Picture your worst physical flaw. Yes, that physical imperfection that you hate so much and wish you could change every morning when you look in the mirror. Got it? Okay, keep it in mind as I ask you three questions. How much would you pay to get it fixed? How much pain would you be willing to go through in order to change it? And, how much would you be willing to risk your health in order to correct it? For many Chinese women and men the answers to these questions are 40,000 dollars, excruciating and agonizing pain, and being crippled. I am talking about leg strengthening, a surgical operation that became popular in China a few years ago. This procedure consists of breaking patients’ legs and stretching them using a rack over several months in order to make these individuals taller.
As Jonathan Watts explains in his article called China’s Cosmetic Surgery Craze, many Chinese women and some Chinese men turn to different types of surgery in order to resemble Western ideals of beauty they see portrayed in media. Some of these surgical operations include nose lengthening, jaw remodeling, eyelid surgery, and leg lengthening. Watts explains that height is highly valued in China to the extent that many jobs require a minimum height (5ft 7in for men and 5ft 3in for women) and taller women have increasingly more chances to get married. Thus, leg lengthening surgery can increase short people’s opportunities to get a good job and a spouse. However, Watts also explains that leg lengthening is very dangerous because it can cause several complications including being crippled, limp, having feet pointing in different directions, bones not strong enough to support the body weight, bones that break easily and repeatedly, and nerve damage.
Is it Worth the Risk?
Anne Marie Dorning, a journalist of the ABCNews, interviewed patients who underwent leg lengthening. In her article Controversial and Grueling Procedure Lenghtens Limbs, Risks Lives she also explains that the main reason to get leg lengthening for men is to become more competitive in the business world and for women is to increase the likelihood to find a husband. Dorning interviewed a guy who said “I decided it would be a good investment for my business career, and it really helped my confidence” and a girl who explained “It was really tough to find a date. I didn’t know a single other guy who was my height and I was really insecure about it.” On the other hand, China Daily published an article called China Bans Leg-lenghtening Surgery that explains that this surgery is so dangerous that China’s government banned it in 2006. The government argued that doctors, such as those working in Beijing Hospital promised patients “height surgery without pain” when reality was very different. In addition, a high percent of cases had complications that led to irreparable damages to the patients. Nonetheless, China Daily states that unauthorized medical institutions could possibly still be conducting this risky surgery.
Why Does This Happen?
At this point you might be asking yourself, why would they do this? Well, Communications Studies and gender scholar Julia T. Wood in her textbook Gendered Lives talks about the concept of “pathologizing the human body” to explain cases like this one. Wood explains that “pathologizing the human body” refers to the fact that media pushes us to measure ourselves against artificial standards and also encourages us to understand normal healthy bodies and functions as pathologies. For example, Watts explains that different types of media, such as advertisements for jobs requiring minimum height, encourage Chinese men and women to try to resemble unrealistic Western ideals of beauty which are taller. For this reason, individuals who have perfectly healthy bodies understand their height as a pathology that is restricting their business and personal opportunities. As a result, as Dorning’s article explains, some of them turn to services, such as surgery, to fix their unreal pathology.
What Can We Do?
First of all, we need to understand that although this is a very scandalous case of pathologizing the human body, it is not an isolated phenomenon. Pathologizing the human body not only happens to Chinese people but to everybody including you, me, and many people in the United States. Different types of media such as television shows, radio programs, and magazine advertisements constantly influence us to believe that we need services and products to fix all the unreal “problems” that according to them we have. Some of these indispensable services and products that media tries to sell us are very unnecessary. Do I really need the 20 different kinds of makeup to carry in my purse daily? No. Thus, the next time we are about to buy a product or service, why don’t we ask ourselves: Do I really need it? Or am I only purchasing it in an attempt to resemble an unrealistic ideal portrayed in the media?