Americans are so concerned about our counterterrorism intelligence gap and our trade deficit gap that no one seems concerned about our growing height gap. According to a New Yorker article, Americans used to be the tallest people in the world. Now, we’re looking up to the Europeans. Even the Japanese have reached shoulder height. The sad fact is that the average height in this country hasn’t increased in 60 years. How can this be?
It’s obvious that height is linked to good nutrition, because we often see the children of immigrants towering over their parents. Nutrition is indeed one of the principal factors, along with quality health care and adequate clothing and shelter. There’s even a political component to increasing height but I’ll save it for later.
Now height may not be a big deal for you, but it’s part of my identity, because I’ve always been short. I’m currently 5 feet, 7 inches tall and shrinking. I attribute the lack of height in my family to the poor nutrition of my Irish ancestors. My personal shortness might be due to my skipping lunch in high school.
Short people, like myself, feel at home in Forest Park, because we certainly have our share of shorties — I mean besides the mayor. That’s because we have a sizable population from Asia and Latin America. Our lack of stature hasn’t hurt us in youth sports. I still cherish the memory of our undersized baseball and soccer teams beating taller opponents from River Forest.
Anyway, I may be short but that didn’t stop me from marrying into a tall family. My wife’s folks are Dutch. They didn’t just enjoy good nutrition back in Holland. They lived in Berwyn, where the kitchen is the biggest, most important room in the house. My in-laws enjoyed hearty dinners, while the meals weren’t quite as bountiful in my family’s tiny Oak Park kitchen.
So can you guess who the tallest people in the world are? That’s right, the Dutch. Dutch men average 6 feet, 1 inch, while the women average 5 feet, 8 inches, which I believe is my wife’s height, though I’ve never seen her driver’s license. This explains why I couldn’t see the pastor through the forest of Dutch people at my church.
The Dutch were once the shortest people in Europe. What happened?
And why aren’t Americans getting taller? Don’t say it’s because we’re getting a lot of short people from Asia and Latin America. (For the purpose of the height study, only native-born English speakers were measured.)
Let’s look at Holland again. They were shrimps until 1850, when they changed their government from a monarchy to a liberal democracy. Studies of other countries also show that democracy promotes height. In democratic Holland, there was increased prosperity and sharing of wealth, which raised the national tallness.
Our country used to be like that. But now there’s an expanding gap between rich and poor. Millions of Americans are unemployed, millions still don’t have health insurance and countless Americans live below the poverty line. These people are literally not measuring up.
If we ever want to start growing again in this country, we have to continue to expand health care and spread the wealth around.
For politicians advocating income equality, “Make America Stand Tall Again” would be a great slogan.
This column first ran on April 7, 2004.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.