Michael Phelps, Leonardo, Plasterers and Me

‘You’ve put your arms too far through.’

It’s what my mother would say when she watched me try clothes on when I was a child and teenager.  My arms were (and still are) too long for any off the peg sleeve.  I’ve always thought it was because I’m tall; trousers are never long enough either.

But I recently watched a jokey segment on one of those home improvement shows where one of the plasterers claimed that because of the work they do, members of his trade have wider wing span than the average person, for whom the distance from finger tip to finger tip should equal height.

He demonstrated, by leaning against a door, one arm reaching to the floor, the other to the ceiling; when he had reached full stretch, keeping his raised hand in place he stood up and measured his height underneath his hand.

Sure enough, there was a gap of a couple of inches between his fingers and the top of his head.

A number of the other crew members had a go, and his theory held true; the plasterers all had proportionately longer arms than the others.

The first time the ‘normal’ proportions of the human form were illustrated were by Leonardo da Vinci in Vitruvian Man; and to this day it is remarked upon when a person’s physique does not conform to its pleasing ratios.

Vitruvian Man

Vitruvian Man

When Michael Phelps was on his winning streak at the Olympics,  the commentators couldn’t let a race pass by without mentioning both his mother and his arms span of 201 cm, compared to his height of 193 cm.

So in the interests of science, and the daily blog post, and armed with the plasterer’s measurement technique I tried it today.

I can reveal that my arm span is about 8cm greater than my height.

No wonder sleeves are such a problem.

And yet another imperfection.

Don’t get me wrong, leaving aside the sleeve issue, having long arms can be useful for getting things off high shelves in the supermarket, changing light bulbs, that sort of thing; but equally I’ve accidentally scraped my knuckles on a few ceilings too.

Remember those classes at primary school when you had to split into teams and measure each others height, and who had ear lobes and who could roll their tongue?  There always seemed to be a requirement to check each others reactions, which generally involved running around whacking everyone with rulers.

I used to think everyone was play acting when their legs would jerk upwards when someone hit their knee, because no matter how hard or how often I was hit, my legs stayed stubbornly still.

It was only a few years ago, when a Consultant Neurologist tapped me with a little rubber hammer to no avail that I had it confirmed that I don’t have those kinds of reactions.  But as it didn’t seem to matter one way or another, I still don’t really understand why it is such a prevalent test; the cliché of medical examinations.  In the end it has more in common with the categorisation of people into those who can roll their tongue and those who can’t, than I was aware of at 9 years old.

For ages I’ve tried to think of a story I could construct around this possibly irrelevant detail, so far without success; because while it’s true I don’t have those reactions, it is incredibly easy to make me jump, which is much more amusing for people who happen to walk up behind me; and comedy’s not really my thing.

Leave a comment


  1. margaret nickels

     /  February 16, 2011

    Cannot resist a challenge :arm span = 160 cm and height is 170 cm. So just who is normal ?!

  2. I never realized that simple fact about plasterers. I wonder what else a longer arm width can implicate?

  3. haven’t measured, but i know mine are overshort! Typical? Normal? No such thing!


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