It's true that some women are sexually attracted and open to dating a short man, but a quick poll of your friends—or any group of adults, for that matter—will quickly confirm just how stigmatized short men are in our culture. For reasons that betray logic, short men get the you-know-which end of the stick and are ostracized when it comes to partner selection. While this sexual preference—or prejudice?—is also at work in the dynamic of sexual attraction among gay men, I'll focus on women here due to sheer numbers.
Do women see short men as lepers? Not quite, though it does seem that most women feel that short men aren't relationship material. Having heard short male clients of mine complain about their jeopardized status in the dating pool, I can speak for at least some of them when I say that short men believe that women see them as less than or deficient, as if models pulled off an assembly line because they don’t measure up to the others. If we conceptualize the dynamic along a continuum of developmental stages, it’s as if women see short men as awkward teens stunted in time, desperate at a school dance and relegated to the side wall.
In short, it seems that somehow short men aren’t perceived as real men. Author and cultural commentator Bel Hooks refers to this fallacious, pumped up version of the real man as the kind of man who can "take action and break the rules."
What characteristics do women find attractive in men?
The literature has widely established that women prefer tall men to short men. Stulp and colleagues (2013), for example, found in general that among 650 heterosexual college students, women preferred taller men and didn't want to be in a relationship with a man shorter than they are.
According to a University of British Columbia study (2011), it's not only height to which women are drawn. The study found that the social and emotional image a man presents was crucial to sexual attraction. Specifically, the study found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men, preferring those who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed. This finding supports all those tabloid-esque articles in women’s magazines which suggest that women love the bad boys, and that may be part of the problem: Women just don’t believe short men can be bad boys. It’s as if the ability to win a physical fight—to overpower another man—is part and parcel of who the bad boy is.
Other research on sexual attraction clues us in a little further to what turns women on. For example, O’Connor and colleagues (2014) discuss how women find men with lower-pitched voices more sexually attractive.
Anecdotally, I have heard more than my fair share of female clients disclose how a sense of security and protection are key factors. One client, in particular, told me that she feels “more secure” when she is out and about with a tall man, while she clarifies that she'd feel more nervous if she were with a man who could not protect her physically in case she were somehow threatened.
Where’s the logic?
So many of the possible explanations of why women don’t seek out short men sexually or romantically don’t make logical sense. For example, when it comes to the better-protector argument, the truth is that plenty of short men exist whose overall weight and muscular strength far eclipses that of many tall men, but that logic doesn’t seem to persuade many women to give a short guy a chance. (And don't get me started on the deep voice argument.)
Most importantly, what is completely illogical about the stigma of short men is how the physical size of a man has so little to do with who he is on the inside, and it’s precisely internal—aka personality—characteristics that matter in terms of how good a partner or husband a man can be. In other words, if what women want ultimately for a long-term relationship is an honest, reliable, and committed man, short men should not be ruled out! See? They still qualify!
A moral issue?
I wonder if passing on short men as potential romantic partners—really, if sexual attraction overall—borders on a moral issue. I always cringe when a person says something that rules out an entire category of people, especially when someone rejects another in a flippant, auto-pilot fashion. "Yeah, sorry," you can imagine someone saying, "I've just never been attracted to short men." While so many women report this preference, I rarely hear any of them self-monitoring as they do so. In fact, you’d think one would ask herself, Is that fair of me? Is that being mean? Could I be ruling out an entire group of men who could make great partners?
As a psychologist, I don’t believe it is mean to deny a romantic chance to entire categories of people, but I do think people should listen to their own reasons why and ask if that narrow window of preference marks the kind of person they want to be. For example, if you see yourself as an open-minded person, you should have an open mind when it comes to dating to the point that you would truly be open to dating a wide range of men: tall, short, funny, and so on.
Now, my personal belief which stems from my education as a psychologist, my clinical practice, and my own life experience is that people hide behind the belief that sexual attraction works in a prewired way. "I'm just not attracted to Asians," a female social worker I work with said to me yesterday as I discussed my new article. "It's nothing personal," she said flatly. (It didn't seem to occur to her that her upbringing in the whitest, least Asian town in Utah had anything to do with it.)
My hope, when it comes to the vast numbers of short men, is that women learn to give some of these guys more of a chance. If nothing else, at least women could potentially examine the question, Why am I not attracted to them? Caveat: Please come up with any other answer than "Because I said so."
Hooks, Bell. (2000). All About Love. Harper, p. 38.
Jillian J.M. O’Connor, Katarzyna Pisanski, Cara C. Tigue, Paul J. Fraccaro, David R. Feinberg. Perceptions of infidelity risk predict women’s preferences for low male voice pitch in short-term over long-term relationship contexts. Personality and Individual Differences, 2014; 56: 73 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.08.029.
Stulp, G., Buunk, A. P., & Pollet, T. V. (2013). Women want taller men more than men want shorter women. Personality and Individual Differences. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.12.019.
University of British Columbia (2011, May 26). Happy guys finish last, says new study on sexual attractiveness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 2, 2014, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2011/05/110524070310.htm.