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Long legs to remain fantasy for petite Chinese

Clifford Coonan
Monday 06 November 2006 01:00 GMT

China has banned the practice of leg-lengthening, a cosmetic surgery procedure popular among young professionals who believe height will help them to climb the career ladder, after a rash of botched operations has left patients disfigured.

Leg extension surgery looks like a procedure from the Middle Ages. A doctor breaks the patient's legs and inserts steel pins into the bones, just below the knees. The pins are attached to a metal frame and every day for months the patient tightens the knobs a small amount despite excruciating pain. By constantly forcing the ends of the broken bones apart before they can heal, more new bone comes to fill in the gaps.

"Leg-stretching surgery for the image conscious has been banned by China's health ministry after a spate of botched operations," the Xinhua news agency reported.

The operation costs some 100,000 yuan (£6,700) and it is often six months before the patient can walk without using a walking frame. Many can never run again.

From now on, leg extensions may be carried out by hospitals that conduct at least 400 orthopaedic operations a year and offer post-surgery care and rehabilitation, and only on strictly medical grounds, the ministry said.

Chinese people's increased sensitivity about their appearance has seen a rash of cosmetic surgery clinics springing up around the country, offering a huge array of different kinds of surgery. Many of the clinics are run by doctors who abandon poorly paid work in the state-run medical system to cash in on the appetite for nips, tucks and leg extensions.

The Chinese are generally not as tall as Europeans - the average Chinese woman is 5ft 2 in, while the average man is 5 ft 6 in. However, improved living standards mean Chinese people are getting taller - almost an inch taller than a decade ago - and one of the tallest basketball players in the world is China's NBA star, Yao Ming, at 7ft 5in.

Being tall has really only become an issue in China since the economic boom - the architect of the country's opening up, Deng Xiaoping, stood less than 5ft tall. But nowadays, many Chinese feel discriminated against in their jobs if they are not tall or good-looking enough. Men wear step heels, and television ads show the footwear with its inches-giving insoles.

And they can, indeed, be discriminated against - some job ads have height requirements, especially in the service industry.

The technique of leg-lengthening was conceived by Italians in 1905, but the Russians can take credit for developing the concept. Much of the breakthrough work was done by Doctor Gavril Ilizarov, who used bicycle spokes to heal fractured bones broken by gunshots. He later adapted this technique to lengthening limbs. It is now used all over the world but is rarely allowed for cosmetic reasons.

Tens of thousands of cases of botched plastic surgery are reported in China each year, according to Xinhua. Messed-up leg-lengthening operations by unauthorised beauty clinics leave patients both physically and psychologically scarred.

From now on, hospitals must tell patients about the risks, and only qualified personnel will be allowed to carry out the procedure.

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