Damon Young: Finding empathy for men who get leg-lengthening surgery

For a 2½-day stretch, during the summer of 1984, I wanted to be White. I was watching the Olympics, and in the events I’d seen — swimming and gymnastics, specifically — most of the athletes were White, so 5-year-old me thought you had to be that to compete.

That feeling faded as quickly as it came, but it was replaced in 1987, when I wanted shoulders and a neck like LL Cool J had in the “I’m Bad” video. And then in 1988, when I wanted to be light-skinned like Al B. Sure and Christopher Williams because that’s who all the girls I liked in fifth grade liked. And then in 1989, when I wanted a juicy fade with a half-dozen wraparound parts like MC Hammer. And then in 1991, when I wanted to be as tall as my classmate Ron.

I would also, through the years, desire leaping ability like Harold Miner (1992); blemishless skin like my homie Omar (1993);, a small head like Usher (1994); perfect waves like Nas (1995); gangly, effortless swag like Method Man (1996); the ability to easily glide off one foot like Allen Iverson (1997); giant hands like Michael Jordan (1997 to present); perfect white teeth like Kevin Garnett to contrast with my skin (1995 to present); and the sort of high-cheek beard that Black Thought from the Roots always has (2006 to present).

When thinking about my body, and the things I’ve wished, at some point in my life, were physically different about it, it’s harder to name the things I’ve always been fine with. (My arms and my legs. My ears too, I guess.) I grew out of most of those desires to change, but they were real. And if I could’ve taken a pill to fix what I thought needed fixing, there would have been no hesitation. No second-guessing.

I try to be careful not to presume unanimity with something as arbitrary as human behavior. But I will make a leap here and say that everyone reading this, with no exceptions, has wished to change something about their natural bodies at some point. Sometimes it’s innocuous and only noticeable to you, like wanting less hair on a forearm. And sometimes it’s a 45-year-old man who wishes to be three inches taller, so he flies to Las Vegas and pays a doctor $75,000 to break his femur and insert titanium screws into it.

When I first read Chris Gayomali’s recent piece in GQ magazine on leg-lengthening surgery, my immediate visceral reaction, even before curiosity, was disgust. It reminded me of something from one of those demonic horror films from the ’70s and ’80s, like “Phantasm” or “Hellraiser,” that forcibly congealed the surreal with the grotesque. And when Gayomali, whom I’ve known since he was my editor at GQ, described the actual procedure, I had to stop reading.

“With the aid of X-rays and a guide wire, [Dr. D] 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.”

The circular byway of what constitutes ‘appropriate’ maleness isn’t just a roundabout. It’s a chain saw, with jagged edges at each end.

No, I was curious why it bothered me. The desire to change, either a little something, or a big something, is universal. So why did it feel wrong to me when a man spent the money — and endured the excruciating pain (and risk) — necessary to get it done? And yes, it matters that these are men, because I have no such feelings about women who get cosmetic surgery.

I think the answer is that the same series of societal constructs that make short men feel, to quote Gayomali (who is 5-foot-6 himself), like a “physically incomplete version of who we were supposed to be” also urge men to be silent about our physical insecurities. If they exist, we better just swallow it, because saying it is less manly too.

If this doesn’t make sense to you, good. That just means you’re sane. It’s not supposed to make any sense. The circular byway of what constitutes “appropriate” maleness isn’t just a roundabout. It’s a chain saw, with jagged edges at each end. Because of it, things like leg-lengthening operations will continue to exist. And I’ll try to reserve my judgment for the callous world that created that desire.

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