New Height Requirement for Leading the World

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jacob Gallagher headlined “Rishi Sunak and the Rise of the ‘Short King'”:

With inflation rising and energy prices climbing, Brits certainly have a lot on their mind. Yet for some in the Commonwealth the topic of conversation last week was not their wallets, but the stature of their new prime minister, Rishi Sunak.

“Rishi Sunak has not addressed the public because he is simply too short to see over the lectern,” offered one tweet. “Rishi Sunak really showing 2022 is the year for Short Kings,” read a softer missive. (“Short king” is internet slang for a not-quite-towering individual who nonetheless exudes confidence.)

Many tweets conveyed pure befuddlement, such as: “I can’t believe Rishi Sunak is short???”

To be clear, the Tory pol is not pint-size—estimates clock him at a respectable 5’7”—but Mr. Sunak is shorter than, say, Boris Johnson, who once said, “I’m only about 5-foot-10” or Joe Biden, who per presidential health records lands just north of 5’11”. Next to his Brobdingnagian ​​health secretary Steve Barclay (who looks like he really could’ve played a mean point guard), Mr. Sunak looks practically Lilliputian.

The new PM’s stature, however, puts him in surprisingly good company—particularly in Europe. If he were alive today, Napoleon Bonaparte, who most historians believe was actually around 5’6”, would fit right in on the world stage. Estimates place Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky all in the mid-5-feet range. If not for Mr. Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the G-7 could well be renamed the 5’7”.

Over the weekend, the cohort of compact world leaders even added a new member: Estimates say Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva clocks in around 5’6”, several inches shorter than the outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro.

In the scrutiny of appearances—which female politicians in particular have faced as long as they’ve held power—celebrity heights are a public fixation now enhanced by the internet. If you google most any star’s height, the search engine auto-populates an answer, no further clicking required.

“The fact that you can go to a website and look up how tall a celebrity is makes people more clued in to” the dimensional discourse, said Louie Aronowitz, 34, a musician, actor and writer in New York. “It enables the obsession.”

He knows of what he speaks: Mr. Aronowitz is the co-host of Height of Entertainment, a podcast dedicated to scrutinizing celebrity stature from Martin Short to Chris Pratt. Last week, he had just recorded an episode on Britain’s new prime minister. Mr. Aronowitz said he knew nothing about the former hedge-fund manager beforehand, but felt compelled to discuss the Brit after seeing an article online titled “How Tall Is Rishi Sunak?”

Our preoccupation with stature is lifted by the notion that taller people exude more power. “Being tall has this way of commanding respect,” said Mr. Aronowitz. “It makes you the alpha, it establishes dominance.”

No wonder that height is often a topic in politics, where everything from seating arrangements to handshakes between presidents can be code. “Often we judge our leaders and frankly other people in general, more by appearances than we ever realized,” said Timothy Judge, executive director of the Fisher Leadership Initiative at the Ohio State University.

Mr. Judge published an oft-cited study in 2004 that found that taller people on average earn more money than their shorter peers. Though nearly 20 years old, the study continues to draw interest, particularly around election season when people probe power dynamics between candidates. Mr. Judge noted that coverage of Pennsylvania senatorial candidate John Fetterman rarely overlooks that he’s a gargantuan 6’8”.

Stature self-doubt can spur drastic measures: A few American doctors have advertised they will surgically add length to one’s bones to make patients taller. One, Dr. Shahab Mahboubian, recently posted a video on Instagram (his account is titled, of course, @heightlengthening) showing a patient who was a world-leader norm 5’7”—and had surgery to become 5’10”.

Less drastically, rumors often stir about shorter stars and politicians wearing lifted dress shoes to appear that much taller in photo ops. A photo from last week showing Mr. Sunak meeting King Charles caused amused chatter in the U.K. as the two leaders appeared at eye level—though the king is a few inches taller than the new PM. In 2019, when President Macron appeared to stand on his tiptoes to greet slightly taller Boris Johnson, the Telegraph newspaper dedicated an article to how the French leader tried to go “eye-to-eye” with the British PM.

Of course, the unelected fret over their height insecurities, as well. Despite discussing heights of stars at length on his podcast, Mr. Aronowitz sheepishly refused to disclose his exact stature in an interview.

While an imposing stature may help a leader get elected, that’s where the advantages may end. “There are very few occupations—the NBA or football or tennis—where you can say height is a legitimate advantage,” said Mr. Judge. Over time, the public is more interested in how many bills you pass, not how many inches you clock in at.

And so, some political experts consider the proportional brouhaha a short-term distraction. “For me it’s equivalent to tabloid media talking about handbags or makeup or hairdos of a female politician,” said Bart Cammaerts, professor of politics and communication at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Female politicians rarely face as much intrigue over their height; Mr. Judge noted that his study found a stronger correlation between height and earnings for men than for women.

Prof. Cammaerts believes the height headlines will be washed out as Brits fret over substantive issues like rising energy costs. “It will be more about those everyday struggles in terms of surviving and inflation,” he said. And that’s price inflation, not height.

Jacob Gallagher is the men’s fashion columnist on the style news desk of The Wall Street Journal, where he covers style trends. He is the author of “The Men’s Fashion Book,” published by Phaidon.

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