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Orna Cunningham: Why being super tall really is super after all

At six foot, writer Orna Cunningham has direct experience of the benefits bestowed by great height. Now new research reveals tall women live longer too




Damien Eagers / INM


My brother printed off a card a few years ago. It looks like a business card, but on closer inspection, it reads: 'Yes, I'm tall, thank you for noticing. Six feet, seven inches. Yes, the weather is fine up here, no I don't play basketball, and yes, my parents are tall too.'

Patrick is having a little fun (and I'm not sure anyone has ever received one of his cards sincerely) but people will often ask, in a kind of awed wonderment, what height he is, or what height I am. This is an experience all tall people share.

Male friends tell me their posture magically improves around me. At six feet myself (an exact six feet, I like to tell people, as if I've achieved something) it's not often I find myself looking too far up; but when I do, even I can admit there is something undeniably magnetic about tall people. We gravitate towards them.

Yesterday's news that women above 5'9" are likely to live into their 90s doesn't surprise me much, based on my own family's history. I'm not certain what height either of my grandmothers were at their prime, but I know they were tall for their generation - and they made it to 96 and 97 respectively.

The 30-year study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (JECH) showed the most important factor in a woman's longevity is her body shape - and tall and slim seemed to be the winning combination.

I've made it to 30, and I can say I'm feeling pretty good. I'm feeling optimistic about the next 60, now - especially given the added factoid from the same study, that an hour of exercise per day is sufficient to achieve that longevity - and no more. Sanctioned couch time, lengthy ladies?

These studies always raise interesting questions, however - and generally contradict previous studies. I have always believed that tall people die younger, and a 2013 study, by researchers at the catchily-named Geoffrey Kabat of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, showed that each additional four inches of height increases the risk of all types of cancer by 13pc in post-menopausal women. Put away the party hats, gang.

My big question on this front is: how? The JECH doesn't say much about why being tall has you living longer. Perhaps they simply can't explain it.

It's not new knowledge that maintaining a lower weight is overall more beneficial for your health (the cult of intermittent fasting will attest to that. Autophagy - the term for the cell repair that occurs when the body is in a fasted state - blessed be).

And here's something I don't hear fellow tallies acknowledging too often - it is indeed far easier to maintain that lower weight when you're taller. Logically, all those calories have more places to go.

And while we're acknowledging things, here's something else: being tall and slim is socially desirable, so being able to stay slim with greater ease is certainly a benefit.

Like anyone of any height, I'm prey to negative messages in society about weight. I am tall, certainly, and I didn't have much to do with that, but I do think about staying slim. I'm not a model, and I'll never have to work in an industry where my appearance is an important facet of my job, but when talking about height, and its desirability, I think it's worth noting that goes hand-in-hand with being slim.

At a recent family event, I lost count of the number of people who looked me up and down, and said admiringly: "You're so tall; and so slim." Sometimes, I feel an odd pressure to be slim - as if being heavier would somehow be a waste of all these inches.

A lot of us thinking being tall is great has to do with the idea that the human brain often can't make the distinction between correlation and causation. There are some things that are true of being tall: tall people (tall men in particular) earn more money (I guess I'm outlying data, here). They're held up as more credible than their peers, and they do better in the workplace. Tall people have higher IQs and better access to a wider selection of mates (try telling teenage me that, though).

But are those things true because people are tall, or are they true because we place so much importance on height? I have certainly found that people listen to me when socialising, or give me credit in the workplace. Is this because I'm tall, or is it because I'm good at my job? I know former partners' current girlfriends have found me 'intimidating' when meeting me, but why is that? I've done pretty well in some areas of academia, but I also failed a few exams over the years. People are generally very nice to me, but I do also try to be nice to people myself. Where's the causation, and where's the correlation? I don't have a good answer.

And being tall is not all enhanced status and compliments. In my case, it's wonky knees, and lower back pain, and hip pain. It's trying to fit into a world of Ryanair flights, Dublin Bus seating, and avoiding the odd, sneaky, Georgian doorframe. It is trying, and failing, time and time again to get jeans with a 26" waist and a 36" leg. It's buying shoes from specialist shops like Long Tall Sally, because 9 just isn't a size you can pick up in Penneys on your lunch break.

And when it comes to the big question, dating, it definitely is great to be a taller man - the taller you are, the greater your selection.

As a lady, it's a little different; I have never felt cute. An ex of mine told me he missed how 'bony' I am, recently. In Canada, I dated a CFL player briefly (like the NFL, but worse). I asked this big guy constantly to pick me up like a baby (and in doing so, undo a lifetime of feeling like a gangly, back-breaking mess).

At the same recent family gathering, my brother put his arm around my female cousin's shoulders, and we both laughed because it does feel lovely - and it's not something we often comfortably experience. Women are told, through a variety of messages, to take up less space - figuratively and literally. I get why Khloe Kardashian dates gigantic basketball and football players. Sometimes, you just want to feel comparatively normal.

Being tall doesn't confer much advantage by itself - I'm eight inches taller than the average Irish woman, but we can all reach the same shelves, and when we can't, there are little stools dedicated to that purpose.

I'm not a basketballer, or a model, so I don't need the extra inches for anything. I can see the band at a concert, but I always make sure my shorter pals are standing in front of me, with a good view.

But I wouldn't give it up (not even to feel cute). Because we all agree that being tall is a good thing - and even if we flap our hands and pretend it's not, tall people know it too.

Irish Independent