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Using Hormone Therapy to Shape Children’s Height to Social Norm

In the 1950s and 1960s, tall girls were coming up short in life. Viewed as unfeminine and less attractive to marriage suitors than shorter girls//, many otherwise healthy tall girls were given estrogen treatment to stunt their growth.

While estrogen therapy today for tall girls is rare, its use to conform a child’s height to fit social norms may provide valuable insight into the present-day use of growth hormone treatment for healthy boys of short stature.

In a historical review in the current issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, lead author and University of Michigan Health System Pediatric Endocrinologist Joyce Lee, M.D, MPH, explores the use of estrogen treatment during the past 50 years to illustrate how scientific knowledge continues to be created and applied to fit within prevailing societal and political beliefs.

At its onset in the 1940s, estrogen therapy use to reduce height was limited to children at risk for tall stature due to acromegaly, a hormonal disorder that results when the pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone. Not too long after that, though, scientists began to wonder if the same therapy would prevent healthy, tall girls from becoming tall adults.

Why shouldn’t healthy tall girls be allowed to grow into tall adults? According to Lee, in the 1950s parents grew increasingly concerned with the social implications of their daughters being too tall, and worried they would have difficulty finding clothes that fit and even future employment as a flight attendant or ballet dancer.

The most commonly cited reason in scientific literature for reducing the height of tall girls, however, was social attractiveness.

“Since tall girls usually become tall women, the biggest concern seemed to be that tall women would have a hard time fitting in, being comfortable in social situations, and, most importantly, finding a man to marry,” says Lee, a member of the Chi
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