Is Being Short A Medical Condition?

How much does it suck to be short in America? $50,000 much? According to a new book reviewed in the Times today, that's how much the hormone treatments cost to give a kid an extra inch of height.

Normal at Any Cost, by Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove, tells the often-terrifying story of medical efforts to change kids' height. After World War II, according to Abigail Zuger's review, researchers transformed hormones into drugs. In what is basically a three-sentence summary of drug marketing in the last 50 years, she writes of these drugs,

First they were used to correct deficiencies in sick children. Then they were tried in healthy children. Then, in the words of the authors, it was suddenly "Glandward ho!" - a vast new horizon of entrepreneurial medicine.

Tall girls were "treated" with synthetic estrogen until a cancer link made this treatment less popular. Short boys got human growth hormone, which was initially harvested from cadaver brains and carried the risk of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Luckily, short kids no longer have to risk getting mad cow from a dead person's brain in order to reach "normal" height. Instead, they can get synthetic growth hormone, which can give them about one to two inches of extra adult height, at a cost of $50,000 an inch. Zuger writes,

One exasperated pediatrician, musing on whether outcome justified cost, suggested a clinical trial to settle the question: one group of tiny boys would get growth hormone and each boy in the other group would each get $100,000 cash. Who would be happier and healthier 20 years down the line?

I'd take the cash, but then I'm not a short man. I'm not sure I buy the claim that "a societal shift - think Title IX - that transformed tall girls from pariahs into supermodels and basketball stars" totally removed the stigma against tall women — as we reported last year, one anthropologist says tall women are less likely to marry and have kids. However, it's true that height is one of the few areas in which men are asked to accept be supposedly incontrovertible influence of evolutionary psychology on their dating lives and general success. Double X's Miriam Goldstein begins a post on the topic with this smart opener:

The modern equivalent of blaming Eve for the fall of mankind may be blaming Stone Age societies for today's gender relations.

She writes that, "one of the strongest trends in modern mating is women's preference for taller males," and that if women are really wired to perceive height as a marker of hunting prowess and general provideriness, then women in hunter-gatherer societies should prefer tall guys. But it's not so! Among the Hadza of Tanzania, who maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle,

There was no evidence of height preference: About as many women were married to shorter men as would have been expected by random chance. There was also no correlation between the couples' height, weight, BMI, or percent body fat. [Researchers] Sear and Marlowe concluded that "mating is random with respect to size in this population."

How novel! You mean the Hadza don't assume, for instance, that big women can only date big men? In fact, height preferences seem not to be programmed into our DNA, but rather to be culturally determined. "In post-industrial cultures," writes Goldstein, "there are far fewer women married to men that are shorter than them than would be expected by statistical chance." So why is this?

Perhaps because we subscribe to the stereotype that women need to be tiny and cute and dwarfed by their men. Or perhaps because, in our culture, height gets tied up with self-concept early on. Small boys and big girls tend to get made fun of in America, and this kind of low-level playground abuse can take its toll on confidence. This may be why men and women seek mates that make them feel tall or short, respectively. But Arianne Cohen, author of The Tall Book, says, "Tall is gorgeous...and the moment you perceive yourself that way, other people perceive it too." That kind of self-esteem is worth a lot more than an extra inch — or $50,000.

At What Height, Happiness? A Medical Tale [NYT]
Don't Want No Short Short Man [Double X]

Earlier: Size Matters