The booming world of leg-lengthening surgery

GQ recently published a fascinating look into the world of elective leg lengthening. I had no idea that cosmetic leg lengthening was a booming business, that hundreds of men in the U.S. are getting the procedure every year (to the tune of $75,000 to $150,000), or that in the last 20 years male cosmetic procedures are up 29%. All of this is happening despite the fact that, according to University of Florida Health, bone lengthening is only completely successful in four out of ten procedures. They explain that "It has a much higher rate of complications and need for further surgeries. Joint contractures may occur." The procedure is also excruciatingly painful, and comes with a very long recovery. Chris Gayomali of GQ explains:

Like most cosmetic surgeries designed to make you a hotter version of yourself, cosmetic leg lengthening was originally intended to help patients with real and sometimes dire conditions. The procedure was developed in the 1950s by a Soviet orthopedic surgeon named Gavriil Ilizarov, who wanted to treat complex bone fractures and deformities like limb discrepancies. The process is, to put it lightly, really fucking gnarly.

It involves a medieval-sounding device called the Ilizarov frame, an adjustable apparatus that is wrapped around, say, the lower part of a patient's leg, ankle to knee, like scaffolding erected around a townhome. The patient's leg is then broken, and the apparatus's series of pins pierce the leg, jamming through skin and muscle until they are fixed to the bone itself, where they remain for months—holding the severed bones in place, slightly farther apart than they'd naturally be positioned, so that new bone tissue grows to fill the gap. After spending months bedridden, a patient with, say, a shorter left leg could miraculously find himself with two legs of more or less the same size.

In the article Gayomali profiles a doctor who specializes in the procedure (Dr. Kevin Debiparshad who founded the LimbplastX Institute in Las Vegas in 2016) and who has seen his business explode in the last few years, describes witnessing a surgery, and provides profiles of some of the men he interviewed who have undergone the procedure. Who is getting this procedure? Gayomali explains:

Dr. D's patients don't fit into any one phylum, except that most are loaded: physicians, finance guys, actors, CEOs. A news anchor. Even college basketball players looking for a few more statistical inches, though Dr. D doesn't recommend this. "It's hard to predict what the athletic outcome is going to be," he says. "What I generally tell patients is, look, if your paycheck depends on you being faster than the guy next to you by milliseconds to get that position, then this may not be the procedure for you because it can decrease your athletic ability."

There are trans men, who often just want that extra stature to feel more like themselves. (Dr. D sometimes does leg shortening for trans women.) I talked to a Filipina nurse who was under five feet—and now she's not. One patient, a popular YouTuber in Asia, apparently paid for the procedure by selling a few Bitcoin.

And of course there are tech bros—a whole gaggle of tech bros. "I joke that I could open a tech company," says Dr D. "I got, like, 20 software engineers doing this procedure right now who are here in Vegas. There was a girl"—because girls can be tech bros too—"yesterday from PayPal. I've got patients from Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft. I've had multiple patients from Microsoft."

The article also discusses what drives the (mostly) men to get the procedure:

There's no single reason anyone opts for leg-lengthening surgery, but often at least one of those reasons has to do with impressing girls. Take Alan, 23, a sweet, lanky software engineer from Chicago. (Some of these names have been changed.) Originally just under five feet six, Alan never really thought of himself as short until a girl he had "a super big crush on, like, roasted me for it" in college. This instilled in him a deep insecurity that ultimately prompted him to get his femurs done in February. Now, after spending the last three months alone in his apartment eating delivery food, he's five nine.

It's more complicated than that, though, and Gayomali provides a nuanced discussion of "one of the last social stigmas"—male height—and the economic and social stigmas that short men can face. Gayomali adds:

What all the patients I spoke with have in common is that leg lengthening helps them feel like a more complete version of who they think they are. "A lot of patients see it as an investment in themselves, and not necessarily romantically," says Dr. D. "Stature is such an important part, I think, of who you are and how you perceive the world and how the world perceives you. Being able to alter that is so impactful."

I can't pretend to understand how any of that feels, so I can't really judge it, other than to reiterate how it seems like the height of privilege to have an extra $75-150k lying around to spend on cosmetic leg lengthening. But I do appreciate this in-depth look at the procedure and the men who get it, and urge you to read it if you're interested.