What began as a radical nutritional change could have now turned into a society obsessed with height. Keep reading to find out why are Koreans tall.
There is no hard data to back all the deductions in this article, but everything that there is in this piece is from thorough research and skeptical observation.
Before you start thinking this article is ridiculous, let’s get some scientific data in place. The average height of Korean men in the 17th century was 161.1 centimeters and for Korean women, it was 148.9 centimeters.
Jump to 2010 — the average height of Korean men is now 174 centimeters. The Korean women are leggy and as tall as 160.5 centimeters. About 10-14 whole centimeters! This research, conducted in 2010, was backed by the Korean Agency for Technology and Standards. The institute is affiliated with the Ministry of Knowledge Economy.
People of the younger generation are much taller than the ones that fall into the ‘older’ category.
There is one common question dangling in the minds of every middle aged person in Korea — “ Wow, what didn’t I eat as a child?”
Why Are Koreans Tall
Nature Vs Nurture — What Makes Koreans Taller?
Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is genetics, how else can you prove something intangible. Something that has been cause for all of us to blame all the shortcomings in ourselves. “I’m not tall because my parents are short”. But as you can see from the data, the kids of the 1990s suddenly shot up, all taller than their parents. No — they were not fed special food.
But yes, this does prove that nurturing played just as huge a role in Koreans becoming taller than they were in the 17th century. Let’s take the popular notion — Europeans are taller than Asians. We could easily attribute the tropical and geographical characteristics and everything physical to this deduction.
But then the scientists noticed that South Koreans and North Koreans, despite being neighbours, had a huge difference in height and other features alike. It didn’t make sense. They are basically the same and they haven’t experienced immigration in many centuries. Here’s where the nurture over nature argument comes in.
A certain professor of Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Mr. Daniel Schwekendiek managed to study the heights of the refugees from North Korea when they crossed into the South. His findings suggested a height difference of 3 cm, Northerners shorter than the other. This difference was even more obvious in the children.
In an interview conducted amongst some of the more opinionated children in school, we received some food for thought. We asked them what they thought was the reason for Europeans to be taller than Koreans.
First of all, she seemed to think that it was a huge stereotype. That statement only seemed relevant up until World War II. The second factor she mentioned was the diet. Europeans have a meat heavy diet whereas the Koreans have a vegetable centric diet. The nutrition gained from meat was much more contributing than vegetables.
When she was probed for an opinion on North Koreans’ heights, she said, nutritional food is expensive and it is not easy for North Koreans to afford good food on a regular basis.
This particular fact was actually verified by Mr. Martin Bloem, the then Nutrition head of the World Food Programme. His team led food drives that helped provide aid and food to North Koreans back in 1995. From his findings, he noted that lack of proper nutrition in earlier stages caused stunted growth. This is the disparity between the North and the South. The South, at this point, experienced rapid economic growth, which, as crazy as it sounds, led to height development.
Coming back to the interview, the girl brought in a third factor. Sleep and hard work. They went hand in hand in student life. Koreans naturally had to study more and stayed up for longer hours. Even as a working person, the job demands long hours, in contrast to the European countries. So while Koreans are tall, if there are ones that aren’t, you know why.
Who knew that the economic situation of a country could play a huge role in the height of its people? The current studies suggest that the average height amongst Koreans is rising but that remains quite unchanged in the Western countries.
In a nutshell, researchers attribute nutrition, sleep, industrialization and the increase in welfare and wellbeing as contributing factors for the risen average height amongst Koreans in the 19th century. This was not limited to just Korea. It was also a widespread and scientifically accepted phenomenon in Europe and the US. Of course, on a smaller scale, between families, genetics also play a huge role.
Heightism in Korea
Just like racism or sexism in any country, Korea is a victim of something called ‘heightism’. There isn’t a single event you can point out to which could have caused heightism to exist in the first place, but it sure became a rampant discriminatory phenomenon when a young female university student said something.
In 2009, a female student remarked that any male shorter than the height of 180 centimetres is a loser at the Global Talk Show. Of course, these led to many protests, but in the minds of the women and the tall men of Korea, a short man was after all a loser. There were many self-deprecating jokes about this.
The rampantness was appalling. People lost jobs because of not having a desirable height. They were not even considered for the position. Employers asked for details of the height and weight of men. This led to huge protests and the filing of bills. After a much distraught fight, the Equal Employment Opportunity and Work-Family Balance Assistance Act was approved in 2020, preventing employers from relying on ‘lookism’ to recruit employees.
In fact, one of the main reasons why someone became a victim of bullying in high school in Korea was if they were short.
The height as a Social Advantage in Korean
Naturally, those that were seen as tall were automatically given a social advantage in Korean society. They would be called successful, the pride of the family.
For more coveted occupations like that of movie stars and anything on the silver scream, people with smaller heights don’t stand a chance. That doesn’t lie completely true for the older generation although.
The heights Koreans go to get the “height”
Seeing as it is deemed to be an advantage, height is a desirable thing in Korea. Everyone wants to be tall. It is, can I say amusingly shocking, to see the heights people would go to to get the height that is socially acceptable.
From a young age, parents start worrying about their children’s heights. At 10, they can possibly tell whether or not their cold is going to be tall. They resort to pop-in-after-breakfast pediatric and dietary supplements that “apparently” help with height. There are no proven records.
In their defence, they don’t want their child to be the next victim of heightism. So instead of shooting someone like the mafia would, they shoot their child up with growth hormone injections.
Let me give you a ballpark figure of how much these growth hormone injections matter in Korea. The market size for these is 100 billion won. That’s about 87.5 million USD. In addition to that, the market for pediatric growth supplements also saw a huge rise. From being just 6.7 billion won in 2017, it shot up to 20.7 billion won in 2018.
For less expensive alternatives, people prefer over-the-counter health supplements. They are easier to come by as well. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety had identified multiple false advertising cases and called them out. Upon probing, it was found that these meds were tested on animals, not humans, and had no record of them actually working.
That’s not all. There are influencers at work. They advocate the use of Japanese seaweed calcium tablets that supposedly help Koreans become tall. Mind you, these are not checked by the authorities. Neither is the Ten Ten tablet sold by Hanmi Pharmaceutical. Both of them are only sold at smaller pharmaceuticals because they are not medically approved.
So Koreans are tall, but at what cost? (literally)
What is “Korean Manner Legs”?
Believe it or not, there is a certain manner taller men are expected to stand when they’re talking to people shorter than them. In simple words, because they’re so tall, stooping can be difficult and shorter people having to look up to them can also seem tough on the neck.
To combat that, the tall people of Korea stand in a stance that is a sort of semi-split. They spread their legs apart, one inch at a time and finally reach a position that is comfortable with the person with them.
This manner is captured among celebrities quite often. Male Korean actors are often so much taller than their female counterparts. To fit in the same frame, they often assume the “manner legs” stance. The same goes when they’re on set for touch-ups between scenes.
It’s not limited to men though. Some women are super leggy, models and actors alike.
Koreans’ most searched queries are “Korean Tips to Grow Taller”
Seeing the state of Korea, I wasn’t surprised that this made it to the top of the list. Korean tips to grow taller. If it’s any silver lining, at least they seemed reasonable.
- Check your nutrition
- Work on spinal correction
- Get your supplements
How tall is tall in Korea?
Finally, eh? This is one of the most asked questions everywhere. Just being of average height doesn’t make you tall. You simply get a free pass. You’ll only be considered tall in Korean for a man if you’re 6 feet (182 cm) or taller, and if you’re a woman, you have to be 5’6 (168 cm) or taller.
My goal is to showcase the creativity and awesomeness of Korea and Korean products. I’m the head writer at bestkoreanproducts.com!