Things Interpretations Dimensions

Anthropology of Size – Taking a First Measurement

Beatrice Voirol

Big is immediate. Big is ineluctable. Big is unmistakable. If one attempts to define bigness, however, it soon becomes clear that despite its impressiveness little is known about it. Its spectrum starts at an undefined point and extends to superlative spheres like "eternity" and "infinity".


Proportions are of great importance in this lack of clarity regarding bigness. "Bigger than" is considered an indicator and driving force in the size competition. Physical bigness is compared through units of measure. It is dominated by science, which measure heights, widths and lengths. But what about the culture of bigness? I shall focus on four things – the telescope, the measuring rod, the container and the breast implant – in order to dissect them in terms of their size. In these close-ups I shall approach size as a culturally relevant element: the example of the telescope illustrates how diversely the cosmos can be received. What happens if dealing with what is very big is completely different? In order to guarantee an adequate measurement of bigness you must have standardized units of measure, as the example of the measuring rod shows. Numerous other systems of measurement have been forsaken for the benefit of standardization. The container is an example of the fact that size is closely linked to growth.  Where does this need to get bigger and bigger lead? What is measured in this economic competition? One's own body is not immune to measurement either. The implant indicates specific motives for the modification of parts of the body. When is an enlargement desired and why?

The telescope

The nearly childlike amazement at bigness soon yields to the desire to understand, to verify the perception. We look at the night sky through the telescope and cannot exactly grasp what is revealed to us. We want to measure the inconceivable with our naked eye. Because this is only inadequately possible, we create our own cosmology, based on scientific knowledge. Numbers have a decisive significance, although we have a highly ambivalent and imprecise relationship especially to very large numbers. Provided that we are not talking about the divine, where belief is indispensable, scientific proof dominates in our part of the world when we talk about bigness.


At the moment, a gigantic telescope is causing conflict in Hawaii. On top of the 4,200 metre high Mauna Kea, a new telescope is to be built, one that is even bigger than those that are already there. Scientists have been studying the sky for a long time at this ideal site. Various universities and institutions jointly run the Mauna Kea Observatories. Now an additional telescope with a thirty-metre mirror is to be erected. The advantages of the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) are persuasive: It would capture ten times as much light as the other telescopes on Mauna Kea because of its immense mirror, and its photosensitivity would be two hundred times higher. Scientists there argue that with the TMT they would be able to investigate the atmosphere of earth-like planets adjacent to distant stars for possible traces of life.1

The Subaru Telescope and W. M. Keck Observatory at sunset on Mauna Kea

These arguments are not particularly relevant for the opponents of the large-scale project. Mauna Kea is sacred for Hawaiians, it is of central importance to their history, connecting heaven and earth in their cosmology. It is the mountain altar of Wākea, the celestial founding figure of the Hawaiians.2 Therefore, the mountain cannot be further deconsecrated. This is why there have been protests and road blockades since October 2014.3 Because of this opposition, the work has been suspended and it is not clear how it will continue in this conflict between Western scientific cosmology and the world of indigenous cosmologies, with both sides fighting for recognition of their perceptions.


Cosmological perceptions vary – the worlds of demons and gods compete with the human world. In our Western worldview, strongly informed by scientific knowledge, it is not gods and demons who contend for mastery of the universe, but rather the probability of asteroids hitting the earth, the size and mass of black holes or the distance to the most remote galaxy of our universe. The size and scope of our solar system are recorded above all through the development of measuring instruments. The telescope that Galileo Galilei constructed is considered the starting point of this development. When he was studying the night sky above Padua with his telescope in 1610, he discovered the moons of Jupiter, which he then continued to observe nightly. What he learned from this did not only refute the geocentric worldview, but was also the basis for the later calculation of the speed of light. Outer space came closer and its secrets seemed less inscrutable.


It does not matter whether we call it Aleph א or Aeon, human beings are preoccupied with huge bigness: infinity and eternity. Boundlessness is closely connected to ontological questions: How do we understand the world and our existence in it? Our senses are not made for extremes. Size is closely connected with seeing. What is the biggest thing we can register with our eyes? Our visual perception is limited. This can be seen with numbers. The limits of subitization – perceiving a sum at a glance – are quickly reached, and we experience number numbness.4 The development of our brains is guided by the order of magnitude of expansion and speed that our body deals with. We feel comfortable in the middle realm, between the very large and the very small.5


What do we do about the irritations of the very big? There are various answers. Western culture, striving to be scientific, measures. Bigness is made epistemologically accessible. In this respect, numbers play an important role, as they correspond to our idea of exactitude. The scientific tradition of counting, measuring and weighing dominates. We take the three-dimensional structure of our universe for granted. Nevertheless, there are scientists who regard the universe as a two-dimensional projection of smaller, subatomic information bytes. The existence of a gigantic hologram would make it possible to resolve the contradictions between Einstein's Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics, but would also mean that our familiar world is completely different from our perception of it.6 Because experiencing the universe in its three-dimensionality would turn out to be an illusion, or rather only one possibility of beholding reality.


And the issue does not become simpler if we are dealing with the size of God. Unfathomable, sublime, not measurable in terms of logic. There are numerous verses in the Bible that call God "great". "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable."7


If we consider the earth in the context of the universe, it is relatively small and insignificant. Nonetheless, it, too, has not escaped the measuring mania.

The metre

The scale of a metre is substantially easier for us to grasp. More than any other unit of measurement, the metre accompanies us through our lives. Whereas the expansion of the universe boggles our minds, we have developed a sense of what a metre is. And this even though the metre is not based on our physical dimensions. The fact that, despite this, we have internalized the length of a metre is because of standardization. The metre is the measurement that ostensibly works for everything and everyone: distance in kilometres, living space in square metres and spacing in centimetres. The use of this size is standardized, and there is little leeway to misunderstand it.


The metre played a decisive role in "measuring the world". In appropriating the earth through measurement, standardization and the introduction of the metre were of fundamental significance. In this endeavour – which at times was resisted – every point on earth has been allocated its place on the map according to its geographical length and breadth. In the course of time, there have been different definitions of the metre. Starting in 1799, it was based on the length of the standard metre bar – a platinum prototype kept in the French National Archives. Its length corresponded to the measurement of one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. Since 1983, the metre has been defined as the length of the distance that light travels in a vacuum for 1/299,792,458 of a second. The metre is the basic unit of length in the International System of Units.8

The Equator, 2009

Already 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, measuring was an issue in human communities. The exchange of objects like spears or axes led to common perceptions of parity and consensus.9 This mutual understanding of order can also be found in the Bible: "Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meteyard [measuring rod], in weight, or in measure. Just balances, just weights, a just ephah [a measure for grain], and a just hin [a unit of liquid measure], shall ye have [...] Therefore shall ye observe all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them."10


As a rule, the pre-metrical units of measurement were based on the human body. An ell is the distance between elbow and the tip of the middle finger and a mile was defined by the Romans as mille passus, whereas it was measured from a step of the right foot to the next step of the right foot, thus actually encompassing two steps. This unit was important for army marches. The Greek measure stadion is based on the distance of the ancient Olympic running event. Acre refers to the work of a day, from sunrise to sunset; the pound, to a handful of earth, and the cup is a good measure for a drink.11 The fundamental problem with these early attempts to measure was their impreciseness. Although the ell, for instance, was used widely, there were different ells. The ancient Hebrews and Egyptians defined the ell as seven handbreadths with four finger-breadths each. However, the Egyptian ell was 52 centimetres long and the Hebrew one 45 centimetres long.12 Which is why standardizations were introduced very early. A consistent centralization with a uniform jurisdiction and a standardized administrative system was introduced by the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in 221 B.C. His goal was to unify seven warring states in his realm; the establishment of standardized weights and measures was essential to this goal. There were standardized coins, a standard measure for the lengths of the axles of carts to facilitate passage through arches and over bridges and thus, as a consequence, an enormous improvement in trade and communication.13 The Europeans also knew the problem of imprecision: during the Ancien Régime there were roughly 800 different designations for measurement, which stood for 250,000 measures.14 It was only in the course of the French Revolution that a comprehensive standardization took place – similar to that of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi – when the metric system was introduced. An extensive reform of French institutions came in the wake of the revolution: a reform that was supposed to create liberty, fraternity and equality.  Dialects and regional languages were forbidden. In 1790 a new system of measures was to be established. Weights and units of length were from then on clearly defined. The metre replaced arbitrary definitions, as lengths linked to the human body were not clear-cut. When units of length were defined by the width of the thumb or the length – for example – of the king's foot, there was as good as no possibility to verify them. Nor was it particularly helpful when the inch or foot – originally the width of any thumb or foot – were replaced with the width or length of a royal thumb or foot.15

Today we measure distances via orbiting satellites with GPS, or we have the relevant app count our own footsteps. But estimating distances used to be far more difficult. It was only from the seventeenth century on that observatories were built and positions could be determined and were connected one after the other into a dense network. And it was only after the introduction of the metre that it was possible to reproduce this data true to scale on maps. In this respect, the determination of a prime meridian was a highly political issue. Latitude had long been defined, but the missing determination of a prime meridian, as a reference for all longitudes, was a big problem, especially for seafaring. Nearly every country had its own prime meridian. In 1884, at the Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., there was a showdown between two major scientific projects, the Parisian meridian and the Greenwich meridian. The decision was made in favour of the meridian that ran through the British Royal Observatory in Greenwich; this has ever since been the fixed point for space and time.16 The metre is omnipresent in our lives and has been instrumental in influencing the way we perceive the world. In 1875 the Metre Convention was convened; today nearly every industrialized country in the world is a contracting party. The metre helps us to achieve exactitude, control and equity in measuring lengths. It has replaced countless local measuring systems.

the container

Although the container is also standardized and represents a specific volume in cubic metres, it is another aspect that is striking: its importance for the international movement of goods. Globalization abrogated familiar standards, not only in transportation, but in all areas. A new, much bigger scale replaced them. This new biggitude not only shifts scales, but also implies growth as a fundamental target. The issue of the limits of getting bigger and bigger not only concerns economic growth, but it is all-encompassing: the claims to power of the culture of competition seem to be boundless.


The standardized container is regarded as a symbol of the culture of expansion, of the extreme and of excess that has put its stamp on the twentieth century. Introduced in the 1950s, the container quickly prevailed and became the basis of the global economy. Because of its standardized form, containers could be handled quickly and transported by different modes of transport, such as ships, trains or lorries. There are fifteen million containers underway in the world today. The dimensions of a forty-foot container are 12.192 metres by 2.438 metres by 2.591 metres according to ISO Standard 668. Before the invention of containers, shipping was expensive – so expensive that it did not pay out to ship goods across half the country, not to mention half the world. It was only the massive decrease of freight charges in consequence of the introduction of the container that opened up new possibilities for shipping goods.17

Containers at Dreispitz in Basel, 2010

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the global economy was stimulated by industrialization and included the whole world. World trade increased more than tenfold between 1840 and 1910. Not only did the principle of free trade prevail, but technical innovations like the steam engine were commercialized.18


This development is the basis of globalization, a network of economy, politics, culture, the environment and communication of a scale undreamt of before. The containerization of bulk cargo, which has massively increased efficiency, has contributed to this development. The numbers generated in the course of this growing exchange are staggering. They have found their way into our lives by way of the media. If only because of their presence we must juggle with these immense numbers. The codification of the numbers shows that globalization seems to be obsessed with size.


An unprecedented gluttony of scale can be seen not only in economic terms, but bigness pervades our culture as well. A completely new scale of life established itself in the twentieth century: everything got bigger. The American way of life can be considered exemplary here. Gigantism appears to be the self-image of the American nation.19 Expanding cities belong to the culture of bigness as do amusement parks or malls. This new scale of life can also be seen in physical size and corpulence, both of which are increasing. The size of food portions, supermarkets, cars and houses are closely linked. This culture of biggitude can be seen in architecture, too. Skyscrapers are a paradigmatic example of bigness. The first skyscrapers were built at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. After an initial boom, the race for record heights ebbed a bit until it was reignited in the 1990s. The critical limit of the height of buildings is for technical reasons 1.5 to 2 kilometres; factors like the weight of the construction materials have an essential influence on this. For the time being, the tallest structure in the world is Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Kingdom Tower in Dschidda, Saudi Arabia, however, scheduled to be completed in 2019, is to be one kilometre tall, and thus 172 metres taller than Burj Khalifa. One record follows another. It is this superlative that fuels the competition of size. For, as a rule, these projects cannot be justified by rational arguments. Architecture transmits the displacement of the general scale of size in construction into higher and higher buildings. The imperative of expansion and growth is implicit here.20


We learned what skyscrapers symbolize at the latest on 11 September 2001, after the attack on the World Trade Center. The twin towers, described by the assassins as "towers of Western civilization they are so proud of"21 not only stood for economic power, but also for the culture of bigness with its uncontrolled growth and its claim to power.

The breast implant

One's appearance must be suitable if one wants to make it in the competitive global world. Breast implants optimize one's visual effect and conform to prevailing aesthetics. The modification of certain physical sizes, such as those of the breasts, is regarded as a return on investment in our capitalistic market economy. This trend is more than abetted by the measuring of our bodies that accompanies us from birth. We grow up with it and accept it as a part of life. Body statistics, however, do not predicate that much about our health or our beauty, but they reveal a great deal about the prevailing cultural and sociopolitical attitudes.


"Big is good." In an attempt to establish the measurement of breast size, the writer Alex Kuczynski put – in a self-experiment – a profile on an American platform on which women who wanted their breasts enlarged could meet men willing to finance their operations. Although Kuczynski's profile did not show her own bare breasts, she collected one hundred dollars within three weeks for her fictive future operation. One man wrote to her that he wanted to support her breast enhancement because "big is good".22

Saline-filled breast implants

The first silicon implants came on the market in 1963; since then they have enjoyed enormous success. Breast enlargement is today one of the most common operations in plastic surgery. One can conclude therefrom that today's beauty discourse is closely related to the power structures of money.


Human beings are already born as kilogram and centimetre ratios, and their growth is supervised with the help of percentiles. They are measured in the womb even before birth. Measuring runs through all of human life. In the process, the norm – and therefore deviation from the norm – is the standard: deviations are to be treated. The BMI, the Body Mass Index, also accompanies us from childhood until advanced age, giving us information about whether we are too "fat" or too "thin" according to the ratio of our weight to our size.


The effects that such deviations from the norm can have is seen, for example, with boys' heights.23 Shorter boys are more likely to be subject to discrimination than boys of "normal" height. Even if they have a later growth spurt, be it natural or with the help of growth hormones, this early experience has a formative influence on them for their whole lives, because "size matters".


Measuring people has a long tradition, and the beginnings of anthropometry, the science of measuring the human body, are more than problematical. In the nineteenth century a pseudo-scientific racial anthropology related to measuring and counting arose. Its principal purpose was to cement existing prejudices on the basis of the measured numbers. The huge amount of data about bones and skulls served to confirm anthropological classifications according to the prevailing perceptions of the time.24


The absurdity of this measuring mania is especially obvious in the encounter with the Other. Applying the measurements to exotic peoples, from physiognomic characteristics to human zoos, shows how vexing such measuring was. This is particularly clear in artistic reactions to anthropometry, as the film Petit à Petit by Jean Rouch shows, in which a Nigerian visitor wants to measure Parisian citizens for a study.25 Or a current work by the artist Yuki Kihara, "A Study of a Samoan Savage", in which, in large-format photographs, she pillories the exoticization and eroticization of the male body of the Samoan. Anthropometrical measuring instruments demonstrate that these bodies are perceived as vigorous in a discourse on sports, but are at the same time regarded as primitive.26 An example that applies to our own society is hand bone analysis. Contradictory data about the age of allegedly underage refugees is dealt with by measuring. The left hand of the young refugee is x-rayed and compared to images in reference books.  If bone growth appears to be complete, the refugee is considered an adult, with the corresponding consequences for his proceedings. Although medical specialists object to this method of determining age, it continues to be used.27


The human body was already measured in the ancient world. What was then important, however, were nature's proportions. Beauty and symmetry were seen as closely connected. With today's possibilities of surgically optimizing beauty, certain parts of the body are particularly high profile: lips, cheeks and breasts are enlarged, legs are lengthened. The demand for perfection seems to extend to the furthermost nook and cranny of the human body. Numerous industries serve the demand for physical modifications. New ideals of proportions are today's standards of beauty.28


The close-ups indicate important cultural aspects of size. A conclusive survey of size as a whole, however, proves to be difficult. Dealing with bigness is also cumbersome in a figurative, anthropological sense.


Bigness is first of all simply big, a banal yet helpful perception.  Thus, bigness can exert a tremendous attraction, particularly in times of fragmentation and disorder. Bigness stands like a monolith for the maximum of possibilities. And because these possibilities – mostly of a technical nature – are becoming more and more colossal, the dimensional discrepancy to man is increased. For man is limited in his growth and cannot keep up to the same extent with this shift of scale. Thus, in a sense, bigness keeps getting bigger.


Bigness triggers emotions, emotions like astonishment, awe or fear. These emotions are translated into a cultural context. With what and how size is set into relation can be very different. Western culture understands size with the help of numbers. This numerical translation of size indicates that the horizon of perception of the West is physiognomically informed.


And yet size is relative. What is considered big depends on one's own position and on the type of comparison. The critical size of the theme is far from having been reached, many aspects of bigness are waiting to be put under the microscope.




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Naumann, Barbara 2013. Kontrollierte Körper. Die Germanistin Barbara Naumann über Körper, Kultur und Kunst. In: Haut-Nah. Magazin zur Ausstellung «Make up – Aufgesetzt, ein Leben lang?». Basel: Museum der Kulturen,

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Schüttpelz, Erhard 2005. »Sie zu messen, war leider trotz aller Mühe, die ich mir gab, und trotz aller Geschenke unmöglich”. Die anthropometrische Interpellation. In: Theile, Gert (Hg.): Anthropometrie. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 139 – 154.

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List of Illustrations

Figure 1: The Subaru Telescope and W. M. Keck Observatory at sunset on Mauna Kea,

Figure 2: The Equator, 2009, photograph by © Daniel Wyss

Figure 3: Containers at Dreispitz, Basel, photograph by Kathrin Schulthess, © Christoph Merian Stiftung

Figure 4: Saline-filled breast implants,