Leave Malia Alone: On the Travails of Teenage Tall Girls
Being a teenage girl is hard. Being a teenage girl who's taller than all of the boys (and all of the girls, and most of the teachers) is even harder. This I know from experience. I'm 6'2", and have been this tall since the 7th grade.
But being a super-tall teenage girl who happens to live in the White House? I can't even imagine how tough that is.
Ever since Barack Obama hit the campaign trail in 2007, he and others have implored the press to grant his daughters some privacy. As his eldest, Malia, reaches her teenage years, I'm having flashbacks to coverage of 15-year-old Chelsea Clinton. I remember seeing photos of Chelsea's braces and frizzy hair in 1995, when I, too, was a supremely awkward adolescent. Seeing her splashed across the pages of People made me feel, perhaps for the first time, grateful to be tucked away in a small town in Iowa rather than on the national stage in Washington.
In recent months, the press has taken to commenting on how tall Malia Obama has gotten. Last week, the Los Angeles Times published an article on a blog of "oddities, musings, and news from the health world" speculating about the cause of her growth spurt. (Uh, genetics? Her parents are both tall.) Every time I see one of these asinine articles about Malia's height, I have a little "Leave Britney alone!" moment.
My protective mama-bear reaction is rooted in personal experience. Most of us didn't grow up in the White House, but all super-tall girls can identify with being forced into the spotlight. I have a conversation with a stranger about my height at least once a day. Ask anyone who's ever walked down the street with me, and they can attest: People are not shy about commenting on how tall I am. To be this tall is to be very, very visible. Today, it's merely annoying. When I was a teenager, it was mortifying.
At a societal level, seeing women's height as an oddity or unfortunate condition has had serious health consequences. For decades, endocrinologists administered shots of estrogen to teen girls projected to be taller than 6 feet in order to stop their growth. The reason? Women that tall were considered unmarriageable. The consequences? Many have experienced fertility problems later in life. While it seems barbaric to inject pre-teen girls with hormones so they can meet what is essentially a beauty standard, this is not ancient history. In The Tall Book, journalist Arianne Cohen writes that as of 2002, 137 of 411 endocrinologists surveyed were still offering height-reduction treatments.
Cohen, who is 6'3", recounts that her junior-high school classmates called her "a tall hideous she-man." I was called similar things, and worse. Malia doesn't need to deal with a million tabloid articles making stupid remarks about her height. For lanky ladies, puberty is traumatic enough.