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The Tallest Woman in the World

Updated on May 13, 2011
hand to hand. Yao Defen and friend
hand to hand. Yao Defen and friend

Yao Defen

At 7 foot 8 inches, (233 cm) Yao Defen, has a rare kind of fame, that few people would envy. Yao has the distinction being the tallest women in the world, (as defined by the Guiness Book of Records) weighing 200 kg (440 lbs) and with size 26 feet. While it has brought her fame, medical help and new, if distant friends interested in her welfare, her abnormal size has also burdened her with emotional pain, a particular kind of isolation and extreme physical suffering.

Yao is Shu Cha in eastern China's Anhui province in 1972, the child of poor agricultural workers and due to a lack of education has never learnt to read or write. Although she was a small baby (6.16 pounds) her size problems were manifest by the age of three, when she began eating large amounts of food, well beyond that of a normal three year old. At eleven she was six feet, two and by fifteen, six foot, nine inches tall.

Yao's medical problems are manifold - she suffers from heart disease, hypertension, osteoporosis and a lack of nutrition. However, were it not for the fundraising of British dcocumentary filmakers she would likely be much worse off than she is. Hers is a tragic story, compounded by the fact that the doctors in China who first diagnosed her condition did nothing to help her for twenty years, during which time she was forced to travel around with her father to earn money in the circus; apart from anything else, her illiteracy made a normal job problematic.

Changes in China's healthcare sytem have apparently led to a fee-for- service system, as opposed to the previous cooperative medical system, which was organized and highly subsidized, making it extremely difficult for poor citizens in remote areas to access medical help:

Healthcare under economic liberalisation

While researching for this article, I stumbled upon a few reports suggesting Yao Defen had died in 2008, others say she is still alive but as China has now closed the door to outsiders peering in on this womans plight, it's difficult to confirm the accuracy either way. Rumour has it the powers that be in China are afraid of *losing face* over Yeo Defen's neglect.

Yao Defen
Yao Defen
Sanndy Allen
Sanndy Allen

Sandy Allen

Until her death at 53 in 2008, 7’7 1/4" American Sandy Allen was the tallest woman in the US, Sandy was already six foot two by the time she was only ten and as a young adolescent at sixteen, she'd hit the seven foot foot mark.

It's believed that, like Yao Defen, a tumour in her pituitary gland caused Sandy's highly abnormal growth. It was removed when Allen was in her 20s, but she continued to be affected by a variety of health issues related to her height, including, among other things, poor circulation and weak leg muscles that kept her confined.

Not surprisingly, being so exceptionally tall created emotional problems for Sandy, although her condition never made her bitter and she was described by those who knew her as a "gentle giant". In interviews she explained how it affected her capacity to form relationships. As a result, she sometimes suffered from anxiety and depression:

"I would like to get to know someone that is approximately my height. It is needless to say my social life is practically nil and perhaps the publicity from your book may brighten my life."

From a letter to the Guiness Book of Records.

For almost two decades of her life, Sandy was considered to be the tallest woman in the world and appearing in the Guiness Book of Records brought her a measure of fame and attention. It also motivated her to write a book titled Cast A Giant Shadow and she was invited to appear in a few films and documentaries.

Sadly, toward the end of her life, she was compelled to use a wheelchair as her back and legs simply couldn't support the cumbersome weight of her body. Her final years were spent in a nursing home in Indiana.


Both Yao and Sandy's conditon was a form of what is called gigantism, which is a general medical term referring to very rare, excessive growth, significantly above normal, before the bone growth plates have closed during development. Growth occurs not only in the bones but in the muscle and organs as well. Most often it is caused by disruption to the normal functioning of the pituitary gland, through a tumour, which ideally should be removed to halt further growth. If the tumour can't be removed entirely than specialist medication is an option.

Sympotms of Gigantism

  • Delayed puberty

  • Double vision or difficulty with side (peripheral) vision

  • Prominent jaw

  • Headache
  • Increased sweating
  • Irregular periods (menstruation)
  • Large hands and feet with thick fingers and toes
  • Release of breast milk

  • Thickening of the facial features

  • Weaknes


Disruption that occurs after the plates have closed, is called acromolegy and again, is caused by tumour to the pituitary gland. In this case the growth is gradual and over time, changes features, which become course and enlarged.


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