Is height might?
Tag-init, tagtuli, summer is cutting season throughout the archipelago. The circumcision ritual is performed on thousands of boys using all kinds of tools from bamboo slivers to knives, from scalpels to sophisticated medical instruments that offer styles like a barber would. The procedures vary, from the traditional “pukpok” (meant to sound like a hammer) to minor surgery with anesthesia. The prices also vary, from free services sponsored by politicians to treatments in private hospitals running as high as P4,000.
You would think the boys would find ways to evade this ritual, but no. Partly because of peer pressure, they ask for it, breathing down your neck like the oppressive summer heat and insisting that if you don’t let them get the cut, they’ll grow up bansot or stunted—a fate they consider worse than death.
Filipinos learn early in life that height is important, and especially so for males. Height is the key to getting dates and, later, a spouse. Height gets you into and gives you a fighting chance in one of hundreds of beauty pageants not just for women but also for men and transgender males. Many jobs—from flight attendants to fashion models to security guards—have a minimum height requirement, and even in jobs where such a requirement is not explicit, the interviewers will often prefer taller applicants.
And then there’s basketball, a sport which keeps raising the bar, literally, with the matangkad or tall because both the professional and amateur leagues keep recruiting, sometimes even importing, taller players. It used to be that if you were over 5’6’’ you were tall. These days, you have to be over 6 feet to be considered tall.
It would seem then that height translates to might—a kind of latent power that takes you places. It should not be surprising then that there are so many folk beliefs involving height enhancement, from jumping up and down on New Year’s Eve, to getting that afternoon nap.
In recent years, the market has been flooded with products offering height enhancement. Cherifer and Growee are the best-known supplements. The manufacturers of Cherifer use ads that are the most visible, showing Kobe Paras reaching, not for the basketball hoop, but for the sky. Lately, too, they’ve engaged Kobe’s father, Benjie, to promote a new Cherifer product for older men… no claims to new heights.
So pervasive are the growth supplements that even cynical parents like myself find it hard to say no to sons asking for it. I finally bought one of the products, in part because I’m on the doctoral advisory panel of Gideon Lasco—a fellow medical anthropologist and a regular contributor to Inquirer Opinion—who is writing a dissertation on height. My son’s pleadings gave me an excuse to get the product, which came with a free growth chart. After a few weeks of taking the product and my son didn’t notice he was growing faster, he suggested that I start giving it to Dr. Tissot instead, referring to our dog.
The Chinese, including local ones, can get quite fixated on height, with mothers preparing herbal supplements when their children hit puberty. I remember one of the supplements being called “growth balls.”
In mainland China, height remains a national obsession. At one time, limb-lengthening surgery was popular: Physicians literally break your bones and then insert a telescopic rod into the cartilage of the bones, pulling it apart slowly by about 1 millimeter a day.
The patient is kept immobilized in bed for some six months. Ultimately the broken bones heal, and the patient ends up taller.
A news report in the British newspaper The Daily Mail says that because there were so many botched limb-lengthening operations, the Chinese government has banned the procedure. But ironically, it’s now done in western countries. In the United States it can cost up to $85,000.
Back here in the Philippines we’ve had our share of gadgets and contraptions. Women have always had the advantage of high heels, which the late singer Prince used as well. Women still have wedge shoes if the high heels prove difficult. For men, there are elevator shoes advertised everywhere, all the way up to billboards, with promises of status and prestige.
There are other height aids—usually stretching devices that look like they were invented by the Inquisition during the Middle Ages to elicit confessions from suspected heretics and witches.
What’s the scientific score on height?
Genetics is still the main determinant of height, or at least height potential. There’s a fascinating article on PediatricEducation.org (google that website name plus midparental height and other growth parameters) that provides a formula to estimate a child’s adult height.
For boys: [paternal height + (maternal height + 5 inches] / 2. For girls: [maternal height + (paternal height – 5 inches) / 2.
The formula was derived from Americans, and I’m hoping we can do a similar study in the Philippines, together with an analysis of what else contributes to height besides genetics. In the American context, for example, younger siblings have been found to be, on average, shorter than older ones, perhaps because parents are unable to give as much attention to them.
While genetics is important—contributing 60-80 percent of one’s height, according to various studies—nutrition does have an important role and this is a concern that needs much more attention in the Philippines. Unicef surveys report that more than a third of Filipino children are stunted; it’s part of a bigger picture of undernutrition. It seems that we neglect early-childhood nutrition, and then try to make up for it later with supplements and gadgets.
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