Stature of Limitations in China

Times Staff Writer

She’s an acting student. She sits in a wheelchair. He’s a business major. He relies on crutches to get around.

Each of them willingly had a doctor break their legs and insert steel pins into the bones just below their knees and above their ankles. The pins are attached to a bulky contraption that looks like a metal cage. For six months or so, they will wear this stretching device even though it delivers excruciating pain eased only by medication.

They dial the adjustment knobs daily, forcing the ends of the broken limbs to pull away from each other even as they heal. As new bone grows, the device forces it apart again, resulting in more new bone to fill the gap. Patients on the device typically gain about 3 inches in six months.


It may sound like medieval torture, but people who are determined to stand taller say it’s nothing short of a dream maker.

At about $6,000, the treatment is out of reach for the average Chinese urbanite, who makes just more than $1,100 a year. But for some with money, it’s a price they’re willing to pay. In this increasingly competitive society, height has emerged as one of the most visible criteria for upward mobility.

“I was not tall enough to apply to film school before,” said the 20-year-old acting student, who was accepted to the Beijing Film Academy after adding 3 inches to her 5-foot-1-inch frame. The school’s website says female acting department applicants must be at least 5 feet 3.

“I’m taking a year off from school to do this,” said the 22-year-old business major, who at 5 feet 4 worried that his height would keep him from getting coveted white-collar jobs. “I want to feel better about myself.” Like most who undergo the procedure, the students asked not to be identified, for reasons of self-consciousness.

For decades, height was largely a nonissue in China. Deng Xiaoping was one of the giants of the country’s modern history even though he stood only about 5 feet tall.

But then came the market-oriented reforms of the 1980s, and Chinese began to face an explosion of lifestyle choices. Cosmetic surgery and other appearance-related industries became big business.

These days, China is inundated with images of long-legged success stories. From fashion magazines to billboards to TV shows, young people look up to icons such as Lu Yan, an international supermodel who stands 5 feet 10, and NBA star Yao Ming, who at 7 feet 6 is trumpeted as the walking Great Wall of China.

To help produce a taller nation, Beijing has been advocating more milk consumption for school-age children. The average Chinese woman is about 5 feet 2, the average man about 5-6. Partly the result of improved nutrition and living standards, they’re about 0.8 inch taller than a decade ago, making the Chinese among the fastest-growing people in the world.

The country’s obsession with height has created a market for such items as calcium supplements, herbal tonics and special shoes with massaging soles. The latest exercise machines sold here are said to feature infrared energy to stimulate growth hormones.

Now leg extensions have taken the beauty business to new heights.

“Before the economic reforms that changed China, we weren’t getting enough food to eat, so we paid little attention to how we looked,” said Zhang Chunjiang, a spokesperson at a height consulting business in Beijing. “Today we have enough to eat and we care a lot about how we look.”

Using surgery to boost the height of otherwise healthy people is a relatively new concept. The technology is based on the work of a Russian doctor and was originally intended to correct uneven limbs. The surgery is offered in about a dozen countries, including the United States. Most doctors outside China are reluctant to do it for purely cosmetic reasons.

“We do more leg lengthening than any other place in the world, but only 5% of that is for cosmetic purposes,” said Dr. Dror Paley, a director of the International Center for Limb Lengthening in Baltimore, which has performed about 8,000 leg-lengthening procedures since 1987. Most of the surgeries are performed on patients who suffer from birth defects or trauma, Paley said, adding that he requires lengthy psychological evaluations before he will do the procedure for cosmetic reasons.

“Unlike most plastic surgeries, the risks here are huge,” he said. “You can end up permanently crippled.”

In China, apparently, an increasing number of people think it’s worth the risk.

In the old days, when the government handed out the most desirable jobs, many college-educated Chinese didn’t have to worry about finding work on their own. But now the job market is a seller’s market, and seemingly irrelevant factors such as height play a role in who is hired.

“In China, the competition for jobs is too fierce,” said Xia Hetao, one of a handful of physicians in the country who specializes in leg lengthening. “All else being equal, height becomes a deciding factor.” Many employers list height requirements in their job descriptions. Help-wanted ads are loaded with examples.

A garment manufacturer was looking for a female secretary for its Beijing office recently. At the top of the list of requirements was age -- between 25 and 40 -- and height -- at least 5 feet 4.

An ad for the restaurant chain TGI Friday’s was more lenient: women above 5 feet 1 and men above 5 feet 4.

Would-be drivers must also pass a height test. According to the website of the Beijing Public Security Bureau of Traffic Administration, applicants must be at least 5 feet 1 to drive a car and 5 feet 4 to drive a truck or bus.

Though many educational institutions are trying to increase enrollment and no longer have height requirements, others such as the Beijing Film Academy’s acting department continue to seek candidates of a certain stature.

At the Foreign Ministry, it’s common knowledge that most candidates must meet an informal height standard, an official there said.

“It’s an image issue,” the official said. “If you are very short or have some other defects on your face, for example, it could affect the government’s image.”

So far, fighting the “shortness” bias hasn’t been easy. In one case, a woman sued after she was turned down for a government job in the southern city of Shenzhen because of her height. The suit was tossed out last year by the court, which said it didn’t have the power to control the internal practices of the government agency.

“The law says everyone has the right to work, but society has to set some limits because our resources are too limited,” said Sun Dongdong, a law professor at Peking University. “To eliminate height requirements is unrealistic. If an employer has only one opening and many candidates, he has the right to hire who he thinks is the most appropriate.”

Such benefits of height aside, those contemplating leg lengthening have reason to think twice. State media haven’t been shy about reporting on botched operations.

Some of those who have undergone the procedure have suffered nerve or tissue damage, infection or improper healing of the bone, leaving them unable to walk or even stand.

If done properly, however, the procedure should have a very low failure rate, said Xia, the physician. He said he had performed more than 1,400 of the operations since 1996, usually between 100 and 180 a year. Only about eight patients didn’t recover fully, he said.

Zhang Wanzhong, a surgeon in the eastern city of Hangzhou, said he had performed more than 2,000 of the procedures, accounting for about 10% of his orthopedic business.

“I try to dissuade people from doing it,” Zhang said. “But some insist they suffer from so much discrimination they feel insecure, depressed, even suicidal. It’s become a kind of mental sickness.”

Xia recalls a patient who was shorter than his girlfriend. Her parents said they would rather die than see the couple wed. The suitor checked into Xia’s clinic, and once he became taller than his girlfriend, they married.

Xia’s oldest patient was a 52-year-old retired engineer who enjoyed ballroom dancing but was so petite she couldn’t find a suitable partner.

“Some people say why don’t you stick to real patients. I say they are real patients and they really do suffer,” Xia said.

Most patients undergo the operation in secret and spend their “growing” time in the privacy of a hospital or at home. While in pain, they say, they try to concentrate on the results.

“I can’t wait to buy all new clothes, especially pants -- mine will all be too short for me,” said Dong Mei, a patient of Xia. “I won’t need to wear those uncomfortable high heels anymore.”

Every day, the 24-year-old beautician practices taking baby steps with the help of a walker, inching along in her metal braces, which she sometimes covers with knitted leg warmers.

“I do makeup and skin treatment for clients,” she said. “If I don’t look good, how can I convince my customers I can make them prettier?”

Dong, who had been 4 feet 9, said she had grown 5 inches.

“The difference is obvious,” Dong said, just weeks away from removing her braces. “I used to be shorter than my sister-in-law. Now I am slightly taller than her. I like to sing and dance. They said maybe I could be in a soap opera. I can do so many more things now with my life.”