It felt like a wink from the universe. At some point our catch-up call turned, as it had many times before, to our shared experiences of tallness. We reminisced about the years when we had lived in the same city and how walking down the street together seemed to always amount to something near a spectacle. Being a tall woman means living with a running commentary from those around you—put two of them together, and the show is on. What did people think of us, two blonde giants towering over the sidewalk? I sighed, and then laughed, imagining some five-foot-eight guy cowering in fear as we passed.
The opening moments of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman follow Nancy Fowler Archer, played in all her melodramatic Very tall beautiful woman by B-movie standby Allison Hayes, as she drives down Route 66 through the California night. Suddenly, as the camera winds through the sagebrush and sandstone, a large, shining, spherical spaceship appears out of nowhere in the middle of the road.
Nancy veers out of the way and totals her car. Somehow, she is able to escape from the scene—but not before the pilot of the mysterious ship emerges, a huge mottled hand coming into frame to grasp for the plum-sized diamond around her neck. The next evening, Nancy insists on returning to the desert, this time with her husband, Harry William Hudson. She knows what happened to her, and she needs to be believed.
This night plays out in roughly the same fashion as the first: ship descends, car swerves, alien emerges. She is snatched by the mottled hand of the giant man—who, for reasons unknown, is dressed like a medieval dungeon master—and, incredibly, Harry eagerly hops back into the car to go tell his side piece, Honey Yvette Vickersthat his wife is finally out of the picture.
That is, until an unconscious Nancy is returned home by her kidnapper, placed gingerly on top of her pool house. She is taken inside to rest and be attended to by her physician, Dr. Cushing Roy Gordon.
But now, something in Nancy is changing. Unbeknownst to those around her, she has been exposed to that s sci-fi bogeyman: radiation. Radiation, as we know, does strange and terrible things to the body. I first learned that I was tall from a photograph. I wore a navy-blue turtleneck with bright-blue cargo capris and, around my neck, the spoils of summer: a necklace from Girl Scout camp on which each pony bead and charm represented another year under my belt or another skill learned.
I was proud.
When the copies of the class picture arrived at our house, I opened the envelope at our kitchen table and eagerly examined the outcome. Excited, as always, to see how my outfit had registered on camera, I scanned past the short kids sitting crisscross applesauce in the front row, the delicate littlest girls and the pipsqueaky boys. I noticed kids in prints of trains and butterflies next to kids wearing short skirts and brand-name sneakers.
I saw our stern but caring teacher, Mrs. And then my eyes were drawn to a giant color block of blue in the center of the back row, a blonde head rising above everyone around me. I felt exposed, my stomach sinking.
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Was that me? At the risk of sounding dramatic, it may have been then that I developed self-consciousness—or, rather, a consciousness of my self. Years later, this feeling would fleetingly resurface when I watched the Netflix high school comedy Tall Girlwhich explores the experience of being just that—the stereotypes, the romantic complications, the insecurities of shorter men. That night, I lay in bed unable to fall asleep. My lower half was racked with growing pains—a sureI thought, that my body was in the process of transmogrifying.
The pain felt like tiny cranks in some sort of creaking bone-stretching contraption, slowly lengthening my shins upward and widening my hips outward. It is horrifying to realize that your body is doing something entirely independent of your brain.
Eventually, my mother, a doctor, came to sit with me, carefully swaddling my shins in tight Ace bandages to help with the dull throbbing. As she placed hot water bottles on each of my legs and pulled the blanket over me, I asked her to tell me what growing pains are for. I might as well have been asking, Why is this happening to me? All she could do was stroke my hair and tell me my body was going to change, and that sometimes it hurts.
In my teenage years, all my cautious estimates and educated guesses as to how tall I could become came and went. My mom and her sisters were around five foot eight. I zoomed past that at fourteen.
I’m 5'11—these are the best jeans i’ve found for tall women
Feeling like my body was out of control, I figured that my only remaining option would be to try to fudge the s when people asked how tall I was. In class, I would slouch, trying to appear shorter. If I was included in a group photo, I set myself a bit behind everyone else, trying to use perspective to my advantage.
Every time I went to the doctor, I would hunch as the assistant lowered the spindly metal measuring device onto my head, as though tricking the official record could change the course of history. I began learning what female tallness meant: stares from oblivious strangers, observations from well-meaning classmates, clothes that never fit, dances never attended.
I had boy friends, but no boyfriends. In the height of the boot-cut era, when awkward hemlines ensued, I defiantly made cuffed jeans my ature look—all the while wishing I could pull off the deer denim everyone else seemed to have.
The effect of all this is the same, I suppose: to let you know that you are different, and to help you internalize the truth of adolescence that difference is, for the most part, bad. This is not the demure suburban housewife. She owns a Modernist mansion, where she keeps her philandering husband well taken care of by her pocketbook and her faithful butler, Jess Ken Terrell.
Later that night, as Nancy continues to rest after her mysterious kidnapping, her husband and his mistress concoct a plan. He tiptoes up the stairs and past the sleeping nurse. But he promptly drops his deathly syringe when he realizes that his wife is no longer quite his wife; she has transformed into something much greater. In the United States, the average height for those ased female at birth is five foot four. I have that beat by about eight inches; Nancy has it beat by nearly forty-five feet, her body taking up every corner of the room in a display reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.
Cushing rushes in to investigate.
Both doctors are utterly stumped. What to do with this giant woman?
What to do, what to do. We will find our answer when we operate. When Nancy inevitably awakens, calling out for a Harry who is now back at the bar with his redheaded lover, we see that the doctors have chained her up. Watching her in captivity, I wondered how different this was from her time at the sanitarium.
Being tall had effectively been pathologized. These injections were not meant to treat conditions that cause tallness—hyperthyroidism, for example, or Marfan Syndrome—or even conditions possibly brought on by extreme tallness, like atrial fibrillation. And still, parents and doctors alike advocated for medical intervention. When the treatment was first developed, the medically acceptable threshold for eligibility was a projected adult height of five foot nine.
Today, the procedure is rare—but still considered an option for adolescent girls who show s of hitting six foot two. Of course, various hormone treatments exist today that can be lifesaving and life-affirming; these injections, however, were neither. But many seem to be evergreen. No data exists to indicate how many girls have been given these injections over the past sixty-odd years, but they almost certainly in the thousands.
What we do know is that possible side effects included ovarian cysts, missed periods, excessive uterine bleeding, and increased risks of infertility. Women and girls are so often told, in ways both obvious and insidious, that we are not supposed to take up too much space. My tall body has often felt like a Very tall beautiful woman of this tacit rule of smallness, both a disruption and a liability. Because of a general notion that women should be smaller than men, my height almost always makes me stand out to strangers, who frequently feel the need to talk—audibly—about me, as if I am an oversized object.
I have heard comments on my height from people on street corners as I stare at my phone, waiting for the walk to change. I have heard them in elevators and I have heard them on escalators. I have heard them, loudly, from a repairman on his way to fix a flickering light, while I was working my student job on the quiet floor of the college library. He remained there, silently, for what felt like a minute. I have heard these comments from prospective dates and successful dates and men in bars and stores and airplanes and national parks.
The remarks usually have relatively little substance beyond informing me—or the speaker, or anyone in the general vicinity—that I am, in fact, tall. Studies about the experiences of tall women show that this is not unusual. It seems that something about a woman standing out above the rest is cause for further inquiry.
This exhausting state of being perpetually noticed often made me not want to be noticed at all.