fullspate

BACKHOME

Stretch my legs, Doc!

Swee Jing paid more money that most Chinese people earn in a year to have both her legs broken and stretched. The pretty college graduate is now lying in a hospital bed, clearly still in pain, after the doctors sawed through the flesh and bone of both legs in eight places. Each leg now has eight steel rods sticking out of it below the knee and these are connected to a steel cage surrounding each leg. Once the broken bones start to heal the doctors will begin to turn the screws on the cage pushing the steel rods apart and so stretching the leg. It is a slow and painful process that will take 18 months to add 8cm to Swee Jing's height.

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 have their legs broken in order to rise up the ladder in height-conscious China.

In part, the popularity of such surgery can be explained by the surge of interest in fashion and beauty in a country where things like fashion magazines and beauty contests used to be banned. The once closed society is now more open to western influences and the relatively prosperous middle classes have the money to explore cosmetic possibilities. Shops and magazines in the cities show endless images of long-legged western models, inevitably putting pressure on young women.

There are also domestic pressures. Height is 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 magazines.

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 rods that have been inside her legs for the past 18 months. Each leg now bears eight circular scars, each half an inch in diameter.

Now that she is 8cm 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 couldn't walk 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."



CLICK HERE for a little vocabulary revision.