Height. It’s perhaps the most easily recognized physical characteristic and as a result intimately tied to our development, self perception and cultural presence. As a tall individual…6’4″ (193cm)… I have always been self conscious. From movie theatres to the dance floor my height has always played a role in my comfort level, position choice and sense of self. There is an old adage that states, “Birds of a feather flock together” and since freshman year of high school it’s held true. Among my closest friends very few are under 6’1″ (185cm) while several are over 6’6″ (198cm). I share this because it’s allowed me to not only observe myself but the behavior, dating practices and social dynamics of my close friends as well.
Over the years I’ve received the same question time and time again from tall women and shorter male friends, “Why do you tall guys always date short women?”. I didn’t have an answer. Given the amount of voice the phenomenon receives, it seems that I wasn’t the only one having a difficult time answering the question. It was a question I, like most others, shrugged off – until my freshman year of college. Tall and a bit shy it dawned on me that there were literally hundreds of beautiful women that were 5’11 or taller walking around campus, and because of cultural and evolutionary programming, 90% of the guys on campus were at an extreme disadvantage when approaching them.
That’s when it began to click, I couldn’t approach these women. They scared the hell out of me. But, what made a woman over 5’11 more threatening than one 5’3 or shorter? Further, was this same phenomenon also affecting my friends who also seemed inexplicably drawn toward short women? 5’11, 6’0 or 6’3 they were after all still shorter than me. When I quizzed my friends over 6’0 on how many taller women they had dated and how they felt around tall women, only 1 of them had dated a girl over 5’9 and the vast majority had only dated women a foot or more shorter than them.
It was not until I began ballroom dancing that I began to realize the source of the phenomenon. As I danced with various partners whose height was artificially increased by their 2-3 inch dance heels, I began to simultaneously understand my previous discomfort around taller women while breaking down my own barriers. The complex that I came to understand I have since named the Reverse Napoleon Complex.
To refresh your memory Wikipedia defines the standard Napoleon Complex as, “[The] Napoleon complex is a colloquial term describing a type of inferiority complex which is said to affect some people who are physically short. The term is also used more generally to describe people who are driven by a perceived handicap to overcompensate in other aspects of their lives. This term is also known as Napoleon syndrome and Small Man Syndrome” (Wikipedia).
I have identified two main components of the Reverse Napoleon Complex: the first deals with height and perception while the second deals with basic evolutionary/cultural programming.
At 6’4″ I’m tall, but not what I would classify as uncommonly tall. Despite this, it’s not unusual for me to be in a packed social setting (full bar, metro etc.) and notice that I’m the tallest person in the room. At night clubs, dancing or even standing in a crowded area, I’m constantly aware that I stick up above everyone else and am more visible. Even on a walking tour the guide often trades me for their upraised umbrella as a visual marker to ensure no one gets lost. Because of the height difference the area immediately around my face is typically free. The vast majority of my eye contact is made downward and away which also leads to a feeling of greater space while conversing. I’ve noticed that many tall people especially those in their late teens, 20s and early 30s have a much larger space bubble than others. Typically that space bubble extends from their shoulders up around their heads.
Due to their height, taller women violate that space bubble. Thus, before one can even talk to them, they’re already violating the person’s space. Consider the vastly different nature of near straight across eye contact in close proximity to your face compared to angled eye contact with a more distant facial presence. An effect compounded by the rarity of the experience. It’s a powerful difference and one that could be somewhat threatening. It’s not just limited to romantically motivated interaction…I would make the suggestion that most of the tall men you find with tall women have had an experience that pushed them through that discomfort. For me it was having two tall dance partners.
The second part to the complex is evolutionary/cultural and deals mostly with power. Due to the self consciousness discussed earlier associated with always sticking out many tall men seem subconsciously motivated to engage in behavior that re-affirms their masculinity. One of the strongest of these is the feeling of masculine dominance, power and strength which romantic/close physical interaction with a shorter woman provides. To clarify this includes things like easily picking up/holding/carrying the woman, sheltering behavior and the visual magnification of the man’s height.
The extreme height contrast emphasizes the evolutionary/reproductive feelings associated with these behaviors…stability, power, strength and fitness for the woman…Alpha dominance, confidence, masculinity for the male. It does NOT include abuse and similar negative behavior which is a completely separate power issue/dynamic.
The last element of my theory deals with interactions between two tall males. While significantly less developed than the other components, I have noticed a distinct difference in how tall men perceive other non-group-affiliated tall men compared to other men of lesser height. From what I’ve seen/experienced/discussed tall men are more inclined to treat other men who are taller than them in an extreme/polarized fashion. Often seeking to either classify them as friend or foe and viewing them as immediate competition for social presence. In instances where a tall individual suddenly goes from being the tallest to the 2nd tallest in a social setting (they may even be on opposite sides of the bar) most men I’ve discussed it with report feelings of groundless annoyance or dislike and unconsciously make comments about the individual to that effect. Note that I’ve found that this experience is limited to individuals that do not share a common social group e.g. “competing” males. This also seems more prevalent in American culture and may be largely grounded in cultural programming.