BEIJING — She's an acting student. She sits in a wheelchair. He's a business major. He relies on crutches to get around.
Each of them willingly had a doctor break their legs and insert steel pins into the bones just below their knees and above their ankles. The pins are attached to a bulky contraption that looks like a metal cage. For six months or so, they will wear this stretching device even though it delivers excruciating pain eased only by medication.
They dial the adjustment knobs daily, forcing the ends of the broken limbs to pull away from each other even as they heal. As new bone grows, the device forces it apart again, resulting in more new bone to fill the gap. Patients on the device typically gain about 3 inches in six months.
It may sound like medieval torture, but people who are determined to stand taller say it's nothing short of a dream maker.
At about $6,000, the treatment is out of reach for the average Chinese urbanite, who makes just more than $1,100 a year. But for some with money, it's a price they're willing to pay. In this increasingly competitive society, height has emerged as one of the most visible criteria for upward mobility.
"I was not tall enough to apply to film school before," said the 20-year-old acting student, who was accepted to the Beijing Film Academy after adding 3 inches to her 5-foot-1-inch frame. The school's website says female acting department applicants must be at least 5 feet 3.
"I'm taking a year off from school to do this," said the 22-year-old business major, who at 5 feet 4 worried that his height would keep him from getting coveted white-collar jobs. "I want to feel better about myself." Like most who undergo the procedure, the students asked not to be identified, for reasons of self-consciousness.
For decades, height was largely a nonissue in China. Deng Xiaoping was one of the giants of the country's modern history even though he stood only about 5 feet tall.
But then came the market-oriented reforms of the 1980s, and Chinese began to face an explosion of lifestyle choices. Cosmetic surgery and other appearance-related industries became big business.
These days, China is inundated with images of long-legged success stories. From fashion magazines to billboards to TV shows, young people look up to icons such as Lu Yan, an international supermodel who stands 5 feet 10, and NBA star Yao Ming, who at 7 feet 6 is trumpeted as the walking Great Wall of China.
To help produce a taller nation, Beijing has been advocating more milk consumption for school-age children. The average Chinese woman is about 5 feet 2, the average man about 5-6. Partly the result of improved nutrition and living standards, they're about 0.8 inch taller than a decade ago, making the Chinese among the fastest-growing people in the world.
The country's obsession with height has created a market for such items as calcium supplements, herbal tonics and special shoes with massaging soles. The latest exercise machines sold here are said to feature infrared energy to stimulate growth hormones.
Now leg extensions have taken the beauty business to new heights.
"Before the economic reforms that changed China, we weren't getting enough food to eat, so we paid little attention to how we looked," said Zhang Chunjiang, a spokesperson at a height consulting business in Beijing. "Today we have enough to eat and we care a lot about how we look."
Using surgery to boost the height of otherwise healthy people is a relatively new concept. The technology is based on the work of a Russian doctor and was originally intended to correct uneven limbs. The surgery is offered in about a dozen countries, including the United States. Most doctors outside China are reluctant to do it for purely cosmetic reasons.
"We do more leg lengthening than any other place in the world, but only 5% of that is for cosmetic purposes," said Dr. Dror Paley, a director of the International Center for Limb Lengthening in Baltimore, which has performed about 8,000 leg-lengthening procedures since 1987. Most of the surgeries are performed on patients who suffer from birth defects or trauma, Paley said, adding that he requires lengthy psychological evaluations before he will do the procedure for cosmetic reasons.
"Unlike most plastic surgeries, the risks here are huge," he said. "You can end up permanently crippled."
In China, apparently, an increasing number of people think it's worth the risk.
In the old days, when the government handed out the most desirable jobs, many college-educated Chinese didn't have to worry about finding work on their own. But now the job market is a seller's market, and seemingly irrelevant factors such as height play a role in who is hired.