Ever since we were driven out of Eden, human beings have been modifying their bodies. Nose rings, makeup, and tattoos were all present during biblical times, but modern technology allows us to pursue much more extensive alterations. Today, more than ever, we face the question: How far should we go in our pursuit of beauty?
In their 2014 report, The American Society of Plastic Surgeons lists more than fifteen million procedures performed, a 3% increase from the previous year. These include minimally invasive procedures such as Botox injections and more extensive surgeries such as nose jobs and calf implants. “The demand for plastic surgery continues to grow as medical advancements are made and technology improves resulting in a wider array of options for patients,” says, Scott Glasberg, president of the society. While the vast majority of procedures are performed on females, it’s not just the women who are going under the knife: “Male plastic surgery rates have significantly increased since 2000 and the notion that cosmetic procedures are just for women no longer exists,” Plastic surgery is here to stay, and consequently we must learn to wisely engage this new reality.
In discussing the morality of plastic surgery, we must navigate a minefield of complexity. Often vanity is not the primary consideration. Some get surgery to mend an irregular condition (such as fixing a cleft palate or lightening a port wine stain). Others have reconstructive surgery after an accident or illness (such as cancer.) It is widely believed that plastic surgery in these cases is morally acceptable and even encouraged. Medical treatment is appropriate when a problem is present. But in many cases, there is nothing “wrong” with the part of the body being altered – the aim of surgery is purely cosmetic. How should we feel about elective procedures intended to enhance or supplement beauty?
Many would see a moral difference between surgery to normalize and surgery to enhance. But, as Madueme points out, “The distinction between treatment and enhancement, it turns out, is not always clearcut. There are countless things we do every day that are ‘enhancements,’ and yet we typically do not consider them morally objectionable.” Yes indeed; how do we maintain a distinction between plastic surgery and other ways of enhancing our appearance? What about putting on makeup, dying hair, wearing tight clothing, or straightening teeth through the use of braces? Is a tummy tuck really all that different? Easy answers evade us when it comes to this complex issue.
While some Christians may think that cosmetic surgery is an “outside the church” issue, this simply isn’t true. In fact, within conservative religious communities there are unique pressures to physically improve oneself. Take for instance the Mormons. Though men outnumber women in Utah, there are far more religiously observant Mormon women than men in the state. For every two faithful Mormon men there are three similarly minded women. This has led to a situation where “Mormon men have become much more demanding about women’s looks, which in turn has made women obsessed with standing out from the competition. One consequence: A culture of plastic surgery has taken root among Mormon women.” There is also a shortage of marry-able men in evangelical circles. Just ask the single women at your local church. Since this number imbalance also exists within orthodox Christianity, so does the pressure to make oneself stand out.
Many people have expressed concerns about the rise of cosmetic surgery. For example:
- “The practice of cosmetic surgery may be criticized on the grounds that it is fueled by vanity and narcissistic fixation on bodily appearance.
- It reinforces intense concern with body image and culturally prescribed standards of beauty…
- It contributes to a youth culture that disdains and stigmatizes aging and the elderly.
- Cosmetic surgery upholds culturally specific standards of beauty—Caucasian, AngloSaxon, or Northern European—that stigmatize the appearance of ethnic groups that deviate from this standard.
- …it promotes inequality between those who have and those who lack the resources to purchase the marketplace advantages of enhanced appearance via cosmetic surgery”
Others have questioned the way in which cosmetic surgery alters the doctor/patient relationship (it makes the doctor a salesman for medically unnecessary treatment), and about the questionable nature of advertising for such services (promising unrealistic results and playing on insecurities)
Large numbers of celebrities partake in such procedures, and some even defend their decisions publically. Kelly Osbourne (daughter of aging rocker Ozzie) has spoken out in favor of plastic surgery performed “for the right reasons”. Other public figures, such as Kate Winslett, have sworn off all such alterations. “It goes against my morals, the way that my parents brought me up and what I consider to be natural beauty,” says the (40) year-old star of Titanic. “I will never give in.” Such a statement may seem questionable coming from someone who did pretty well in the genetic lottery. “That’s easy for you to say”, we might think. But this does show that long after plastic surgery has become commonplace, still, not everyone is on board.
Principled feminists also speak out against cosmetic surgery. They maintain a belief that women should be allowed to alter their bodies in whatever manner they choose, but they express concern about why women want to look a particular way. As one writer suggests:
“…if today you claim that your boob job and nose job and botox and chin job have made you “happy”, what you mean is, you are temporarily satisfied with your ability to fulfill a misogynist projection of an attractive, desired, worthwhile woman. I don’t challenge the notion that some women feel their quality of life has been improved by surgery; rather I’m concerned that, as women, our quality of life varies based on our looks.”
While all the above concerns have legitimacy, Christianity has a unique and necessary contribution to make with this modern ethical dilemma. The Bible diagnoses two core issues that contribute to the cosmetic surgery phenomenon “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23) and “man looks on the outward appearance”. (1 Sam 16:7) Scripture also provides helpful principles which can help us navigate the increasingly complex world of cosmetic surgery.
We are Made by God for Him
The book of Genesis begins by giving an account of God’s creative work. When God speaks, the sun rises, planets spin, and animals walk the earth. But when it comes to the creation of human beings the account gets much more personal. God doesn’t just speak, he forms Adam from the dust of the ground and breathes into him the breath of life (Gen 2:7). Not only does God create mankind with a personal touch, but he also leaves a unique impression human beings. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) People bear God’s image in a way that no other part of creation does. This truth alone should motivate Christians to treat every other human being with great respect.
But there is also another, less frequently remembered implication of God’s creation: The created have a responsibility to their Creator. Since we owe our very existence to God, we must seek his guidance for our lives. And not only have Christians been made by God, but they have also been rescued from sin by Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 the Apostle Paul reminds says; “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (NIV) The implication that God owns us is not a comfortable one, but it is true. We should not enhance our body just because we can. We should seek to use our bodies in ways that honor God because we belong to him. We should ask: Is this surgery an appropriate way to honor God with my body?
We are Called to Love Equally
As we have already noted, Scripture acknowledges that human beings regularly make determinations based “on the outward appearance”. We are a visual people. This does not, however, mean that Christians are allowed to demean others based on how they look. Believers in Christ are called to resist the instinct to judge others by sight. Assuredly, we do not always do this well. In fact, long ago James wrote to Christians who had problems showing favoritism based on appearance.
“Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:2-4 NIV)
While the issue here seems to have been apparel, people are just as likely to treat others differently based on perceived attractiveness. Attractive people experience social benefits that the less attractive do not. This will always be true, but within the church things should be different. This doesn’t mean that Christians should marry someone they don’t find attractive, but it does mean that in regular social interaction we should not show favoritism based on someone’s physical form.
It is wickedly ironic that our culture pushes women to conform to unrealistic ideals, but after they do conform by having a procedure, we respond with disdain, objectification, and even mockery. Somehow we feel justified when talking about the surgically altered in dehumanizing ways. Pushing people to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty and mocking them for doing so are both wrong. We should publicly speak about the moral implications of plastic surgery, but we should also aim to treat every human with respect, regardless of how much “work” they have had done.
We Have Peculiar Priorities
In a world that places great importance on physical appearance, Christians are called to think about our looks differently. In writing to a young pastor, the Apostle Paul offers the following counsel. While these words are directed at women, men are certainly not exempt:
“Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” (1 Tim 2:9-10)
I don’t believe Paul is trying to ban particular fashion statements or encourage Christian women to “let themselves go”. But there is a clear contrast in this passage. We should seek to adorn ourselves with good works and godliness instead of focusing on gold and garments. Looking good isn’t bad, but doing good is better. The time and money we spend enhancing our appearance should pale in comparison to our costly pursuit of holiness.
Cosmetic surgery is a modern way of permanently “adorning” ourselves, and we need to ask if this practice is consistent with the standard of modestly presented here. Our modern motto is “if you got it, flaunt it!”, and with cosmetic surgery we now have the option to “get it” if we don’t already have it. But this attitude is anti-Christian. An attractive person will always be noticed, but our looks shouldn’t be the primary way we advertise ourselves. In such a visual culture, Christian priorities can only seem peculiar.
Our Best Body Comes Later
Most of us have, at some point, experienced shame in connection with our bodies, and many of us just can’t escape the feeling that something is wrong with us. The problems we see in ourselves vary, as does our awareness of these problems, but most of us occasionally feel deficient. I want to carefully say that there is a sense in which these insecurities about our bodies reflect reality. There is something wrong with us. Our bodies are not what they should be.
Earlier we recounted the Genesis narrative where God made man in his image, forming him from the dust of the ground. Sadly our story takes a dark turn in Genesis chapter three. Adam and Eve choose to disobey God and reject his authority over them. As a consequence of their behavior, sin and death entered the world, corrupting God’s good creation. Then, for the first time, Adam and Eve sought to hide their naked bodies because they felt shame. As their descendants, our bodies contain the corruption they obtained. Our current body is a messed up body. It is imperfect, it ages, and it will eventually pass away.
But Scripture offers hope for those of us who live in such bodies. We hear of this hope in First Corinthians fifteen. In this chapter Paul writes to encourage the Christians in Corinth that their hope is not in vain. Though he died, Jesus was raised from the dead, and because of Jesus they could also experience resurrection. In verses 42-44 we read:
“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (NIV)
We don’t get our best body now, but God has a resurrection body prepared for those who know him. This new body won’t be deformed, and it won’t degenerate. It will never need to be nipped or tucked. All the shame we feel about our current bodies will be gone forever. Those who have trusted in Christ will be “raised imperishable” This hope belongs to every Christian.
We must keep this profound truth in our minds as we consider the question of cosmetic surgery. Whatever adjustments we do make to our current bodies will be short lived. Ultimately these bodies will die and rot. But when God resurrects our rotten flesh he will infuse it with a beauty and perfection that will never pass away. Even the most aesthetically appealing earthly bodies will seem dull when compared to our renewed heavenly bodies.
I recognize this message, that our current bodies are disordered, may not be helpful or encouraging for everyone. Body image is an intensely personal and complicated reality. This is not the primary truth I would communicate to someone who is dealing with an eating disorder, for instance. We must remember that even thought they are corrupted by sin, our bodies are tremendously valuable because God made us. As Christians we must seek to banish inappropriate shame about our current bodies while also remembering that our ultimate hope is a renewed body – not this one.
After considering these principles many specific questions remain unaddressed. At what point does a physical difference become a deformity? What about surgery for those who are mocked because of their appearance? At what point does psychological distress about one’s body become a medical issue? Is surgery undertaken voluntarily to “bless” a spouse morally different than surgery carried out for the sake of finding one? These are all questions worth asking, but they won’t be answered here.
Sharing principles, as I have done, has its limits. Those who made it this far in hope of a clear yes or no answer will no doubt leave unsatisfied. But if you are a Christian, I hope this piece has encouraged you to think more deeply about why someone might consider such surgery and given you new ways to evaluate these decisions.
My purpose in writing this is not to heap shame in those who have had cosmetic surgery or even to dissuade all those who are considering such procedures. There is no verse in the Bible which specifically condemns cosmetic surgery. I tend to believe that the moral problem with such procedures usually lies in the why instead of the what.
Ultimately, I pray we can cultivate an environment in our churches where we remember our Maker, resist showing favoritism, maintain the right priorities, and long for eternity. In such a community I doubt that cosmetic surgery would be a significant concern.