A Heightened Awareness: Stretching Limbs and Pocketbooks

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A Heightened Awareness: Stretching Limbs and Pocketbooks

One of Korea's more curious idiosyncrasies is the cosmetic surgery fad to get so-called "double eyelids." Indeed, it's common at universities to see young coeds come back after vacation with eyes that seem to have doubled in size. But there is another appearance-changing fad that has the peninsula in its grips: increasing your stature.

Since the mid-'90s when a group of comedians popularized the term long dari, or long legs, being tall and long-legged has become the primary quality to determine attractiveness. In step with the long-leg envy, various height-stretching gadgets have hit the market, and some have been received enthusiastically. The simplest way to occupy more rarefied air is to buy specially designed shoes. With the addition of several layers on the outsole, the shoes have become quite popular with men, who probably feel compelled to keep up with their girlfriends' ever-higher high heels.

Other products, aimed at children, are drawing mothers anxious to ensure their kids don't come up short. A Mrs. Lee, who refused to give her full name, said that she paid 253,000 won ($194) to an online retailer for a contraption called a "Longman" (no relation to the dictionary publisher). She says she believes that her son, 12, is vertically challenged and that radical measures were in order. "Smaller children tend to be less confident," she said. Now her son, after his daily round of school and private lessons wraps up at 8 p.m., straps himself to the Longman and goes through the prescribed paces. Mrs. Lee said she believes that the plastic and elastic of the Longman, which pulls the user's feet toward his neck, may be the answer for her son, though the company provides no proof of its efficacy.

Others taking a more scientific approach arrange with a doctor to have their children injected with growth hormones. The typical course takes about three years at a cost of more than 10 million won per year. The possible side effects of the treatments, including diabetes and thyroid disorders, don't seem to worry the more determined parents.

Another option is an operation called the Ilizarov technique, which uses special orthopedic equipment attached to the leg bones. The method is named for the Russian orthopedist Gavril Ilizarov (1921-1992), who invented the limb-lengthening technique while treating invalids after World War II. The treatment, which lasts about a year, has doctors putting thin wires through the leg bones, creating gaps that are later closed by bone growth. The technique is highly demanding, risky and costly. Nevertheless, according to a pediatrician and professor at Yonsei University, Kim Duk-hee, hundreds of people have tried the treatment. Dr. Kim also said he gets many calls from people, including one from Mrs. Lee, interested in trying it.

Mrs. Lee said she would try the Ilizarov operation if the Longman fails her son. But she noted that Dr. Kim told her that "considering the risk of serious side effects, such as ending up with one leg longer than the other, a lot of thought should go into the decision."

by Chun Su-jin

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