Laurie and Debbie say:
It’s almost 20 years since Susan Faludi published Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, a book that talks about how the cosmetics and beauty industries specifically and consciously targeted men as an untapped market, and the effect that had on our images and expectations of masculinity.
It’s almost 15 years since we (with Richard F. Dutcher) published Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes, a book that delves deep into the complexities and variations of masculinity. We’ve known for a long time about how men’s facelifts have gone from a secret shame to a common occurrence, how some men artificially gray their hair to look more distinguished, and similar male options. Everyone who watches TV knows about men’s fragrances, and the enormous effort the advertisers put in to threading the needle between “masculine” and “smelling good.”
Now some men are making a much more intense choice. Having your limbs lengthened, as C. Brian Smith discusses in Mel Magazine, is both extremely expensive and extremely painful. (Warning: This article is extremely graphic both in medical detail and in descriptions of pain levels.)
Men have been lining up to shatter their femurs in hopes of adding an average of three inches to their height ever since [the procedure was made both somewhat less expensive and somewhat less painful in 2012] — at a cost of $15,000 (in Syria) to more than $300,000 (in Florida). If they opt to expand both the femur and the tibia, that typically doubles their growth (and, of course, the price). To ensure they’re psychologically stable for the procedure, [limb-lengthening surgeon S. Robert] Rozbruch requires that his stature-lengthening patients be evaluated by a psychologist, Dr. Ellen Katz Westrich, who explains height dysphoria is a fundamental dissatisfaction with one’s stature. “Often patients are generally happy in their lives,” she explains. “They have good friendships and healthy relationships. But there’s a nagging sense that something about their stature is holding them back.”
Calling this “height dysphoria” evokes the concept of gender dysphoria: being born in a body that doesn’t fit your view of gender. What Rozbruch and his psychologist elide here is that, while people assigned both male and female at birth experience gender dysphoria, no one is electing to have surgery to be made shorter … just as, with the exception of people in some degree of medical trouble, no one is dieting to gain weight. The social pressure only goes in one direction. The “nagging sense” is fueled by everything they see, hear, and learn about how men are “supposed” to be. And all of this happens even though we know that shorter men live longer, and really tall men very often have dramatically shortened lives.
A man is considered short in this culture if he is less than 5’8″ (or about 173 centimeters). Many shorter men have had dramatically successful lives. Just to name two, Prince was 5’2″, and Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor among other accomplishments, is 4’11”. Exceptions, however, don’t generally help with that “nagging sense” because cultural pressure isn’t just a myth. Pervasive cultural beliefs about men’s heights affect men’s lives.
One 2004 study, for instance, found that over the course of a 30-year career, a man 6-feet tall was predicted to earn nearly $166,000 more than a 5-foot-5 male colleague. And a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs found CEO’s average height to be exactly 6 feet, more than two inches taller than the average American male, with one in three being over 6-foot-2. All told, 90 percent of CEOs are above average height. “This is one of the only psychological problems that can be remedied with surgery,” [limb-lengthening surgeon Shabab] Mahboubian says. “People look up to people that are taller — literally.”
Men look up to men who are taller, Dr. Mahboubian. Tall and short women face their own challenges, which vary by class, culture, and ethnicity. Limb lengthening surgery for men who can afford it, however, is becoming global. Smith’s article identifies the practice in Syria, Korea, India, and more. Few U.S. and European doctors will perform the procedure, which means some men are traveling thousands of miles to spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars and undergo extreme pain.
People make their own choices. Doctors and clinics also make their own choices about what procedures they will perform and how they will sell their services. Surgeries like these, if successful, may lead to the outcomes the patients are looking for. Nonetheless, we are always angry when encouraging people to go to extreme lengths to change their bodies is framed as a simple kindness, when we know it reinforces damaging cultural stereotypes.
Thanks to Lynn Kendall for the pointer. Follow Debbie @spicejardebbie on Twitter.