Breaking your legs to make yourself taller.

Breaking your legs to make yourself taller.

Breaking your legs to make yourself taller.

Science, technology, and life.
June 30 2009 7:38 AM

Broken Is Beautiful

Breaking your legs to make yourself taller.

Remember Connie Culp, the woman who got a new face at the Cleveland Clinic several months ago? The doctor who did the surgery said such perilous transplants were justified, in part, because people with serious facial damage are "socially crippled in a society that appears to value beauty above all other human characteristics."

Last month, Culp appeared at a press conference to show the world her new face. She was grateful, and I'm happy for her. But an underlying problem remains: We're now using surgery to relieve social suffering. We're drifting from a standard of necessity rooted in you to a standard—"socially crippled"—that's dictated by others.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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In Culp's case, there were functional reasons for the surgery: She couldn't eat normally and could breathe only through a hole in her windpipe. But there's always a next step down the ethical slope. The next step is people like Hajnal Ban.

Eight years ago, when Ban was 23, she decided she was too short. How short? Around 5 feet 1 inch. That's 1 inch shorter than my wife and 3 inches taller than the minimum height for service in the U.S. Army. According to the Courier Mail of Australia, which published Ban's story two months ago, she

said she had been taunted at school and called names such as "midget". When she got older, it became an issue of credibility and people not taking her seriously, particularly in her chosen profession of law and now politics. "I get tired of people focusing on the physical side of me because I feel like I have a lot to offer and I'm a qualified lawyer," she said.

So Ban changed her body. She went to Russia, where, as the Times of London put it, doctors agreed to "break both her legs in four places and stretch them slowly for 1mm every day for nine months." Then she wore plaster casts for three more months.

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Result: Ban gained 3 inches. She entered politics, and today, she's a city councilwoman.

Ban says she's far from alone in using this procedure. "You see sports people going in who need that extra height, and models," she told the Times, apparently referring to the Russian clinic. "It's a well-kept secret." Like Ban, these people have no functional impairments. They just want to be taller.

This is how drugs and medical procedures evolve. They begin as therapeutic and become occasionally or frequently elective. Leg-lengthening was originally developed to rectify dwarfism. But dwarves are a lot rarer than people with social or professional anxiety about their height. That's why, as Agence France Presse observes, the surgery became "popular among young Chinese professionals who believed height would help them climb the career ladder."

Ban doesn't pretend her rationale was more than cosmetic. "A lot of young women feel insecure about their weight or their nose or their figure in general. Mine was my height," she told the Daily Mail. To Reuters, she added, "This is no different to having breast augmentation or nose procedures." To AFP, she underscored the social pressure behind such surgeries: "A lot of women, just through the way that society is and the pressure that we have, have insecurity and have some self-doubt."

Facing these pressures, Ban and others have resorted to a body-altering procedure which, according to experts, can cause nerve damage, joint damage, arthritis, and chronic pain. And what if she hadn't done it? "I guess had I not had this operation I probably wouldn't be insecure about my height at this age because I would just accept who I am," she told AFP. "As you get older as a woman I think you become more mellow and you become more comfortable in your own skin."

So here's the question: How far should we let cosmetic surgery go? If Culp is a compelling case against prohibition, isn't Ban a compelling case for regulation? How much trauma and risk should we let people endure for the sake of looking the way we want them to look, especially when they might otherwise learn to accept themselves as they are? I'm all for freedom. But cosmetic leg-breaking? Isn't that a stretch?

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) Two men, no uterus. 2) The increase in U.S.-Mexico border tunnels. 3) Why people are disappearing into cyberspace.)