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When I was 12, my mother took me to the pediatrician and asked if he could do anything about my height. I must have been 5-foot 6 or 7, and she was worried about how much taller I might become. This was in the days before supermodels. When I was a kid, there was nothing good about being tall if you also happened to be female—or so it seemed to my mother. And once she articulated her worries in my presence, it began to seem so to me, too.

I am fortunate that the pediatrician did nothing. Perhaps he was unaware of any remedy—or maybe he was accustomed to this sort of thing and just wanted to leave me in peace. As it turns out, in the 1960s and 70s, there was a so-called therapy for too much height: hormones. A few doctors in the new specialty of pediatric endocrinology had begun treating “excessively tall” girls with diethylstilbestrol, or DES. These doctors believed that large dosages of DES—a synthetic estrogen—would hasten puberty and accelerate closure of a girl’s growth plates. Once these plates fuse, a person does not get any taller.

Maybe you’ve heard of DES. It was also prescribed for millions of pregnant women in the mistaken belief that it prevented miscarriage. Years later, many of the daughters of these women started developing a rare vaginal cancer—and the malignancy was traced back to DES.

In the tall girls, the drug caused weight gain, nausea,  depression and other ills. It also failed to inhibit growth in many girls, many of whom struggled for years to overcome the negative self-image that treatment caused. Some of these girls may have felt self-conscious about their height before taking DES. But the unspoken message of all the probing exams, questions and pills was clear: There was something fundamentally wrong with their bodies.

THE QUEST FOR NORMALCY

Nobody knew anything about hormones until about 1900. Before that, as Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove point out in Normal at Any Cost, scientists were pretty much mystified by the “internal secretions” that influenced so many aspects of female life, from menstruation and pregnancy to menopause. Now, of course, we know all about hormones, and hormone supplements are ubiquitous—touted as the remedy for just about everything. Think of Suzanne Somers hawking bioidentical hormones, or A-Rod injecting growth hormone. We know all about hormones—and yet we never learn our lessons.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when DES was achieving widespread use, another steroid—human growth hormone—was used to accelerate the growth of very short boys—not always effectively. Beginning to see a pattern? Making girls shorter, and boys taller? Both strategies were part of a quest to render everybody a little more normal—which is to say, a little more homogenous.

When I say “population” here, I am talking mostly about upper middle class white people, as they were the ones who could afford these experimental treatments. This trend began in the 20th century, but it’s still going strong. Celebrities and the affluent are the ones who most frequently dabble in hormone therapy and other tactics (plastic surgery, for example) to achieve normalcy, while the other social classes struggle with more mundane matters like survival.

Hormones weren’t the only means used to enforce normalcy in the glorious 1960s, as this anecdote from Normal at Any Cost reveals:

…in 1965, when seventeen-year-old Carol Walters had finished growing, she was 6’6″, a height that her family found unacceptable. Carol’s younger sister and a younger cousin were given estrogen to stunt their growth, but the new hormone therapy came along too late for Carol. Instead, surgeons in northern California removed six inches of bone from both legs. She was hospitalized for six weeks while surgeons performed the two shortening procedures. A year-long recuperation at home followed, which included eight months in a wheelchair before learning how to walk again. Two years later, doctors determined she needed more surgery to shorten her quadriceps muscles. She spent the following summer in bilateral leg casts. Despite years of physical therapy, however, she was never again able to run, skate, squat, stand on tiptoe, or dance.

It sounds eerily predictive of the extreme plastic surgery makeovers people put themselves through today. Mutilation in the name of normalcy.

THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

When I first began writing about health, it was for a journal intended for obstetrician-gynecologists. This was in the late 1990s, and hormone replacement therapy was the cure-all of the day. Not only could it alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, but it could prevent dementia, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other ills—or so the experts said. Implied in all the hype was this alluring premise: Hormones could extend a woman’s youth.

Along came the Women’s Health Initiative, the first large-scale randomized, controlled trial of hormone therapy in menopausal women. In 2002, it found that estrogen-progestin hormone therapy not only didn’t lower the risk of heart disease—it increased that risk in some subpopulations. It also raised a woman’s risk of breast cancer and stroke. Women everywhere abandoned their hormones, and the market for these drugs still hasn’t recovered.

One of the themes running through Normal at Any Cost is the way certain products appear to be miracle drugs when they debut. Doctors go into a frenzy recommending them. Observational studies frequently “demonstrate” some vague effectiveness, and consumers jump on the bandwagon. Time passes, studies are conducted, and next thing you know, the drug turns out to have numerous risks. DES is just one example.

I eventually stopped getting taller (I’m 5-foot 10). My mother eventually stopped worrying so much about my height and began telling me how lucky I was. I only half believed her. When I began my career as a health writer, and began writing about the many benefits of menopausal hormone therapy, I started taking the birth control pill myself, even though I was near 40. I was simply convinced the hormones were good for me.

Now I know better, thanks to the Women’s Health Initiative, physicians such as Susan Love, MD, books like Normal at Any Cost, and other compendiums of the hazards of hormones. But the furor over wonder drugs isn’t over. The new buzzword in the world of hormones is “bioidentical.” I won’t be surprised to find out, in years to come, that the “identical” refers to all the health risks.

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