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John Lovedale is feeling pretty good, despite the fact that he should not be walking right now. It’s a little after 9 a.m. on a hot Saturday morning in Las Vegas and he’s ambling through the Aria Resort & Casino with a pronounced limp, wincing as he throws his hips into wide semicircles and dragging his feet exactly where they need to be. The effect is like a Grand Theft Auto extra who’s just been sniped in the butt.
John is in his mid-40s and stands five feet eleven and a half. Big-hearted laugh. Built like a saguaro cactus. If you squint he kind of resembles a brolic Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s in town to see his orthopedic surgeon, having arrived last night from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he works as a network engineer for the government. He almost missed his flight and was in such a rush he forgot to bring the crutches he’s supposed to be using, but, again, he’s been feeling pretty good.
That John is on his feet at all is impressive—and probably foolish—considering that only eight months prior, he was five feet eight and a half. Back in September, he paid $75,000 for the agonizing privilege of having his legs surgically lengthened. That entailed having both his femurs broken, and adjustable metal nails inserted down their centers. Each nail is made of titanium, which is both flexible and sturdy, like bone, and about the size of a piccolo. The nails were extended one millimeter every day for about 90 days via a magnetic remote control. Once the broken bones heal, ta-da: a newer, taller John.
With a procedure like this, there are, of course, some caveats. All the height gain obviously comes from your legs, so your proportions can look a little weird, especially when you’re naked. Also, the recovery can be long and taxing. When we meet, the bones in John’s legs are not yet fully healed, and a small section of his right femur is still a little soft, like al dente spaghetti; the smallest stumble could snap a bone in two. And it’s especially dangerous since he’s a big guy, over 200 pounds.
Then there’s the pain, which is relentless, ambient. The extension of the nails in his legs stretched the nerves and tissue around the bones—especially the thick, meaty muscles like the hamstrings—to an almost excruciating degree. He couldn’t walk for months. “They fill you with enough painkillers that it’s bearable,” John explains, but his biggest fear was becoming addicted to the drugs, so he weaned himself off the regimen earlier than he should have.
Why would someone like John—handsome, confident, funny, a father to three—shell out for a procedure that costs more than a Tesla and results in months of agony for a couple of extra inches? It’s not like he was particularly short, at just shy of the average height of an American man (five feet nine). But the opportunity to be above average was too good to pass up. “I noticed that taller people just seem to have it easier,” John says, laughing. He shrugs. “The world seems to bend for them.”
It was last summer when, after a Google search, John was first swarmed by Facebook ads for the LimbplastX Institute, a clinic in Las Vegas founded in 2016 by Kevin Debiparshad—Dr. D, if you’re nasty—one of only a handful of surgeons in North America who perform cosmetic leg lengthening, and among the leading experts in the procedure.
When I first called up Dr. D, he told me that business has been booming: Since the onset of the pandemic’s work-from-home era, the LimbplastX Institute has been seeing twice its normal number of patients, and sometimes as many as 50 new people a month. That claim is backed up by a BBC report suggesting that hundreds of men in the U.S. are now undergoing the procedure every year.
On paper it makes sense. Stigmas around cosmetic surgery are fading, especially for men. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in 2019, male cosmetic procedures were up 29 percent from two decades prior.
But male height, particularly the absence of it, is one of the last social stigmas, as if the new rules of body positivity fail to apply vertically. Short guys aren’t so much discriminated against as they are precluded from stuff: like dating certain taller people, or making your frosh-soph basketball team. According to a 2009 study of Australian men, short guys make less money than their taller peers (about $500 a year per inch); are less likely to climb the corporate ladder (according to one survey, the average height of a male Fortune 500 CEO is six feet); and, for the cis and straight among us, have fewer romantic opportunities with women (a 2013 study conducted in the Netherlands found that women were taller than their male partners in just 7.5 percent of cases). I’m five six on a good day, and I’ve found that being short is great for flying economy class—and not much else.
The promise of Dr. D’s institute is that, for a price, you too can increase your odds of becoming a Fortune 500 CEO. And people are willing to pay. Most patients will fork over from $70,000 to $150,000, depending on how many inches they want to gain. The majority opt for the standard three inches, which can be expected if you get only your femurs done—a process that takes about a year—but six inches is possible if doctors later do your tibias as well. You then have to get the nails surgically removed, which costs an additional $14,000 to $20,000. Money an issue? Personal financing is available through SoFi, the online bank. John took out a loan for his femurs—$1,200 a month for the next five years.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that we can change something in the human body that was once unchangeable. A short king can transform himself into just a king—as long as he’s willing to subject himself to the kind of horrifying, life-altering injury traditionally associated with getting hit by a bus. It’s as if we’re playing God to appear slightly more boneable on Tinder. On some level it’s grotesque. It’s also a medical wonder. And it raises all kinds of thorny existential questions, like whether creations as fragile as us should be playing God at all.
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.
“People just look at you differently when you’re tall. I already get a lot more looks at the gym.”
The Ilizarov frame is still in use; what’s relatively new is the alternative form of leg lengthening that Dr. D performs, which has rapidly evolved over the past five years. Dr. D compares the procedure to getting your boobs done: “If you want to change this characteristic about yourself, I’m not changing who you are. You’re still who you are. This is just one [thing] that you want to change about yourself.” One of the main innovations at Dr. D’s clinic is the extendable titanium nails that can be inserted directly into the bone, meaning patients no longer have to deal with open sores from the Ilizarov frame’s pins.
Now surgeons are looking for other ways to streamline the process. From 2019 to 2021, there existed a load-bearing nail constructed out of stainless steel, which is stronger than titanium—an innovation that enabled patients to walk almost immediately after surgery. Those weight-bearing nails were recalled after evidence emerged that the steel might corrode, but Dr. D says that a new nail is awaiting FDA approval and should be available in 2023.
As I would discover, Dr. D is always trying to find new and better ways to lengthen legs. When I meet with him in Las Vegas, I quickly notice how fast he talks, like his work calendar is an infinite block of Google blue. If you were to ask him what he loves most, he would likely include his wife and two young daughters; the HBO show Entourage; and bone, which he calls “the most exciting tissue in the world.” “It repairs itself!” he exclaims. “You die and it’s the only thing that’s around when you’re gone.”
We’re eating dinner inside Catch Las Vegas, a trendy seafood joint where all the servers look softly VSCO filtered. Despite the evening’s oppressive heat, Dr. D, who is five ten, is wearing Diesel jeans and a black button-up shirt with polka dots underneath a black vest. Originally from Kingston, Ontario, he studied medicine at McGill, with a postgrad fellowship at Harvard, and initially thought he’d work in a more boring specialty—something like internal medicine—until he did a rotation in orthopedics with a famous surgeon from Montreal named Ken Brown.
Brown ran a center called the Lizzy Clinic, which focused on fixing bone deformities in children. “Lengthening bone, correcting clubfoot deformity, tibial deformities, that sort of thing,” Dr. D explains. Working for Brown, he was captivated by the idea of using devices like the Ilizarov frame to stretch and distort bones and heal injuries. “We’re actually creating this bone in this space,” he recalls a fellow explaining, as he squinches his thumb and index finger like he’s appraising a diamond. “I looked at him like, ‘You’re lengthening this bone? You’re fixing this two-inch discrepancy in this patient? It seems like magic.’ ”
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.”
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.”
John remembers the first time he realized he had actually become a taller person. He was standing over the toilet to pee when the trajectory of his stream felt off. “And I’m pissing all over the place!” he tells me. “I’m not used to peeing being dangerous. I’m used to it going right there. I’m having to adjust for those three inches.”
To explain his change in height, he told everyone outside of his immediate family—including his supervisor—that he fell in the bathtub and needed surgery to fix a broken hip, even though he’d never even broken a bone before. These days, John has been working out a bit: upper-body weights, some walks on the treadmill. “I’m not walking as fast as I could be once I’m fully healed,” he says, “but every day is more encouraging.” Even though it’s been an ordeal, he likes being in public now. “People just look at you differently when you’re tall. I’m not even lying,” he says, laughing. “I already get a lot more looks at the gym.”
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.
Or Bryan, a handsome Chinese American guy from New York who made a lot of money option trading. He’s 27. His voice is slow and dudely, and he’s something of a player. But he always thought that his batting average with women could be better. “A lot of times I would get rejected,” he says. “I was, like, swinging 100 and, like, [connecting with] four or five.” That was when Bryan was five seven. Now he’s five ten and itching to get back to the clubs.
There are also guys like Chad, formerly five feet five, a CFO who did his rehab in El Paso. He’s 53 and a little aggro, the type of shorter guy who’ll remind you again and again that he’s good at jiujitsu. The kind of guy who gets mad when he has to stand on his tiptoes to wave down bartenders. “I’d go to a bar and literally try to order a drink. Some freaking goon, standing a head taller than me, comes over behind me,” says Chad. “And the bartender looks up to him, like, ‘What can I get you?’ I’m like, ‘Motherfucker, I’m right here!’ ”
One time Chad had his ego shattered by a taller woman (five ten) he was dating. They were walking down the street together, holding hands, when someone passing by gave them a look. She dropped his hand. “And I was like, ‘All right, you want to be like that? If you think you could do better, you go do better. See you later.’ ” Chad got the procedure done back in December and now he’s almost five feet eight.
At one point during dinner, Dr. D casually reveals that 90 percent of his patients don’t ever tell anyone they’ve gotten the surgery.
The revelation causes my brain to short circuit. How can you keep something like that secret?
“I just told everyone I was in a ski accident,” says Alan.
“Yeah, my mom’s pretty oblivious,” says Bryan.
“I’m just going to tell everyone that they put so many things in the vaccine,” says a patient named Johan, who got his femurs and his tibias done, and went from five four to five ten.
Dr. D understands why his patients would opt to play the procedure close to their chests. “I don’t think women are like, ‘Oh, I got breast augmentation,’ like they’re proud of it,” he says. “You know what I mean?” He thinks that’s beginning to change, though. When some people get cosmetic surgery now, “it’s like having a Birkin or having a fancy car or whatever. They brag about it, because it’s like a sign of this elite status in some ways.”
As dinner wraps up, we skip dessert and call it an early night, because Dr. D has to get up at 5 a.m. He has a leg lengthening to perform in the morning, and I’m invited to watch.
Under the Knife
Should you find yourself a guest observer in Dr. D’s operating room at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, you’ll be escorted by a relentlessly upbeat representative, who will take you past the self-playing piano in the lobby, the infirmary, the employee locker room, and into the heart of the hospital, where you will trade your street clothes for scrubs.
And there, in the bedlam of the operating room, is Dr. D, cheery as ever, like he never went to bed, surrounded today by a phalanx of guys wearing Hokas and Salomons. Usher’s “My Way” booms through the O.R.’s speakers. “We usually listen to Britney!” someone jokes.
In the middle of the room, his top half covered with a tarp, lies the patient, unconscious. Today he’s getting two nails implanted into his femurs. Even though he’s only visible from the waist down (his junk is taped off), I can see that he has an athletic build, which makes him look like a mannequin that got dumped into the back of a garbage truck.
That he appears slightly dehumanized is maybe to my benefit. Because the drilling is about to commence.
Dr. D inserts a small drill in one of two inch-long incisions he’s made in the upper right thigh, to get the break started. He then calls for a device called the reamer and everyone moves with the choreographed efficiency of an F1 pit crew. The reamer materializes in his hand. It’s basically a handheld cordless drill, only the actual bit is two feet long. The reamer is used to hollow out the bone so that the nail can be placed snugly.
Dr. D gives the reamer a few whirs and then jams the pointy part into the other incision and down into the patient’s leg. With the aid of X-rays and a guide wire, he begins to drill a hole down the center of the femur. The sound of hot spinning metal pulpifying bone isn’t unlike the sound of installing drywall anchors.
Actually severing the femur takes only a few seconds. What he’s started already with the drill is followed by deployment of the osteotome, basically a razor-sharp chisel. Dr. D inserts the tool into the incision along the patient’s thigh and starts whacking away with a mallet.
“Sometimes it’s one tap,” Dr. D shouts while casually hammering, as if he’s hanging a picture frame. “Other times it’s 10 taps.” Clink, clink, clink, clink—CLANK.
When Dr. D pulls the reamer out of the incision—the effect is kind of like Jack Nicholson’s Joker pulling a comically long pistol out of his pants—a warm, bloody slurry of liquefied bone and marrow and fat begins to ooze out of the hole with horrifying speed and volume.
Once the nail is finally set in the now-severed bone, Dr. D makes a few more tiny incisions along the leg and drills a few screws in to hold everything together. On the X-ray screen it looks like the patient’s thigh is pregnant with a weather vane.
All in all, the right leg is completed in 38 minutes. The left will take more or less the same amount of time. But it’s only when the patient wakes up two hours later—with five to six new holes in each of his legs—that the real work can begin.
Protect Your Investment
When John and I show up at the LimbplastX Institute on the morning of his appointment, Dr. D is a little frosty, a few degrees removed from his usual self. (Which is to say he’s still extremely pleasant, like an angry Kenneth from 30 Rock.)
The problem is that John doesn’t have his crutches, and he hasn’t yet been cleared to go without them, even though he isn’t feeling any pain. This, according to Dr. D, is a huge no-no. “John’s been a bad boy ever since he came here,” he says. “I always tell patients that when they stop lengthening, that’s when they get into trouble. Because they feel good. They got their new height and they have no pain. They get impatient.”
As Dr. D explains, John’s femurs aren’t fully consolidated. He’s 95 percent healed on his left side but only 80 percent healed on his right. Meaning the bone tissue is still forming, still pliant and a little squishy. If the nail were damaged in a fall, they’d have to replace it with a new one, and the whole process would have to begin again. (This has only happened in his practice a handful of times, says Dr. D.)
“So, yeah, protect your investment,” Dr. D tells John in the register of a disappointed grade school teacher. “It’s just three more weeks, okay? You’ve already gone this long and then you can have the whole summer to move around, all right?”
John is apologetic. He was just so eager to be the newer, taller him already. “There’s a mental discipline that you have to have,” Dr. D would tell me in private. “It’s like training for the marathon.”
Wouldn’t It Be Cool?…
I first discovered leg lengthening almost 15 years ago, when I was just out of college. Like a lot of short guys, I simply googled the phrase “How to grow taller as an adult?” At the time, part of me conflated being short with being less desirable. Sometimes I’d fantasize about winning the lottery, getting the procedure, and disappearing for a year. Truth be told, my height is maybe the one thing I’ve ever felt regularly insecure about. The only times when it really bothers me are when it precludes me from doing stuff: like dating a taller woman I had feelings for years ago. Or making my frosh-soph basketball team when I was five three and all my friends seemed to have grown six inches overnight. Or, even now, fetching the Instant Pot tucked away in the high cabinet without a stool.
Then there’s my wife—cool, beautiful, confident, smarter than I’ll ever be—who towers over me at five feet nine. We were old friends who became more than that, and now we’ve been together for over a decade. Before we got together, I once quasi-drunkenly blurted out, “If I was taller we’d probably be together already, ha-ha,” and to this day, I still feel like a dick for having said that.
And so the fact that these guys are so willing to throw down six figures and endure months of pain makes all kinds of cosmic sense to me. It’s not like you wake up one day and realize that you’re short. It’s more of a slow-onset neurosis. In high school you watch as all your peers shoot up a few inches while you keep hoping that your growth spurt is imminent…. But then it never happens. The hope doesn’t fade so much as it calcifies within you. For some people it weighs them down. Maybe it makes them angry, like Chad. For most short people, there’s always a part of us that feels like a physically incomplete version of who we were supposed to be. You, but at 90 percent scale.
One night a few months after I got back from Vegas, at home in Brooklyn, I asked my wife what she would think if I were to miraculously find a spare hundred thousand to get the surgery myself.
“I mean, if you wanted to get the surgery, I wouldn’t be like, no,” she replied. “But that money would do very nicely in [our son’s] college savings.”
Then I told her I had a confession: That I felt bad for having said, early on, that we’d probably be together already if I were taller than her.
She paused. “But you shouldn’t,” she said. “It’s funny! I thought you meant it as a joke, so I took it as a joke, mostly. And I don’t think it was true.”
In what way?
“I knew that deep down, eventually, I came around to the fact we could be 80 years old and still together. And at that point, we’d just be hunched over, wrinkly, droopy. Having that longer-term perspective…it was easy.”
What do you think it was that made you get over my being short?
“I guess there’s no one thing. It’s just changing a mindset. There are some annoying little life adjustments. But am I mad that, like, I can’t wear heels to a wedding again? That my feet don’t hurt whenever I go out? That’s fine.”
And in that moment, I felt six feet four.
Perhaps our spiritual heights are more important than reality, anyway. During our dinner, I asked Dr. D whether he’d ever consider getting the procedure himself.
“No,” he said. But then he hedged. Maybe if his kids were grown up, and if the load–bearing nail gets approved by the FDA, and if there were someone he trusted enough to insert said nail, then…maybe? Surgeons from all over the country are interested in learning how to perform the procedure, he said, and a few of them would love to franchise the LimbplastX brand.
He noted that his wife, who’s five four, sometimes teases him about getting her legs done. “She’s like, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool if I was a little bit taller?’ ”
There are some minor annoyances worth noting should you suddenly find yourself a taller person. John has to get the height on his driver’s license changed, for example. His knees graze the seat in front of him when he flies coach. And his own kids all clown on him. They even gave him a nickname: Inspector Gadget.
Now other people are starting to notice something different about him. Recently he ran into his cousin, a friend, and their dates at dinner. It had been six months since he’d seen them. His excuse was that he’d broken his hip.
They went back to the friend’s apartment, and John found himself in the kitchen, alone with his friend, who is about six feet. “He leaned in to me,” says John. “He says, ‘Look, man, I’ve known you for three years. Never have you been able to look me eye to eye. What’s up?’ ”
John looked him up and down—and started laughing. “To this day, I still haven’t told him,” John says mischievously. “I’ve just been like, Maaan, you’ve gotten shorter.”
Chris Gayomali is a GQ articles editor.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of GQ with the title “I Wish I Was a Little Bit Taller”