The medicalisation of ‘tall’ girls: A discourse analysis of medical literature on the use of synthetic oestrogen to reduce female height Academic Article uri icon


  • Endocrine research in the 1930s increased and extended the use of sex hormones as medical therapies in an unprecedented way, especially for female ailments. In the 1950s the therapeutic use of sex hormones extended to the treatment of 'tall' girls. Ambiguity in the definition of the 'tall' girl, the arbitrary nature of the treatment decision, and diversity in the therapeutic regimes highlight the problematic nature of this medical practice. Using linguistic repertoires to study the political and ideological implications found in the patterned use of language, this paper reports on a discourse analysis of the medical literature on treatment of tall girls between the 1950s and 1990s, when this treatment was at its peak. Three linguistic repertoires emerged: the institutional authority of medicine to determine the 'abnormality' of tall stature in females; the clinical knowledge and experience in the diagnosis of medical risk associated with tall stature in women; and using hormones as cosmetic therapy to (re)produce femininity in tall girls. All three related to the maintenance of the cultural representations and social expectations of femininity. With no evidence of psychological harm associated with tall stature in women, and no long-term studies of either effectiveness or benefit, over five decades clinicians persuaded themselves and their patients that tall stature required therapeutic intervention. The treatment of tall girls with high dose oestrogen must be viewed as the medicalisation of a normal physical attribute adversely related to the social construction of gender.

publication date

  • September 2010