Long and short
The strangest apology I ever received was from a Dutch man who had been sent to pick me up for a dinner. He introduced himself, then said, “I’m sorry for being too long.”
“But you’re early,” I replied thinking he meant it took him so long to get to my place, but he repeated himself, raising his hand upwards, “No, I meant long.”
I shrugged off his apology, but it kept coming back. Why would anyone apologize for being long, I thought almost naughtily. But as we left my place and I saw how he walked almost hunched, I suddenly had a suspicion of what he meant.
I asked what “tall” was in Dutch and he smiled, “Lang, that’s what I meant, long.” And indeed, “lang” means both long and tall in Dutch, and my new friend was apologizing for being rather tall, towering more than 6 feet.
His “long” apology came back to me when I read about Imperial College London’s NCD Risk Factor Collaboration research on height, which mined data from 200 countries for people born between 1896 and 1996. The research results were picked up by mass media all over the world, especially about the Dutch now being the tallest with an average height of 183 centimeters or about 6 feet. Among women, it’s the Latvians with an average height of 170 cm or 5 feet 7 inches.
Thinking back now, I can imagine that Dutch friend feeling awkward towering over a tiny Filipino. (I’m 5 feet 6… OK, OK 5 feet 5-1/2 rounded off.) Turns out, according to the height research, Filipino men rank 192nd in the world with an average height of 163.2 cm or 5 feet 4 inches. Even more dismal is the average height of our women which, at 149.6 or 4 feet 11 inches (not 4 feet 8 as I reported last Wednesday), ranks them 199th, only slightly taller than Guatemalans, who are the shortest among the 200 countries.
I began to write about this height research last Wednesday, hoping to interest more Filipinos to do more research into height, from different perspectives: nutritional, medical, psychological, economic, etc. As I pointed out last Wednesday, this is an important issue because height is the product of interactions between nature and nurture. Genes and the natural environment are important in determining our genetic potential; but nurture—what society does—goes a long way in shaping how we get to that potential—maybe even surpassing it.
The Imperial College research yielded much data showing how height mirrors society across time, particularly how we care for and feed our children, from the fetal stage into adolescence. The most dramatic examples come from Asian countries—Japan, South Korea, China in particular—with dramatic gains in height over the last hundred years, reflecting their gains in social and economic development.
In contrast, Filipinos’ heights have increased at a snail’s pace over the last hundred years, only 3.3 inches for men and 1.7 inches for women. The fact that our women haven’t even reached an average height of 5 feet seems almost incredible, especially for a country enamored with tall beauty queens and basketball players but, precisely, our perceptions are distorted because of those tall Filipinos. We barely notice short Filipinos, including a president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was only 4 feet 11 inches.
We cannot be complacent about shortness as a social indicator. With about 30 percent of our children stunted, according to Unicef figures, and the international height studies showing our bottom-of-the-heap ranking, we should be asking how we can do better.
Height is important, medically. The scientific studies are clear in showing that life expectancy is generally lower for shorter people. This would be expected considering that stunted children tend to be in poorer health because the stunting is a form of malnutrition. But even with adults, shorter heights are associated with higher risks for heart and respiratory diseases.
I downloaded and analyzed the height figures for Filipinos born between 1896 and 1996 and the results dramatize how we have been shortchanging our children.
For men, average heights were improving by .08 percent each year for birth cohorts (those born the same year) from 1896 to 1917; but the rate of improvement drops through the years to .07 percent, .06 percent down to the current .01 percent.
I am even more worried about women. The birth cohorts from 1896 to 1909 had an increase in average height of .04 percent each year, but this then dropped through the years. Not only that—and this was the most shocking—for birth cohorts from 1949 to 1980, heights actually shrunk each year.
Why such dismal figures? The drop didn’t seem to be associated with World War II, so it seems it’s in the postindependence period, for birth cohorts born between 1949 and 1980, that we failed our children.
Overall, I suspect there’s been a deterioration in the quality of food we’re taking. We get too much carbohydrates rather than protein, and it has worsened with the introduction of instant noodles. Many poor families (and UP students, sigh!) will take a pack as a complete meal, which means carbohydrates and lots of salt.
I am certain gender inequality was a major factor in keeping our girls more stunted than boys. Faced with food scarcity, poor families will favor boys and men, thinking that they need the food more than girls. Around puberty, girls’ nutritional needs are actually greater than those of boys, especially with menstruation.
On a macro scale, I feel the story of the measuring tape is a story of economic inequity. We like to think of the Philippines as developing rapidly in the postwar years and, indeed, our rich were known for extravagance. The bubble burst in the 1960s, when the weary poor finally took to the streets, protesting and, in the years that followed, to the hills as armed rebels in what has become Asia’s longest insurgency.
Even our perceptions of heights speak of inequities. Higher income families marvel all the time about how the children are shooting up, sometimes surpassing parents’ heights at an early age. Yet among the poor, we continue to see widespread stunting, high school children looking like those in private schools’ elementary grades.
Next time you gasp at the heights of our beauty queens and basketball players, check, and you’ll find they’re from the upper classes, or are “hyphenated” Filipinos—products of intermarriages mainly from the United States and Europe—and, for basketball, are imports from African countries.
Just how might we catch up? Intermarriages with taller populations will increase our genetic potential, but overall, it’s still socioeconomic conditions and nutrition that will be the major determinants of our heights. If we don’t improve those conditions, the prognosis will be poor.
The 1996 cohort of Filipino girls had an improvement of only .02 percent over the previous year. If we continue with that rate, it will not be until the cohort of Filipino girls born in the year 2095 that our women can hope to achieve an average height of 5 feet.
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