Sometimes I feel like a giant even though I’m only five foot eight (or nine on a good day). The neighbourhood in which I live is one of Madrid’s greyer neighbourhoods and I tower above the señores and señoras mayors as I go about my daily life in the Barrio del Pilar. I have heard two explanations as to why Spaniards of a certain age are noticeably short.
A great number of those entering their sixties or seventies now and born in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) would have suffered childhoods of hardship and deprivation. The country was devastated by the civil war, and recovery was not helped by the outbreak of World War II: at the very point when the country’s victorious Falangist regime would have been writing those begging letters to their backers in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini would have had other things on their minds. Spain’s isolation during World War II continued after the fighting came to an end, and the country found itself the pariah of Europe as American aid poured across the Atlantic to everywhere on the old continent except Franco’s island of hungry and threadbare despotism.
When the Marshall plan did eventually arrive to Spain in 1951 the country had suffered a number of near famines since the start of World War II. Until the boom of the 1960s, food was scarce for many Spaniards. With improving nutrition, the height of los del baby boom began to move towards the European norm. Sometimes those born during the 1970s or 1980s are referred to as the “Cola Cao generation”, in reference to the Spanish chocolate-based energy drink which contains high levels of vitamins and minerals, and almost became a staple for Spanish children during this time.
There is also an explanation proffered for a generation’s short stature and which is based on classism and regional snobbery. Much of Madrid’s population are migrants from the countryside who flocked to the capital during the boom of the ’60s and ’70s. I have heard comments along the lines of “Look at all those short-arsed Extremadurans — a low, dumpy race” from Madrid natives. It stands to reason that those most affected by food shortages in their youth would be among those migrating in their late teens and twenties. Some richer, better-fed city folk are still slightly appalled by their presence in their city all these years later.
The link between height and nutrition is well established. The better fed you, your parents and your grandparents have been, the taller you will be. The members of stable, well-fed societies such as we find in the West are taller than those coming from war-torn, famine-stricken Third World countries. Even within well-off societies there is a correlation between being poor and short, and rich and tall. As upright, bipedal primates, humans are programmed to respect and fear our tall peers, which is why most managers, leaders and generals tend to be tall. The short, peasant migrants who came to Madrid during the boom were favoured neither by their childhood nutritional status nor the rigid society that greeted them upon arrival to the capital: both factors mitigated against them become leaders of the new Spain.