SEOUL, South Korea — With acupuncture needles trembling from the corners of her mouth like cat’s whiskers, Moon Bo-in, 5, whined with fear. But the doctor, wearing a yellow gown patterned with cartoon characters, poked more needles into her wrists and scalp. “It’s O.K., dear,” said her mother, Seo Hye-kyong.
“It will help make you pretty and tall. It will make you Cinderella.” A growing conviction that tallness is crucial to success has prompted South Korean parents to try all manner of approaches to increase their children’s height, spawning hundreds of “growth clinics” that offer growth hormone shots, Eastern herbal medicine and special exercises to ensure that young clients will be the ones looking down, not the ones looked down upon. “In our society, it’s all about looks,” said Ms. Seo, 35. “I’m afraid my daughter is shorter than her peers. I don’t want her to be ridiculed and lose self-confidence because of her height.”
Ms. Seo spends $770 a month on treatments for her daughter and her 4-year-old son at one such clinic, Hamsoa, which has 50 branches across the country, where the protocol includes acupuncture, aromatherapy and a twice-a-day tonic that contains deer antler, ginseng and other medicinal herbs. “Parents would rather add 10 centimeters to their children’s stature than bequeath them one billion won,” said Dr. Shin Dong-gil, a Hamsoa doctor. “If you think of a child as a tree, what we try to do here is to provide it with the right soil, the right wind, the right sunshine to help it grow. We help kids regain their appetite, sleep well and stay fit so they can grow better.” Koreans used to value what was perceived as a grittiness on the part of shorter people, reflected in the saying,
“A smaller pepper is hotter, ” and in honors to the late South Korean strongman Park Chung-hee and, further afield, Napoleon. In North Korea, the feared and revered leader Kim Jong-il is just 5-foot-5 (or less — he adds inches with elevator shoes and bouffant hairstyle). But shortness is most definitely out now, in part thanks to the media inundation of Western models of beauty and success. “Nowadays, children scoff if you mention Napoleon and Park Chung-hee,” said Park Ki-won, head of the Seojung growth clinic.
“On TV, all young pop idols are tall. Given our society’s strong tendency to fit into the group and follow the trend, being short is a problem. Short kids are ostracized.” Vitamins billed as growth enhancers have become big sellers, and newspapers and shops near schools advertise shoes with hidden lifts that give the wearer an extra inch or two. Concerns about the trend are growing too, with some groups warning that growth clinics, while operating within the limits of the law, promise far more than the evidence supports.
Yoon Myoung, a top researcher at Consumers Korea, a civic group that, with the help of scientists, has been investigating the spread of the clinics and their marketing methods said parents should be more skeptical. “There is no clinical proof or other evidence that these treatments really work,” Ms. Yoon. “They use exaggerated and deceptive ads to lure parents. But Korean families often have only one child and want to do whatever they can for that child. “ Even some of the clinics express concern over the level of expectation parents can have.
Dr. Park Seung-man, the head of a growth clinic called Highki, said, “There is a gap between how tall children can grow and how tall their mothers want them to become.” Last month, the simmering discomfort over the new trend exploded after a college student put the new feeling into words on a television talk show. “Being tall means being competitive,” said a so-called “campus queen, ”Lee Do-kyong of Hongik University in Seoul . “I think short guys are losers.” She added: “President Sarkozy of France is constantly mocked for being shorter than first lady Carla Bruni. It seems universal that short men are made fun of.” Bloggers vilified her and lawmakers denounced the station, KBS-TV, for not editing out her comments. Some viewers filed lawsuits for defamation.
Ms. Lee was forced to apologize, and the government’s Communications Standards Commission ordered the station to reprimand the show’s producers for “violating human rights” and “stoking the ‘looks-are-everything’ phenomenon.” “She simply said what everyone thinks but doesn’t dare say in public,” said Dr. Kim Yang-soo, head of a growth clinic called Kiness. “Here, if you change your height, you can change your fate.” At Kiness, Kim Se-hyun, a fifth-grader, walked on a treadmill with her torso encased in a harness suspended from an overhead steel bar.
The contraption, the clinic maintains, will stretch her spine and let her exercise with less pressure on her legs. Nearby, sweat rolling off Lee Dong-hyun, 13, as he pedaled a recumbent bicycle while reading a comic book. Behind him, his sister, Chae-won, the shortest girl in her first-grade class, stretched to touch her toes on a blue yoga mat, squealing as an instructor pushed down against her back. Two years ago, their mother, Yoon Ji-young, had tried something more radical. She gave Dong-hyun growth hormone shots six days a week, at a cost of $850 a month.
She stopped after eight months, fearing side effects. Now she drives her children to Kiness three times a week and monitors their exercise for two hours. .“Both my husband and I are short,” said Ms. Yoon, 31, who is about 5 feet tall. “I don’t want my children to blame us for being short when they grow up.” Chang Young-hee, 54 and 4-foot-10, was waiting for her son to finish a session at Kiness.
She said her children had already experienced height discrimination. Both her daughters are college graduates and have good jobs, but when they reached marrying age, matchmakers regarded their short stature as a defect. (Both eventually did marry.) “It felt like a blow to the head,” Ms. Chang said. “I learned a lesson. If you fall behind in your studies, you can catch up later. But if you miss the time to grow, you miss it forever.” So for four years, she has been taking her youngest child, Seo Dong-joon, to Kiness.
The boy, now 15, knows his goal. “If I’m tall, I’ll have an advantage selecting my future wife,” he said, holding an English vocabulary book, which he studies while exercising. “Short guys are teased at school.” South Koreans have been growing taller anyway, thanks to changes in diet. Over the past 30 years the average height of male high school seniors in South Korea has increased 3.5 inches, to 5-feet-8, according to government data. The average for their female counterparts grew 2 inches, to 5-feet-3. Doctors at the growth clinics say that most children simply aspire to the new average height, but with more tall teenagers, those who are not as tall seem even shorter .
“The gap between tall and short has become more pronounced,” said Dr. Park of Seojung, who recently opened 36 joint-venture growth clinics in China and says the quest to become taller is regionwide. If so, one country that has been left behind is North Korea. Food shortages there have left children stunted, according to the United Nations and private relief agencies Dr. Park cited the case of a 16-year-old who fled North Korea last July to join his mother, who had arrived in the South three years earlier.
The boy was 5 feet tall, almost 4 inches below the South Korean average. “His height wasn’t unusual for the North,” Dr. Park said. “But when his mother saw him again, she cried because the boy hadn’t grown at all and because she knew the disadvantages he’d face here.” “My dream is to open growth clinics in North Korea,” Dr. Park said, “so that, once we unify, children from both sides will be able to stand shoulder to shoulder, not with one side a head taller than the other.”