World’s tallest people get that shrinking feeling

AALSMEER, NETHERLANDS (AFP) – While the rest of the world literally looks up to the Dutch, the tallest members of the loftiest populace on earth insist it’s not easy being big.

So an official study by the Dutch national statistics office finding that they appear to be shrinking might be construed as good news – even if it could threaten the Netherlands’ number one spot.

At a meeting of the Klub Lange Mensen, or Tall People’s Club, the lowlanders say there are drawbacks to towering over most of the rest of humanity.

“I’ve always struggled with my height. When I was 12, I was already the tallest in the class, also taller than my teachers,” club chairman Helen Keuken, 57, tells AFP.

“And when I came in contact with the club it was a revelation. I felt like an outsider and now I belong somewhere,” says Keuken, who is 1.90 metres tall.

In a bar in the Dutch town of Aalsmeer near Schiphol airport, members of the club dance and chat over a drink, glad to have a place to gather where they don’t stand out.

Even by Dutch standards they are tall, with male club members needing to measure at least 1.90 metres and women at least 1.80 metres.

“We can have a conversation at eye level. You don’t have to bend, you can look straight,” said club secretary Rob Leurs-Kout, an imposing 2.11 metres tall. “That’s very nice.”

Many of the members say that being tall in the Netherlands has become “less exceptional” than when they were younger, notwithstanding the study by the national statistics office, CBS.

Dutch men born in 2001 are 1.829 metres tall on average, one centimetres shorter than the generation born in 1980, the CBS said, while women born in 2001 measure on average 1.693 metres (five foot seven), 1.4 centimetres less than 1980.

Even so, the Dutch remain the world’s tallest – they still surpass on average the men of Montenegro, Estonia and Bosnia and the women of Montenegro, Denmark and Iceland, said the CBS – but that could change.

At the start of the 19th Century the Dutch were small by European standards and only started to shoot up in the 1840s, before finally becoming the tallest with the generation born in the 1950s.

The reasons are “very difficult to pinpoint”, said Gert Stulp of the University of Groningen’s faculty of behavioural and social sciences.

“We know if a country gets wealthier with better healthcare and better nutrition and fewer diseases that increases height, as it has done for the Netherlands,” said Stulp, who stands two metres tall.

“Our diets are believed to be one cause, the Dutch drink a lot of milk.”

A widely quoted theory that natural selection is responsible – with taller Dutch people having more children than shorter people, and their children then repeating the pattern – leaves Stulp “not convinced”.

As for the shrinkage? Migration to the Netherlands is one main cause, with people from non-Western backgrounds generally being shorter, both the CBS and Stulp suggested.