For men, online dating is a tall order

Height has always been a sticking point for men. The anxieties of modern dating only make it worse

January 27, 2023
Image: David McAllister / Prospect
Image: David McAllister / Prospect

I’m going to get this out of the way, because if online dating has taught me anything it’s that this is the first thing anyone wants to know: I am five foot, 10 inches tall. And that, I can assure you, is about the average height for a white British male like myself. I know this because I checked. And double checked.

I never used to think I harboured a complex about my height, until I noticed that many women on dating apps will offer no information about themselves other than how tall they are. “Five foot seven” or “five foot one” or simply “I’m a tall gal” their profiles declare, and the implication is obvious. Then what began as idle curiosity turned to fear, when I learned that some dating apps even let you pay for the privilege of filtering out potential matches—based on height!

That should’ve been warning enough to drop the subject and move on with my life, but I didn’t—and looking to friends for reassurance only made things worse. “I just assume most men are lying about their height on apps,” one of them said; I was aghast. I’d never lied about my height—isn’t “average” the mathematical way of saying “just right”?—but that wasn’t what was being suggested here. “Are you telling me that, all this time, women have been looking at my profile and thinking that not only am I a liar, but also below average height?”

As the foundations of my self-esteem were violently shaken, a memory of my father from childhood came dislodged. After putting another notch on the kitchen doorframe one day to show how much I’d grown between the ages of eight and nine, he’d suddenly lapsed into a state of melancholy: “I’m five foot 11,” he declared, shaking his head; “I never did make it to six foot.” He said it as though he’d come up short in an exam rather than stature.

Height has always been an acutely sensitive subject for men, because there is nothing men can do about it. And if there’s one thing men hate, it’s being unable to fix a problem. I’m at an age now where I’m bombarded with ads for hair-loss sprays, gym passes, virility tablets (!) and other “easy solution” products; I’ve yet to receive any for stilts or platform shoes, which in any case wouldn’t address the underlying issue in the same way. 

Antiquated gender norms obviously play a part in why men even think height might be a problem to begin with, but equally I don’t think that’s the whole picture. For my money’s worth, its apparent overemphasis on dating apps hints at a much greater insecurity that likely most of us share, both men and women alike.

Anyone with even a hint of self-awareness will know the involuntary image of a so-called “ideal partner” that sometimes flashes before our mind’s eye—somebody who shares all our hobbies, who laughs at all our jokes and is, say, over six foot tall—is clearly a fantasy. We know this because in the moments when genuine attraction arises, that image disappears. All the fuss we made over it is quickly washed away, and in its place we are left with a more straightforward truth: you do not have a choice over who you fall in love with. 

Yet that truth is also terrifying, because it reminds us that nothing is a guarantee. The possibility that we will never fall in love, or at least not again, can never be entirely ruled out. And this is why many of us end up retreating to that image of the ideal partner, even when we know it’s false: it offers the illusion that we can be in control of what we desire by giving us something to seek out. And online dating, with its constant churn and promise of somebody better around every corner, only makes a virtue of that illusion. An individualistic society like ours tells us that the most powerful thing you can do is assert your right to pick and choose. You can choose what you wear, what you buy online, what news you read. Why shouldn’t the same logic apply to the people we date, too? Even in failure that logic offers some comfort, because it feels much better to be in control of our failures than to let ourselves succeed by chance. But doesn’t a life without any chance feel a little rigid—and doesn’t that risk making a love life feel like a career, rather than what we do outside it?

I began to realise that, throughout all this agonising over my own height, I was actually worrying that I might not be somebody’s ideal. Yet the point of dating isn’t to be what somebody wants you to be, because they probably don’t know what that is. All you can do is be generous to others as they are, which might be very different from what you expect, which probably isn’t what you really want anyway. That’s confusing, uncertain and sometimes a slog—but it’s also much more exciting than trying to tick the boxes.

It’s also easier said than done. But at least now whenever I feel like I’m worrying about not being good enough to date, so long as I remember that this is simply a product of uncertainty and not about who I am as a person—height included—I can put my mind at ease. Hopefully, in the long haul, I won’t even have to think twice about it. Now just don’t ask me about my hairline.