I wish I was a tomato

I wish I was a tomato. Huge amounts of money are now being spent to monitor the genetic modification of our food. People are morally outraged that humans would dare to alter a perfectly healthy vegetable. But do the same thing to our children and where are the cries? Where are the millions of dollars for research into the long-term effects of changing a healthy child into a socially acceptable human?

by R.N.

At the age of 13, I was 184cm tall. The success of my life as a teenager depended on me being just like everyone else. Clearly I was failing. Naturally my two best friends were small and petite and boys adored them. The tall skinny girl aka stick woman was to be avoided. Apart from not being able to reach up high enough to kiss her, if it ever got that far, it was just too socially unacceptable to be seen with a girl who was taller than you and in my case potentially better at sport than you. Not that it ever got that far, kissing was not something I did a lot of in my early teens.

Parties are an anxiety to any young socially active young teen but for the one whose attempts to fit into the fun new fashions of the 80’s made her look like one of those tragic mother of the brides that always manage to resurface every now and again, social events were to be avoided. On the odd occasion when I did venture out I had to try and convince people that, no ,I hadn’t bought trousers that were too short, nor had I grown out of them, these were pedal pushers, you know, the latest thing. Needless to say the latest things were not pedal pushers. My teen nights were not entirely kissless but let’s just say they were a little more frightening than the average spin the bottle kisses that my friends enjoyed. The only boys taller than me were older than me and weren’t necessarily considered boys any more.

So after tireless hours in my bedroom crying and wondering if my position as an outsider was really because I was just a loser, I mean how could being a physical misfit be so important? (teen naivety) I burst into tears on the lounge room floor and hysterically announced that every problem I had ever had in my life was due to my height and if I was going to keep growing then I wanted to die.

Off I went to the Paediatrician. Here I was measured, weighed, asked lots of questions about embarrassing teen topics like periods, breasts and body hair. Notes were taken, the Tanner growth charts produced and the doctor concluded that I could be having a growth spurt but given my early stage of puberty it was likely that I still had some more growing to do. How much more he couldn’t say without doing some x-rays. He reassured me that I was perfectly healthy but if I was really concerned he could send me to an endocrinologist who knew all about the latest hormone treatments. I didn’t know what hormone treatments entailed but at this stage they sounded serious, we decided to wait, maybe it was just a growth spurt.

But being perfectly healthy was one thing, feeling like my body was completely out of my control and might soon send my head through the ceiling scared me and had me running off to my room in tears every other day. I wanted to know more. My mother took me to the endocrinologist and we told him of my concerns. He asked me the same embarrassing questions kept mentioning that teen horror word puberty and then gave me a complete physical examination. And when I say complete I mean complete. This wasn’t going to be any easy path. The Tanner charts were whipped out once more and he gave us a rough estimate. His prediction was that I could grow to be about 6’4”. He then said that without x-rays he couldn’t be any more specific. So I went for the x-rays. Over the next six months I became more focussed on my height than I had ever been, the measuring, the charts, the x-rays, all had me focussed on my potential height 6’4”.

Soon my father was brought in and our options were discussed. The endocrinologist explained that there wasn’t a lot that could be done but there were a few options. One of them, not one that was carried out much any more, was to undergo surgery. The surgery involved placing large steel pieces not unlike staples into my knee joints to stop them from “growing”; it didn’t always work and could cause problems later in life. An episode of The BBC’s Charles Darwin where a young girl had had a large chunk of her leg cut out while still awake flashed before my eyes. And the other option? A tablet-a-day of hormones. But he would discuss that in more detail when we had had time to think about what we wanted to do. With my two options spinning around in my head I left the surgery not even considering the third option, let nature take its course and be thankful that I was healthy.

In consultation with my friend we decided that the surgery was just too extreme and barbaric. Not really understanding much about the hormone pill we decided that was the better choice. My parents had the same idea. Being sympathetic, both teen loners in their own tall right, we went back at the endocrinologist’s office and listened to him describe what the tablet-a-day option entailed. A synthetic form of a female hormone that I already produced, I would just receive a larger dose of it. It would speed up my physical development and tell my body I had finished growing. It would fill in the gaps I had at my joints, knit my bones and voila!, I wouldn’t grow any more. It was a big commitment; I would have to take a tablet everyday for 2 years. It may stop me from menstruating; I might put on weight so I would have to stop eating milk and bananas. Once a month I would have to go in for a check up and that was it. Did I have any questions?

What to ask?

I was religious. I took my tablet every day and every day I threw up. I had morning sickness, a side effect the doctor had failed to mention. My morning sickness earned me the first Saturday morning detention in the history of our school. There was a crack down on tardiness and seeing as I was in the bathroom every morning relieving my breakfast, being on time for class just wasn’t possible. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone why. I did stop getting my periods so I was given another tablet to start getting them again. I didn’t want to take it. I quite liked not getting my period but the doctor said it would save me from embarrassing unexpected spotting. I downed another pill to give me periods, which weren’t real periods, they were not unlike the periods women get who take the contraceptive pill.

My life didn’t change, I might have been stopping myself from becoming 6’4” but I was still taller than everyone I knew, and I still didn’t fit into my clothes, and I was still too tall to do ballet or become an Olympic gymnast. Only now, I felt sick all the time, had serious mood swings, put on weight and once a month had pretend periods and a thorough, and I mean thorough, medical check up. Six months into my “treatment” (I was sick wasn’t I? oh no, that’s right, just socially unacceptable) I’d had enough. My mother who I’m sure had had more than enough of the emotional time bomb that had been ticking around her house rang the doctor and it was agreed that I could slowly come off the drugs week by week until I was synthetic hormone free.

That was it. I took a drug that, at the time, had had no long term studies done on it, was more powerful than the strongest contraceptive pill, and was given to girls at an incredibly important time of their physical and physiological development. The drug was EE (Ethinyloestradiol) and it has now been revealed that many young girls took it or another drug DES under a trial basis unbeknown to them or their parents.

It's at this point that I wish I were a tomato. Huge amounts of money are now being spent to monitor the genetic modification of our food. People are morally outraged that humans would dare to alter a perfectly healthy vegetable. But do the same thing to our children and where are the cries? Where are the millions of dollars for research into the long-term effects of changing a healthy child into a socially acceptable human?

What concerns me is that even though it is now more acceptable for women to be tall I still know parents who are considering hormonal treatment for their daughters because they know that, as a society, we prefer it if people don’t stand out too much. We may be into the 21st century but the pressure to conform is no less and the surgeries of the endocrinologists are still being filled. It saddens me to realise that leaving a tomato to grow and be appreciated in its natural state is a bigger issue than creating a society in which our children can do the same.

I wish I was a tomato.

Published in Tall Girls Inc. Newsletter in 2000