AS ONE approaches the universities in Diliman via the flyover on Katipunan, a tall billboard featuring Kobe Paras—the rising, 6’5 Fil-Am basketball star—looms large, promoting a brand of growth supplement. In bold letters, the billboard declares: “Height is might.”
Height has been “marketed” in the Philippines for a long time. In 1972, beauty queen Aurora
Pijuan memorably proclaimed “Iba na ang matangkad” (Being tall makes a difference) in a margarine commercial, and to this day, many children are fed margarine, their mothers thinking (hoping) that it would make them taller.
To understand the appeal of these products, we must look into various facets of our society and look at the roles that height play in them.
Basketball is a good starting point: The architecture of the basketball court naturally privileges tall bodies, hence the recruitment of taller “imports” and the concern for the Filipino team members’ heights whenever we compete internationally. Among young people, tallness is a ticket to varsity and athletic scholarships. Skills, of course, are valued, too, but as one coach told me, “You can teach skills, but you cannot teach height.”
The job market is another example. In Philippine Airlines, female flight attendants must be 5’2 and males must be at least 5’6 (interestingly, pilots are required only to be at least 5’4!). Republic Act No. 5487 actually mandates security guards to be 5’4, while RA 8551 sets the same height as a cutoff among policemen. In 2013, Sen. Gringo Honasan filed a bill to remove these requirements, but P-Noy vetoed it, saying that policemen needed the extra height to do their jobs.
Beauty pageants also have height requirements: If Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach (5’8) were a few inches shorter, she probably wouldn’t have made Miss Universe. For male pageants, height, too, is crucial to literally “stand out” on the stage. The trope “tall, dark and handsome” reflects and reinforces this aesthetic, and while “dark” has given way to fair skin, tallness remains idealized.
History gives clues that allow us to understand this “height premium.” Like skin color, height was used by Western scholars to contrast various races, and this “scientific racism” was used by colonial powers to legitimize their rule. The Americans called Filipinos “little brown brothers” that they had to nurture through education, public health, and democracy. Athletics was emphasized, and basketball emerged as our de facto national sport. Children’s heights began to be measured to assess their health. Shortness became stunting—a medical condition that required intervention, while tallness became a desirable trait in athletics, aesthetics, and employment—as well as a sign of national progress.
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Are Filipinos really short? The answer is more complex than you might think. While the average height of Filipinos is 5’4 for males and 5’2 for females, this may actually be more of a reflection of the undernutrition of the majority of Filipinos, than the limits of our “genetic potential.” Studies have shown that given the same optimal nutrition and quality of life, children growing up in different parts of the world grow up to roughly the same height. When you go to Ateneo or De La Salle, you will see tall kids, but because the great majority of our kids continue to receive suboptimal nutrition, our average heights remain relatively one of the lowest in our region.
The case of the Dutch —the tallest people in the world—is illustrative. The average height among males today is six feet, but in the early 18th century, the average Dutchman was only 5’5. Scholars agree that better quality of life, nutrition, and wealth distribution caused this dramatic increase. (Interestingly, many Dutch girls today are receiving growth suppressants because they are growing too tall—a reminder that height preferences are not absolute; they are always in relation to the people around us).
Of course, even while noting these trends and figures for populations, there will always be exceptions: Some Dutch are short, and some Filipinos are tall—even in poor communities. The uncertainty of height makes it open to all kinds of explanations (many boys think that masturbation can make them grow taller), and offers hope to everyone that tallness is within reach—hence the appeal of growth supplements.
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Medically speaking, height doesn’t really matter for much of the population: If anything, it’s actually the very tall who have health risks.
Socially, however, height makes an undeniable difference when shortness can cause you to be bullied as “pandak” (not even GMA, at 4’11, was spared of this indignity), while tallness is an advantage in many jobs—especially for the majority who do not have the means to become lawyers, doctors, engineers or other professionals for whom height isn’t much of an advantage.
To be fair, we also celebrate people who overcome shortness: There’s the textbook example of Jose Rizal (5’2) and Carlos P. Romulo (4’11). Jojo Binay (5’2) actually mentions his being “pandak” in his ads to identify with the masses. And when Manny Pacquiao (5’6.5) defeated Chris Algieri (5’10), many tweeted that it is proof that “height doesn’t matter.” In everyday life, however, the preference for tallness is as palpable as the high-heeled shoes women wear to literally “stand out,” whether in a beauty pageant or a business meeting.
But does our society have to be this way? Perhaps instead of—or alongside—trying to make our children grow taller, we should be working to end height discrimination.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.
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