Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Going under the knife in China to add a few centimeters in height

In a country where height can make the difference in getting a job or getting into law school, leg-lengthening surgery is becoming increasingly popular for men and women alike, despite the cost, the pain -- and many horror stories

By Jonathan Watts  /  THE GUARDIAN , BEIJING


Kong Jing-wen has paid ?5,700 (US$10,075) to have both of her legs broken and stretched on a rack. The pretty college graduate is now lying in bed, clearly still in considerable pain three days after a doctor sawed through the flesh and bone below her knee to insert what looks an awful lot like knitting needles through the length of her tibiae.

These giant steel pins are connected by eight screws punched horizontally through her ankle and calf to a steel cage surrounding each leg. Once the bone starts to heal, these cages will act like a medieval torture device -- each day over the next few months Kong will turn the screws a fraction and stretch her limbs more and more until she has grown by 8cm.

Despite the agony, the cost and the inconvenience, the 23-year-old says she does not regret a thing.

"It hurts, but it will be worth it to be taller. I'll have more opportunities in life and a better chance of finding a job and husband," she says.

Her parents, who financed the operation and are now at her bedside, agree.

"It is our investment in her future. Because she was short, she used to lack confidence, but this should change that," they say.

Kong is one of a growing number of perfectly healthy Chinese young men and women who are willing to break a leg for beauty in order to rise up the ladder in height-conscious China. The complex and time-consuming procedure they are willing to endure was initially developed in Russia for people with stunted growth, mismatched legs or disfigurements. But these days the operation is increasingly used for cosmetic purposes.

In part, the popularity of such surgery can be explained by the surge of interest in fashion and beauty in a country where the rising middle classes are shaking off a dowdy Maoist cultural legacy and using the rewards of explosive economic growth to explore cosmetic possibilities. Shops and magazines in the cities show endless images of long-legged Western models, inevitably putting pressure on young women.

Doctors have been able to pioneer new forms of this surgery because height is so socially important in China that it is often the first thing strangers will talk about. It is also listed among the criteria required on job advertisements. To get a post in the foreign ministry, for instance, male applicants need not bother applying unless they are at least 1.71m, while women must be at least 1.61m. Chinese diplomats are expected to be tall in order to match the height of their foreign counterparts.

For more glamorous positions the conditions are even tougher: air stewardesses have to be over 1.66m. But height discrimination is evident even at ground level: in some places, people under 1.61m are not even eligible to take a driving test. To get into many law schools, women students need to be over 1.60m and men over 1.64m. Height requirements are also frequently mentioned in the personal ads of newspapers and magazines.

All this has ensured a steady stream of business for osteogenetic surgeons like Dr Xia Hetao, who has pioneered a height-increasing technique in Beijing used by about 150 people every year.

"More and more people want to be taller," he says. "It is so important for the image of an individual or a company that some people come here in tears begging for an operation."

With a minimum ?4,000 price tag attached to the procedure, the patients are all well-off by Chinese standards.

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