only 21% give shorter boys the edge. Once again, the patterns for preteens and teenagers show no meaningful differences: shorter girls are believed to have an advantage over taller girls in making friends, but taller boys are perceived to have a decisive advantage over shorter boys.

This enormous gulf between the perceived consequences of height for boys and girls in making friends is larger than any measured in the Gallup/Pfizer survey for any other dimension either for young people or adults. That it shows up on a dimension that is so fundamental to social adjustment and integration is both striking and sobering.

Question wording: If you had to guess, who do you think has the easier time making friends -- (preteen/teen) (boys/girls) who are noticeably shorter than other (boys/girls) their age, or (preteen/teen) (boys/girls) who are noticeably taller than other (boys/girls) their age?

The final question we asked about young people probed opinions on the impact of height on general feelings of self-confidence in social situations. Forty-nine percent of adults say that noticeably shorter preteen girls have an easier time making friends, while 45% say that noticeably taller preteen girls have an easier time. However, opinions were strikingly divergent when we asked about preteen boys: an overwhelming 81% said that taller boys have an easier time feeling self-confident, while only 15% said that noticeably shorter boys have an advantage.

The results of the parallel set of questions (asking about teenagers instead of preteens) are once again remarkably similar. To be sure, teenage girls are believed to have a slightly greater edge than their preteen male counterparts if they're noticeably shorter, but the differences by age group dwarf the differences across the gender line.

Question wording: If you had to guess, who do you think has the easier time feeling self-confident in social situations -- (preteen/teen) (boys/girls) who are noticeably shorter than other (boys/girls) their age, or (preteen/teen) (boys/girls) who are noticeably taller than other (boys/girls) their age?

Final Thoughts

The opinions reflected in our survey are disquieting, although they certainly help to make sense of anxious questions that parents of young children -- particularly of young boys -- frequently ask pediatricians. The fascinating question, unanswered by our survey results, is why these perceptions exist. It is relatively easy to understand how people might believe that the height of young people might affect their involvement in sports, since size -- in certain sports at least -- confers distinct advantages. But what is the relevance of height to feeling self-confident in social situations? Why should height affect how easily a young person makes friends? Why do these perceptions exist? And why is height seen as so much more of a social asset for boys than it is for girls?

Granted, these are, after all, only opinions about whether shorter or taller young people reap advantages or disadvantages from their statures, not proof that these dynamics exist. But our results do suggest that stature might belong among characteristics such as gender, age, and race that -- irrespective of their relevance -- can have a bearing on important outcomes for young people. Whether you consider these results to be proof of "heightism" or not, the fact that these opinions are so broadly shared makes them deserving of careful consideration, and begs for an explanation of why they are so widely believed.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,509 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 18-July 7, 2005. Randomly selected subsamples of this overall sample were asked questions about preteens (733 adults) and teenagers (777 adults). For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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