At 5'7", Alex considered himself short.
The 26-year-old, who asked that his real name not be used to maintain his privacy, said he was sick of insults and jeering comments about his height.
Shorter men “routinely get spoken down to just because of this trait that they can’t control,” Alex said.
So last January, he got a leg-lengthening operation to increase his height to 5’10".
“My goal was never to be tall. It’s to be in a place where no one comments on my height,” Alex said.
Leg lengthening is an intense and expensive process but one that has become more popular and accepted in the last five years, according to Dr. Shahab Mahboubian, a surgeon at the Height Lengthening Institute in Burbank, California, who performed Alex’s operations.
“I even have 60-, 65-year-old guys that have come to me to undergo the procedure because it just doesn’t stop. The 'short' jokes keep going on and they feel inferior,” he said.
The $75,000, four-hour operation, which is not generally covered by insurance, involves cutting the thigh bones in each leg and inserting rods inside them. Then over the next three to four months, the rods are lengthened by up to 1 millimeter (0.04 inches) per day, via an external remote control. New bone grows over the rods.
Physical therapy is required: For four months following his surgery, Alex went four to five times per week and used a walker. As he regained his mobility, he switched to using a cane.
The final step of the process is removing the rods. Alex returned for that hourlong procedure a year after the first operation, and his insurance footed the $10,000 bill. In total, Alex estimated the whole process cost him $100,000.
He said he initially dismissed the idea of leg lengthening as “insane,” but later decided it would make him happier in his body.
“If all it is, is pain and money, alright,” he said.
Mahboubian said he expects to perform 50 stature-lengthening operations this year, more than double the 20 he did three years ago.
Traditionally, leg-extension operations are reconstructive procedures to correct discrepancies in the length of legs, according to Dr. S. Robert Rozbruch, chief of the limb lengthening and complex reconstruction service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
He said that only a small share of the operations he performs are aimed at increasing a patient's height, and those cases usually involve short stature dysphoria, a deep dissatisfaction with one's height.
Rozbruch said that he would not want leg lengthening to be thought of as a quick operation done for cosmetic reasons.
Alex said he felt so distressed by his height before his surgery that at times, he would walk around his neighborhood and cry.
“I went to therapy regarding this to talk about body image issues, but then it always gets followed into, ‘Oh, you have body dysmorphia?’” he said. “It’s almost the opposite where I’m painfully aware of what the reality of my body is, and I wanted to change it.”
In popular culture, Alex added, short men can wind up being a punchline for jokes.
“Body shaming is wrong, but there’s like a little asterisk of like, ‘unless you’re short,’” he said. “It seems like almost the one unchangeable trait that is just accepted as a societal punching bag.”
Even references to “short kings” — a term used in modern dating for men of short stature who are confident and attractive but might otherwise be overlooked due to their height — seem mocking and backhanded, Alex said.
Dr. David Frederick, an associate professor of psychology at Chapman University in Southern California, studies body image satisfaction. In a 2006 study, he found that whereas just 26% of shorter men were satisfied with their height, 87% of tall men were happy with their height.
“When it’s such an intense, persistent feeling that it impacts your daily functioning in daily life, it becomes an issue,” he said.
A study published last year examined the relationship between height and dating preferences among heterosexual people in the U.S., Canada, Cuba and Norway. The results suggested that men preferred shorter women and women preferred taller men relative to both their own heights and the averages in their countries.
Some research also suggests there are economic benefits to being tall. A 6-foot person was predicted to earn $166,000 more than a 5'5" person over a 30-year career, a 2004 study found.
Writer Malcolm Gladwell polled half the companies on the Fortune 500 list about the height of their CEOs in 2005 and found that 58% were taller than 6 feet, even though just 14% of American men are that tall.
A combination of factors likely explains the CEO trend, Frederick said: Taller stature is sometimes associated with dominance, but it's also indicative that someone grew up with "more resources and wealth."
Although leg-lengthening surgery comes with risks, including nerve injury and a loss of range of motion, the procedure is safe as long as it’s done by experienced surgeons, according to Rozbruch.
Two months have passed since Alex's second operation, and he said he no longer frets about his height.
“The recovery is behind me and I feel incredible,” he said.
But Alex added that he is wary of recommending the surgery to others, since that would imply that shorter men should change. Instead, he said, the societal pressures to be taller are the problem.
“No one should feel the need to do this,” he said.