Tall tops and short bottoms: How height became another toxic, binary dating trope

A comprise of a short, shirtless man wearing a crown and two tall shirtless men on either side of him

It was said, as it so often was, with a smile: “I didn’t realise you were so short!”

Dating had never been Steph’s thing. But when he met a woman through Facebook he thought he’d give it a shot.

As a demisexual, transmasculine, non-binary person looking for love, the 44-year-old artist likes to get to know a person first, a “friendship evolving into romance” kinda thing.

He’d been chatting to his date for months over Messenger and in late-night phone calls that stretched into the early hours.

And now here she was, as they met for the first time outside a café. She walked straight up to him and immediately commented on his height. It didn’t work out.

Standing at 4’11”, Steph is used to comments about how short he is – and it hurts. “My height is an aspect of my body that causes me a lot of gender dysphoria,” he tells PinkNews.

“It’s different from all the other aspects in that while it might be another three-to-five years before I can get top surgery or any form of lower surgery, at least they’re options that might be on the table one day – but there’s never going to be an operation that can make me a foot taller!”

For “a long time”, Steph says, height was “one of the factors that held me back from transitioning or even exploring my gender identity, because I assumed I ‘wouldn’t be taken seriously’ as a man”.

Height has long been seen as a way to, quite literally, measure manhood, and though shorter people are by no means persecuted, being vertically challenged can have real-world impacts.

Tall people are considered to be more dominant, healthy, intelligent, are happier and earn higher salaries on average. Research has found that the bulk of American CEOs are over six feet tall, that voters prefer tall candidates to lead them and that nursery school teachers see short boys as less capable.

One area where size certainly matters is on dating apps

“I used to hide my height on Grindr and only say when asked,” says Giovanni Bienne, an actor living in London. “That’s when it would screech to a grinding halt.”

At 5’7″, Bienne is about two inches shorter than the average British man, who stands at 5’9″ according to the Office for National Statistics.

Giovanni Bienne, a vers top, is often made to feel he has to be especially domineering because he is 5’7″. (Giovanni Bienne/Paul Nicholas Dyke)

He’s been blocked and ghosted countless times after revealing his height – when he doesn’t share it, he tends to match with considerably more people.

“It does feel like a dirty secret I’m disclosing,” he adds. On rare occasions, he finds his height is fetishised: “‘Oh my god, I love pocket gays!’ – that might not be as harmful, but it does make me feel uncomfortable.”

“But that’s just online, it’s in person that it gets hurtful. I’ve had several guys over the years say: ‘if only you were taller/shame you’re so short/if only you weren’t so short, then we could…'”

Even before he came out, as a teenager, he was treated by girls “as a sort of sexless stuffed toy animal”.

“And that’s something straight short guys definitely experienced as well: that we’re adorable, ‘so adorable’, but not really a serious prospect.”

Multiple studies have shown that height is considered one of the most appealing physical attributes a man can possess to women. As Reductress once said: “Is He Cute or Is He Just Tall and White?”

This is, as academic Laure Butera wrote, because of “the mythology of tallness“. Since men are generally taller than women, tallness has become tied with strength.

Throw in evolutionary biologists’ findings that height is associated with sexual attractiveness and fatherhood, and you seemingly have justification that if you were born taller, you are more powerful.

These heterosexual, patriarchal norms around height have been carried over to the queer community. In much the same way that the binary of tops and bottoms reflect misogynistic tropes of men and women, short and tall narratives in same-sex dating often place the tall as the dominant top and the short as the submissive bottom.

Men who top tend to prefer shorter men, and bottoms go for tall men, researchers have found.

But rather than height predisposing sexual roles, it’s all to do with the idea of tall men being dominant. Generally, researchers found, tall men prefer shorter partners, and vice versa. Moreover, men who described themselves are preferring a more “dominant and ‘active’ sexual role” preferred shorter partners, while men who preferred a more “submissive and ‘passive'” role liked taller partners.

And interestingly, there was a “discrepancy between what men preferred, and the actual heights of their partners”. Many were expressing “a preference for smaller partner height differences than they actually experienced”, in other words, tall tops looking for short bottoms were often actually choosing partners closer to their own height.

I like dating short boys. The sex is always better with the height difference.

Charlie is used to looking down at people. The great unknown of upper shelves, door frames and shower heads is his domain, standing as he does at a mountainous 6’7″.

The 33-year-old, a project manager in Bristol, has never met someone taller than he is, and he is the first to admit his height gifted him with an unfair advantage in dating.

He knows that a lot of men are drawn to him for his tall stature. “They like the feeling of me towering above them,” Charlie says “or they like to be held. That, or they like my height simply to access the top shelves in their homes.”

“I know that might sound a little patronising but I do enjoy being the big spoon to keep someone feeling safe,” he adds, admitting that he feels almost compelled to “protect” short guys.

Being tall does have its cons, though, Charlie said, and he wishes he was a little shorter. “It makes you stand out,” he said, “and that can feel awkward or uncomfortable.”

While Charlie doesn’t have much of a choice in dating shorter men, Patrick does. A 20-something lawyer based in London, Patrick has only once experienced what he saw as height discrimination. He was “too short,” a 6’3″ man once told him. He is 6’2″.

Height is a “dealbreaker” for Patrick, but tall guys aren’t actually for him, even though society teaches early on that tall men like himself are “providers,” he said.

“I like dating short boys. The sex is always better with the height difference.”

Bienne, a vers top, said that people assume he’s the bottom because he’s short. “I’m not domineering, so that’s often been read as me pretending to be a top to compensate for my short stature,” Bienne said.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘What are you trying to prove?’ or, ‘If you’re going to be a top, do it properly.’

“I’m not proud of this, but I have sometimes tried to be more domineering in bed to get them to shut up. But even when it was well-received, the reaction was: ‘Well, look at you, who’d have thought someone like you would have that in you!'”

The emphasis on measuring men – from height to weight – feeds into toxic masculinity 

In a Metro.co.uk article published in 2020, James Cullen detailed the hardships of dating as a 5’9″ man. Similarly to Bienne, he often found men lost interest after he revealed his height even though he’s of average height in Britain – and the same height as Tom Hardy, he joked.

James Cullen. (Twitter/@JCulWestside)

Two years on, and things have changed a lot for Cullen. His height hasn’t budged, but his weight has: “I lost loads of body fat and gained more muscle and I have to say that the reaction from gay men changed dramatically.”

“I defy the weak, short bottom stereotype,” he said, “it might help combat some of the shortcomings about being short.

Indeed, stereotypes around gender and the “correct” height and weight men should be can be especially harmful and frustrating for trans folk.

“The problem I have is with the stereotype that men and masculine folks, in general, are tall,” Steph explained.

“That’s because at 4’11” I’m really short, even in relation to societal expectations for adult cis women – let alone cis men.

“The further I get with my physical transition, the more my height will become the feature that gets me misgendered and potentially puts me in danger, as opposed to just one of many features.”

Things are steadily changing. Enter the “short king,” a phrase coined by 5’9″ comedian Jaboukie Young-White in 2018. “Short kings are the enemy of body negativity,” he wrote on Twitter, “and I’ll be forever proud to defend them.”

The short king has offered a comedic but fresh take on how to be a man. Masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic and tall – it can be short and loving, vulnerable and not reliant on blunt physical attributes.

As we enter the short king era, where even dedicated apps for short kings and short king-lovers have arisen, it seems the height hierarchy is finally being toppled.

“‘Tall, dark and handsome is outdated,” reads the homepage for Short King Dating, “and kings are in short supply.

“Don’t let height get in the way of true love.”