Christians and Plastic Surgery
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 5 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Body Wars.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
In January, the Ovation Network premiered Rachel’s Tour of Beauty for U.S. audiences. Rachel Hunter, an actress and supermodel who hails from New Zealand, and who at one time was married to Rod Stewart, is the mother of two children, Renee and Liam. In the show, Hunter (who self-financed it) travels the world to learn “the secrets of lasting beauty, great health, and extraordinary long life.” From the street markets of China (where she tries snow fungus, a mushroom drink full of collagen that is imbibed for its anti-aging properties) to investigating different options for cosmetic plastic surgery in South Korea (which has the highest plastic surgery rate in the world), Hunter searches for answers to a universal human question: “How can I be beautiful?”
The premise of the show is fascinating; the cataloguing of different cultural practices from a sociological perspective alone makes it worth watching. But Hunter isn’t merely after a beautiful facade. It’s one thing to watch a beautiful woman eat pulverized millipedes that are said to help with back pain. It’s a completely different thing to watch her interact with the people in these exotic locations, people who are so different from her, and still see their humanity.If cosmetic plastic surgery is morally neutral, and if it is feasible that God would not just permit, but even lead one of His children to have it done, then how do I respond?
“After going on this journey and seeing other cultures, away went that superficial idea of beauty,” Hunter said in an interview with FOX411. “There is nothing more beautiful than seeing someone smile.”
As an actress and model, Hunter says she has felt the pressure to have cosmetic work done, possibly to her neck and to her chin. In the same interview with FOX411, she said, “I was very much considering plastic surgery, and then I had an amazing opportunity to go on this journey which really changed my view on the whole idea of it. That moment of beauty when a woman actually feels beautiful—it’s the synchronicity between internal and external that have to have this amazing harmony moment.”
On the Facebook group dedicated to the show, this picture of Hunter is posted, along with a quote from the doctor with whom Hunter consulted in the South Korea episode. Dr. Park said, “Plastic surgery is surgery which improves self-esteem and self respect.” Proclaiming it a controversial topic, the page’s moderator then asks what fans think about plastic surgery. The responses are a mixed bag. Many of the commenters said something to the effect of “You are beautiful inside and out; you do not need plastic surgery.” But others had different thoughts on it:
“If I could have plastic surgery I would The cost stops me; its a personal choice and we shouldn’t judge at all.”
“Aging is part of life. Leave the course of nature as it is intended to be.”
“I would do it in a flash if I could afford it and don’t think there’s anything wrong with a wee ‘refresh’ but everyone to their own and all that! If it makes you happy then why not…”
“I work in a Nursing Home and there are some beautiful women in there in their 80s & 90s who have aged naturally. There’s something beautiful about that. It’s their character that shines through, laugh lines. Grief, joy.”
Rachel Hunter says her journey around the world has convinced her that she doesn’t need to have plastic surgery. But the pressure to be “the most beautiful me possible” is a well-known reality in American culture. The increasing popularity and decreasing cost of cosmetic plastic surgery bring a question to the forefront for Christians to consider: How should I respond to plastic surgery?
My wrestling with this issue began several years ago when I learned that popular Bible teacher Joyce Meyer had gone under the knife. I had heard of her books. I knew Christians who respected her. I knew she ministered mostly to women, and I had struggled for a long time to be content with my body. To hear that someone I respected—even if I didn’t know much about her—had plastic surgery felt like a betrayal. “How can she help women love God and themselves better,” I thought, “when she isn’t happy with how God made her?”
Is Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Sinful?
I have to admit, for a long time I considered the act of having cosmetic plastic surgery to be sinful. Mind you—if someone had experienced an injury or had a condition that rendered parts of their body scarred or deformed, it was absolutely valid to have reconstructive plastic surgery. But voluntary cosmetic plastic surgery? It was for people (mostly women) who didn’t believe that “God doesn’t make mistakes,” for those who failed to try hard enough to believe that they were “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Plastic surgeons were complicit in their sin, cooperating with the sinful desire of people who wanted to change how God had made them.
I didn’t confront these assumptions until recently, when someone in the CaPC Member’s Only Facebook Group surveyed us about arguments for and against Christians getting tattoos. Even though I had grown up in a fundamental Bible church, the Christians around me were very pro-biker, and so we had tattooed people who worshiped as regular members of our congregation. We were a tattoo-positive church for the most part. Also, the respected Bible teacher at my high school showed our class why the common anti-tattoo verse of Leviticus 19:28 wasn’t actually referring to tattoos. With this background, I grew up considering tattoos to be morally neutral—get one if you want, or don’t. But once you have one, it’s hard to get rid of.
If tattoos, which can be worn for personal expression or to draw attention to the body, can be morally neutral, it begs the question—can cosmetic plastic surgery be morally neutral as well?
All Things to All (Wo)Men
I interviewed New Testament theologian Jennifer Bashaw to get her thoughts on the morality of cosmetic plastic surgery. Although she is not a proponent of plastic surgery in most cases, Bashaw suggested that we frame the conversation about plastic surgery (or tattoos or wearing makeup) with this question: “Is what I am about to do going to help me be more like Christ? Am I doing this to be selfless and to be more like Jesus, or will doing this make me more obsessed with my physical appearance?” And when the issue is framed like this, the idea that God could lead one person to get plastic surgery and lead another person away from it has to be entertained. Bashaw said that it’s worth noting Paul’s differing approaches to ministry with Timothy and Titus. Timothy is half Jewish and half Greek. Paul wants to circumcise him (a cosmetic plastic surgery of sorts) because of the Jews they would encounter and to whom they would minister on their journey (Acts 16:1-5, ESV). Titus is fully Greek, and Paul does not have him circumcised because their target demographic is Gentile and therefore uncircumcised (Galatians 2:1-10, ESV).
Is it not feasible that God in His wisdom could use the process of cosmetic plastic surgery to bring people closer to Himself? Yes, it is. Paul speaks of becoming “all things to all men” in order to reach them with the gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, ESV). So, if cosmetic plastic surgery is morally neutral, and if it is feasible that God would not just permit, but even lead one of His children to have it done, then how do I respond? How do I frame the conversation (both with myself and with others) around this question: Is this pushing me to be more like Jesus? First, judgment of physical appearance has to stop. Second, I must recognize that cosmetic plastic surgery is a luxury. Third, I need to acknowledge that my body tells a story.
Stop Judging People’s Appearance
To rightly love myself and the people I encounter with a Jesus-centered love, I have to surrender my perceived right to judge both myself and others. The pressure to look young and thin is more real than ever, and the standard of beauty expressed in American culture is nearly impossible to achieve without going under the knife or devoting significant amounts of time and energy to personal change. I have to recognize the tension such pressure creates in me—a tension between photo-edited standards of beauty and the body that I currently inhabit. I need to drop the judgment of self that threatens both a God-ordained self-love and the way I view others around me. I have to embrace the truth of beauty as a whole, of which the physical aspect is merely a component (along with mental, emotional, creative, spiritual beauties). If I am prayerfully considering cosmetic surgery for myself, first I need to stop condemning myself and others for failing to achieve some external standard of beauty.
Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Is a Luxury
The ability to afford cosmetic surgery must be honestly examined. It is attractive to consider that through plastic surgery, I could rid myself of wrinkles, reshape my nose or chest, or eliminate my mother’s apron. I must recognize that if I can afford such a procedure, my life has a certain level of luxury unavailable to many others. The reality is that Christians in my own nation and many more of my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world would never be able to afford the time or money for such a procedure. This is not an effort to make anyone feel guilty for having extra funds to spend on plastic surgery. But if I am prayerfully considering the option of plastic surgery, and I see it as a need rather than a luxury, what does that say about my perception of the kingdom of God?
Joyce Meyer justified her own cosmetic surgery this way in her interview with ABC’s Nightline: “I want to look my best for God.” But when looking one’s best for God demands expensive procedures, it favors the wealthy over the poor, which is something that we are admonished against in scripture (James 2:1–13, ESV). Jesus says in Luke 4 that He has come to preach the gospel to the poor. The kingdom of God is for everyone—the poor and the rich, the fat and the thin, the weak and the strong. If I do not recognize that my access to plastic surgery is a luxury, I run the risk of marginalizing or condemning my brothers and sisters who can’t afford it, creating and possibly promoting a class distinction within God’s kingdom.
Therefore, even while I can acknowledge that God could lead me to get plastic surgery, it is not necessary in order to live an abundant life in Christ, even if it is morally permissible.
Our Bodies Tell Our Story
Therefore, if cosmetic plastic surgery is morally neutral and is indeed a luxury available to a relatively small number of Christians, we need to have open and honest conversations about it in our Christian communities. In our culture, and even in our churches, we celebrate stories of remaking ourselves, of putting in the amount of work necessary to effect personal change. But we must be careful that the message of our churches does not simply mirror the culture around us—that being our best selves means being thin and beautiful. (I have written about that here—are our churches proclaiming the year of our best body or the year of the favor of the Lord?)
Christians cannot get around this truth: Our bodies tell our story. This is evidenced nowhere more strongly than it is in the scars of Jesus our Savior. The marks on His resurrected body identify Him, explain Him. When the apostle Thomas is left out of experiencing the risen Jesus, he doubts the truth of his friends’ story about seeing Jesus alive, proclaiming, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, Thomas and the others are in a locked room when Jesus enters miraculously. “Peace to you!” He says to them all. And to Thomas, He holds out His marked hands. “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answers, “My Lord and my God!” (from John 20:24-29, ESV).
The cross—the ineffable expression of our Father’s love for us—leaves tangible reminders on the resurrected body of Jesus. The body of our beloved Savior tells the story of where He has been, of what He has experienced for our sake, that we may be united with Him in love and friendship. When I look at my body in the mirror, I see much that American culture tells me I need to work on. By BMI standards, I am extremely obese. By Lane Bryant standards, I am a size 22. By a plastic surgeon’s standards, I am in need of a tummy tuck to eliminate the panniculus I have, this flap of extra skin caused by three pregnancies and the same number of C-sections.
But what story does my body tell? My face shows laugh lines and bags under my eyes because my children make me laugh a lot and limit the amount of sleep I get on the weekends. I carry the stretch marks and extra weight of a girl learning how to love herself while dealing with anxiety and depression in holy ways. I bear extra skin over my C-section scars because I’ve borne three children who fill my life with more delight than I ever knew was possible. In all these wrinkles, stretch marks, and scars, my body tells my story. I am trying to stop judging myself for the story my body is telling, learning to love my body instead and to celebrate the good things it can do and has done. And maybe one day, I will have the luxury of extra income. Maybe I will prayerfully decide to get that tummy tuck. And I will want to be open about it, because it is morally neutral to have cosmetic plastic surgery. And the plastic surgery will become part of my story, the story that my body is telling each person that I encounter.
A Story of Grace
I want the story that my whole self tells to be a story of grace. It brings me back to Rachel Hunter and her Tour of Beauty, to the truth she discovered on her journey, through the smiles of those she encountered: “Beauty lies within the eyes and so does the soul of the person.” Her words remind me of the words of Jesus when He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22, NASB). In a society that pressures its inhabitants to look young and to be ever more physically beautiful, I fix my eyes on Jesus, asking Him to make my eyes clear, clear to see others (and especially myself) the way that He does. As He answers that prayer, I can let go of judgment. I can be content with the means that I have. And I can embrace this body I inhabit and the story it tells about where I’ve been and how loved I am.
Our culture breeds us to judge ourselves and others by our physical appearances, but that is not what we are called to as Christians. When we stop judging by physical appearance, it may change the conversation on whether cosmetic plastic surgery is as desirable as it is for our secular counterparts. If it is true that cosmetic surgery is morally neutral, we must acknowledge that it is a luxury that could cause division between wealthy and poor believers. I hope that more of us can have the “harmony moment” that Rachel Hunter speaks of, when we know our inner beauty and outer beauty without the intervention of a doctor’s scalpel or injection. May we approach the topic with prayer, seeking wisdom and counsel. And let us embrace our bodies and the stories they tell about us, like Jesus before us.
Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.
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