Documentaries with a point of view

The Height Gap


In the early nineteen-seventies, when the anthropologist Barry Bogin first visited Guatemala, the country’s two main ethnic groups seemed to live on different social planes. The Ladinos, who claimed primarily Spanish ancestry, were of average height. The Maya Indians were so short that some scholars called them the pygmies of Central America: the men averaged only five feet two, the women four feet eight. The Ladinos and the Maya shared the same small country, so their differences were assumed to be genetic. But when Bogin, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, began taking measurements he soon found another cause. “There was an undeclared war going on,” he says. The Ladinos, who controlled the government, had systematically forced the Maya into poverty. Whether they lived in the city or in the countryside, the Maya had less food and medicine, and they had much higher rates of disease.

Big Enough: Indian children in Guatemala.Indian children in Guatemala. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-97815

A decade and a half later, after civil war had erupted and up to a million Guatemalans had fled to the United States, Bogin took another series of measurements. This time, his subjects were Mayan refugees, between six and twelve years old, in Florida and Los Angeles. “Lo and behold, they were much taller than the Maya in Guatemala,” Bogin says. By 2000, the American Maya were four inches taller than Guatemalan Maya of the same age, and about as tall as Guatemalan Ladinos. “As far as I know, it’s the biggest increase of its kind ever measured,” Bogin says. “It shows that they weren’t genetically small. They weren’t pygmies. They were suffering.”

Much the same transformation has occurred in the Mexican-American population. Since the nineteen-twenties, the median height of Mexican-American teen-agers has nearly reached the United States’ norm. It’s that norm, and not the immigrants, that has failed to rise.

If there is an answer to the riddle of American height, it probably lies in Holland, where everyone has a theory about stature. When I spoke to Hans van Wieringen, the pediatrician, he credited his people’s growth to child care: the Dutch have the world’s best prenatal and postpartum clinics, free for every citizen. Others pointed to the landscape (flatlanders are naturally tall, they said, just as mountain people are naturally short), to the Calvinist religion (Protestants are taller than Catholics because their families have fewer mouths to feed), or to the Dutch love of milk (a study in Bavaria found a direct correlation between height and the number of cows per capita). The Dutch are taller than the Italians, one man suggested, because they go to bed at a reasonable hour.

The most convincing argument was one made by J. W. Drukker, the owner of the old inn at Stuifzand where van Gogh had stayed. Drukker is a professor of economic history at the University of Groningen, and he has made his own study of Dutch height. He looks like an oversized Phil Donahue, with shaggy white locks and wide-rimmed glasses, but he has a more worldly air. His office is hung with mildly erotic prints, and he wears paste-on fingernails on his right hand, for playing classical guitar. “A nineteenth-century virtuoso couldn’t have played this instrument,” he told me, pointing to the guitar leaning against his desk, beside a sheaf of etudes. “His hands would have been too small.”

Drukker’s research on stature began as something of a boondoggle. In the late nineteen-seventies, when Dutch universities were particularly well funded, he had the luxury of two student assistants. “Sometimes they had nothing to do,” he remembers. “So we thought, This is weird, we can reconstruct the heights of soldiers and correlate them with income. We love it.” Over the next few months, he put his assistants to work gathering heights from 1800 to 1950, then plotting them on a graph. In the end, the curve they produced took so much work that one of the students gave it the acronym yassis — Dutch for “yuck.” But the results were striking.

Holland’s growth spurt began only in the mid-eighteen-
hundreds, Drukker found, when its first liberal democracy was established. Before 1850, the country grew rich off its colonies, but the wealth stayed in the hands of the wealthy, and the average citizen shrank. After 1850, height and income suddenly fell into lockstep: when incomes went up, heights went up (after a predictable lag time), and always to the same degree. “I thought I must have made an error,” Drukker said. “I must have correlated one of the variables with itself.” He hadn’t. Holland, like the rest of Northern Europe, had simply managed to spread its prosperity around. These days, Dutch heights no longer keep pace with the economy. (“We can’t grow to four metres just because our income quadruples,” Drukker says.) But the essential equation is the same: when the G.N.P. grows, everyone grows.

As America’s rich and poor drift further apart, its growth curve may be headed in the opposite direction, Komlos and others say. The eight million Americans without a job, the forty million without health insurance, the thirty-five million who live below the poverty line are surely having trouble measuring up. And they’re not alone. As more and more Americans turn to a fast-food diet, its effects may be creeping up the social ladder, so that even the wealthy are growing wider rather than taller. “I’ve seen a similar thing in Guatemala,” Bogin says. “The rich kids are taken care of by poor maids, so they catch the same diseases. When they go out on the street, they eat the same street food. They may get antibiotics, but they’re still going to get exposed.”

Steckel has found that Americans lose the most height to Northern Europeans in infancy and adolescence, which implicates pre- and post-natal care and teen-age eating habits. “If these snack foods are crowding out fruits and vegetables, then we may not be getting the micronutrients we need,” he says. In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other familiar lunch foods; the other was fed nineteen-forties-style wartime rations such as boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.

Inequality may be at the root of America’s height problem, but it’s too soon to be certain. If the poor are pulling all of us down with them, some economists say, why didn’t Americans shoot up after the war on poverty, in the nineteen-sixties? Komlos isn’t sure. But recently he has scoured his data for people who’ve bucked the national trend. He has subdivided the country’s heights by race, sex, income, and education. He has looked at whites alone, at blacks alone, at people with advanced degrees and those in the highest income bracket. Somewhere in the United States, he thinks, there must be a group that’s both so privileged and so socially insulated that it’s growing taller. He has yet to find one.

“The best measure of a just society is whether you’d be willing to be thrown into it at random,” Komlos told me one day over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Munich. He was paraphrasing the American philosopher John Rawls. The United States earns mixed marks by that standard, he said. The country still gives refugees like his family a home, but it also leaves them stranded. His father spent ten years making watchbands at sweatshop wages and was no better off than before. In Hungary, at least, there had been companionship in poverty. In America, his family was surrounded by wealth.

Yet his father’s story, like that of the Maya in Florida, had a second act. Herbert Komlos eventually figured out the American system. He borrowed two thousand dollars from a friend, opened a storefront in Logan Square, and began importing watchbands from Hong Kong. Within ten years, he had saved enough money to move to a house off Lakeshore Drive. By the time he died, last winter, at the age of eighty-six, he was living in a condominium near Palm Beach.

“There were twenty-five thousand of us Hungarian refugees, and not one of them I knew didn’t make it,” Komlos told me. “Not one of us didn’t aspire to and reach the middle class. This was the generation of George Soros. This was the generation of the guy who founded Intel. I had cousins and second cousins — everybody became lawyers, accountants, professors.” He’d been back to Chicago recently, he said, and the poverty and urban decay had come as a shock after Germany’s tidy inner cities. “But, if you look at the Turks in Germany or the Algerians in France, there aren’t that many who can advance up the social ladder.” He shrugged. “America is still a land of opportunity.”

The last time I saw him, we were in downtown Munich. The sun was out and shoppers thronged the Marienplatz, sporting midwinter tans from Majorca and the Canary Islands. As Komlos headed for the subway, I watched the crowd sweep over him until only the top of his head was visible, bobbing contentedly beneath the tide. I remembered a joke he’d made earlier, when I’d mentioned that my parents are immigrants, too: “If they’d stayed in Europe, you might be four centimetres taller.” Then I squared my shoulders and waded in behind him.

Burkhard Bilger is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and the author of “Noodling for Flatheads.” This article originally appeared in The New Yorker on April 5, 2004 and appears here with permission from the author.