Still determined, Xiaowei visited a Shanghai surgeon who promised the seemingly impossible: to add 7 cm to her height. The leg surgery would be simple, he said, if brutal. He would saw her shin bones, affix metal braces with 16 steel needles to her legs, then slowly stretch the newly forming bone tissue into a longer pair of gams. A steep $11,000 later, Xiaowei found herself in a spartan Shanghai hospital room surveying her scarred but elongated legs. Four months in the dingy ward have left her stir-crazy, but Xiaowei shows off limbs already stretched 4 cm. "I can take the pain, if it means I can become a diplomat," she says, wincing as she shifts her metal-embraced legs. "But I never thought I would have to resort to surgery."
Thousands of young Chinese women and a few men are taking advantage of a surgical procedure originally developed in Russia to help patients with legs disfigured by accidents or birth defects, such as dwarfism. While Western hospitals tend to perform the difficult surgery only for medical reasons, the number of Chinese hospitals offering the profitable procedure for cosmetic purposes has mushroomed. Many clinics have year-long waiting lists. The surgery's popularity is abetted by requirements that exclude short citizens from dozens of fields, from flight attendants to government translators. In a country that has hundreds of qualified applicants for every job, height minimums are one way to whittle down the competition. "You don't have to be tall to be good at computers," says Ma Xiang, a recruiter for a consortium of online companies in Beijing, which requires that female applicants be at least 1.6 m tall (the average height of Chinese women). "But it's one of the ways we can limit the number of rEsumEs we get."
Dr. Xia Hetong, a surgeon at Beijing's No. 402 Hospital, is a pioneer of limb-extension surgery for patients disfigured by birth defects or injury. Since he started offering cosmetic leg-lengthening a few years ago, he has performed more than 600 operations. His patients have grown by an average of 9 cm. More than 70% of the women are college educated. Some who have studied overseas felt inferior because of their lack of stature. "For them, the main purpose of the operation is not to improve their physical health," says Xia. "It is to help their psychological growth."
But the surgery doesn't always ensure mental well-being. Zhang Wen found she was 4 cm shy of the 1.6-m height requirement for Air China stewardesses. Last year, a surgeon in the central city of Chongqing promised to solve her dilemma for $3,000. After four months' hospitalization and nearly a year of rehab, one of Zhang's legs is 3 cm shorter than the other, causing her to limp. Having spent her savings on the botched operation, Zhang can't afford more surgery. Such malpractice is common in China's booming south, where fly-by-night surgeons take advantage of lax hospital rules. Many patients have ended up with damaged nerves, severe infections, dangerously brittle bones or mismatched legs. "This is not an easy surgery like a nose job," says a doctor at the International Center for Limb Lengthening in Baltimore, Maryland. "You can't just operate on every short person who walks in the door."
When Xiaohong, a 1.52-m law student from Gansu province, decided to submit to the knife, she knew securing a reputable surgeon like Xia would mean fees more than double her entire college tuition. Her father, the only family member who knows about the $12,000 surgery, agreed that it would be an investment in Xiaohong's future. "First impressions are what matters," says Xiaohong, perched on her hospital cot. "People in China will always pick the taller woman, even if the shorter person is more talented." When Xiaohong finishes the six-month exercise and rehab program in Beijing, she knows she will have to tell her mother about the extravagant expense. After all, you can't hide an 8-cm growth spurt. But Xiaohong's not worried. "When I am tall, I will be able to face many obstacles," she says—even the wrath of a parsimonious mother.