Photo: Claire Kuʻuleilani Hughes

The words in our title express admiration for the physical stature of a person, who, like a steep cliff, attracts attention. Posture and height were important attributes of physical beauty in Hawaiian traditions. Parents endeavored to achieve perfection and soundness of form and life in every child. Smooth, elegant and balanced movement describes highly valued physical attributes that parents worked to teach their children. These marks of physical attractiveness in Hawaiians were noticed clearly by Hawai‘i’s first visitors.

Captain James King came to Hawai‘i with Captain James Cook in 1778. Several characteristics of the Hawaiian physique and movement drew his attention and, he wrote: “The Natives of these islands (Hawai‘i) are, in general above the middle size, and well made; they walk very gracefully and run nimbly, and are capable of bearing great fatigue.”

King also wrote that Hawaiians were taller than the average European, and that their bodies were balanced in movement, while walking and running. He remarked on the strength and endurance of our ancestors while they performed hard physical work.

Sixty years later, in 1836, Reverend William Ellis traveled around the islands taking a census of Hawaii’s inhabitants. His description of Hawaiians echoed Captain King’s remarks. He wrote:

“The natives are in general rather above the middle stature (height), well-formed, with fine muscular limbs, open countenances (facial expressions), and features frequently resembling those of Europeans. Their gait (walk) is graceful, and sometimes stately.”

Ellis went on to note that all ali‘i were physically well-proportioned, intelligent and, generally, taller and broader than maka‘āinana. Credit goes to a consistently better diet, as there were never periods of hunger for ali‘i, that commoners undoubtedly experienced at times.

I remember the constant reminders, as a child, to straighten up my posture while walking, sitting and standing. I was told to “pick my feet up” as I walked across a room. A favorite position of mine was sitting with my legs curled up under me. Sitting in that position compromises the body’s balance…throwing balance off-center and slightly twisting the backbone. So, another parental warning refrain was, “You’re going to ruin your back if you don’t straighten up.”

Nutrition is a key factor in maximizing potential of total physical growth, as well as bone, muscle and overall strength in children, and for repairs in the adult body. Dietary sources of minerals, calcium and phosphorus, as well as protein, are critical for building a strong framework of bones. Important sources of calcium and phosphorous for early Hawaiians were green leafy vegetables and limu. Also, small bones of fish and fowl, well-cooked and softened in an imu, were excellent calcium and phosphorus sources.

Physical activity, and lots of it, played a significant role in developing the attractive system of muscles noticed by Captains King and Ellis. And, as Dr. Snow’s studies of Hawaiian bones taken from Mokapu showed, the muscle development of men and women was remarkable; this undoubtedly resulted from daily physical work and play in their lives.

Adequate sleep is another critical ingredient of growth. Children in old Hawai‘i certainly got much more rest and sleep than our children, today. Electric lights, television and other personal electronic devices all entice children away from the chance to grow as tall as their genetic makeup will allow.

In conclusion, Hawaiians have the documented genetic potential to be a people of great strength and endurance, as well as graceful, tall and stately. To recapture and cultivate these attributes, a return to a plant-based diet – away from fast foods – is necessary. Eating a balanced diet with all the necessary nutrients, getting sufficient sleep at night and a participating in a regimen of regular exercise are the steps to developing the enviable shape of our ancestors.