|A tall order
It's painful and slow, but can make you five inches taller. Jonathan Watts
on the surgical trend sweeping China - leg-lengthening
Monday December 15, 2003
Kong Jing-wen has paid £5,700 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 good job and husband."
Her parents, who financed the operation and are now at her bedside, agree.
"It's an investment in our daughter's future. Because she was short, she
used to lack confidence, but this should change that."
Kong Jing-wen 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
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 5ft 7in, while women must be at least 5ft 3in. Chinese diplomats are
expected to be tall to match the height of their foreign counterparts.
For more glamorous positions the conditions are even tougher: air
stewardesses have to be over 5ft 5in. But height discrimination is evident
even at ground level: in some places, people under 5ft 3in are not even
eligible to take a driving test. To get into many law schools, women
students need to be over 5ft 1in and men over 5ft 5in. Height requirements
are also frequently mentioned in the personal ads of newspapers and
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. According to employees at Dr Xia's
institute of external skeletal fixation technology, it is not just women
who are prepared to have their legs lengthened - men are just as keen. The
vast majority of patients are job- and spouse-hunters in their 20s, but
teenagers are also among the patients and the oldest person to have the
operation was a 52-year-old woman. "She was very wealthy and had
everything else she wanted, so she decided to fix her height which had
always been a concern for her," explained one of the staff.
In many cases, the clients are not even particularly short to begin with.
Dr Xia said one 5ft 8in women asked to grow an inch so that she could
reach the standard needed to qualify as an international fashion model.
But most of the others are under average height and undergo up to two
operations so that they can grow by a maximum of almost five inches.
Each procedure has three stages. First comes the operation in which the
legs are broken and steel pins - 27cm long and 8mm in diameter - are
pushed through the bone. These are fixed to an external frame by eight or
so screws, each of which is 4mm in diameter. Next comes the stretching,
which is carried out over several months (depending on how much the
customer wants to grow) by turning the screws each day and lengthening the
bone at the point where it was broken. When the stretching is completed
the external frame is removed. In the final stage, the steel pins are left
in place for about a year as a support for the newly regenerated bone.
Once it has hardened, the pins are removed.
Dr Xia, who has several decades experience in the field, says his patients
have not suffered any major problems since 1978, before which two women
suffered bone disconnections and another became disfigured. Those cases
were corrected, and since then the only risk, he says, has been a 5%
chance of infection. "With my method, the bone, skin and nerves grow back
and the body rebuilds itself as new," he says. "The legs are not weakened,
the pain lasts only a few days and my technique leaves tiny scars."
But if not performed carefully, the dangers are considerable. Bones
stretched too rapidly will not grow strong enough to support the body's
weight. Legs extended at different speeds can become misshapen and nerves
can be damaged. Horror stories about other less capable surgeons appear
from time to time in the Chinese media. Young women have reportedly been
left with their feet splayed outwards on weirdly twisted legs; the bones
of others have never properly healed and continue to break at the
slightest knock. In one of the worst reported cases, a 31-year-old woman
was left in the frame for a year because her bones proved so brittle that
they could not support her weight after being stretched. Her feet still
point in odd directions and she is unable to squat.
Even successful operations can bring pain several months after the initial
operation. "During the final weeks of the stretching, I was in so much
discomfort that I couldn't sleep at night," says one young woman from
Beijing who gave her name as Susan. The 27-year-old is in hospital
recovering from an operation to remove the steel pins that have been
inside her legs for the past 18 months. Each leg now bears eight circular
scars, each half an inch in diameter, from the screws that were removed.
But now, three inches taller than before, Susan says she would not
hesitate to recommend the procedure to her friends.
"It hurt at first and had a big impact on my life for a long time because
I was worried the pins might bend and so I couldn't run or move completely
freely. But it has worked and I feel very good about that. Before, nobody
paid any attention to me because I was short, but now they'll look at me."
Appearances are becoming increasingly important in China. Formerly banned
as the "nonsense" of a decadent west, beauty pageants were made legal this
year. Last month, the country hosted its first Miss World competition.
Cosmetic surgery is also thought to be booming. According to the local
media, consultants report a 25% increase in the number of women seeking
nips and tucks. The most popular operation puts an extra fold in eyelids.
Like nose-lengthening, jaw re-shaping and breast enlargements, the
procedure aims to bring women closer to western ideals of beauty.
The fascination with such makeovers has created at least two cosmetic
surgery celebrities. Last month the domestic media was filled with stories
about Hao Lulu, a 24-year-old fashion writer who is undergoing a
seven-month-long marathon of face and body altering procedures costing
£13,150 so that she can work as a spokeswoman for the industry. Soon
after, Shanghai newspapers announced the winner of what they dubbed the
"ugliest girl in the city" competition. Despite the unflattering moniker,
more than 50 women applied for the contest, in which the victor - Zhang
Di - was awarded a prize of £6,800 worth of cosmetic surgery.
At Dr Xia's height-increasing institute, that sum of money would buy as
much as four inches - the difference, say some of his patients, between
social failure and success, dowdiness and attractive looks.
Back in the wards of recovering customers, Gui Ling, a 25-year-old woman,
has a smile fixed on her face after completing a three-inch stretch and
having the frame removed from her legs. Wanting to share her excitement at
the transformation, she is ringing her family and colleagues on her mobile
"I'm so pleased," she says during a break between calls. "My friends will
look at me and they won't just say I'm taller, they'll say I'm more