The Cosmetic Surgery Debate: The Call to Worldview

The March issue of Christianity Today included an article by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway entitled “Is Cosmetic Surgery Immoral? Even more importantly: Why do you want to know?” As a woman and mother whose son underwent reconstructive cosmetic surgery, who’s read close to a hundred books on the topic of beauty ranging from feminist Naomi Wolf to ultra conservative Christians, and as a seminary graduate who investigated the topic from a worldview perspective in her own pursuit of a cosmetic procedure, and as someone who’s interviewed dozens of Christian women about their cosmetic surgery experiences, I was disappointed at Ms. Hemingway’s obvious bias and ambivalence on the subject. She simultaneously claims that she’s “. . . one of those people who frown [sic] on cosmetic surgery” yet she states that “some cosmetic surgery is a beautiful gift from God.”

I would suppose that in the case of my family circumstances, Ms. Hemingway would have classified my son’s surgery as one of the “beautiful gifts from God.” At the age of twenty months, my son Nate decided to snack on an extension cord and fried one-half of his mouth, lips, and cheek structure. While his mouth was still functional, my husband Dan and I felt it was important to restore beauty to our son’s face and the symmetry and proportion God had given him. We were applauded as “good” parents. No one questioned our decision.

However, a number of years later, when I lost close to seventy-five pounds after having given birth to that Herculean-sized son and his similarly sized sister and I expressed the desire to restore symmetry and proportion to a body that resembled a Charpei dog, I received not only frowns, but condemning words from Christians. I did not have a secret desire to wear a bikini. I did not want to resemble anyone in Hollywood. I did not want to make myself over in anyone else’s image.

I longed for restoration. And, amazingly enough, as an image-bearer of my Heavenly Father, I was created that way. We are drawn to beauty. We are restorers. We are healers. We inherently long to restore beauty where sin and disease and the ravages of the world break down and destroy. But we also struggle with sin natures that distort our ability to fulfill our identities and worship God with the fullness of who we were created to be.  Sin tells us to live life with us at the center, that we can fulfill our every desire apart from God. The obsession for beauty we see in today’s culture coupled with the availability of cosmetic surgery has produced a consumer-driven marketplace where availability of choice equals morality in choice.

We are the first generation to live in a culture with the capability of sculpting our bodies and recreating our physical appearances. As the church, we must be teaching women and men how to make decisions based on a biblical worldview. As I evaluated my choices for cosmetic surgery, I had to weigh a number of key factors:

     Motive and goal: What was I trying to accomplish with my surgery? What “story ending” was I trying to achieve in my life? Was I using cosmetic   surgery as a means of dealing with covetousness or as a means of addressing restoration?

   Stewardship:  As the wife of a Christian school superintendent, I had to consider the significant cost of cosmetic surgery in light of other financial issues in our lives. What it wise use of our money? Was it a safe choice for me as a patient? In my case, I was anticipating an inheritance that would have paid for my surgery without influencing our family income. But health factors also made it untenable for me to proceed with my tummy tuck.  My neurologist declared the procedure unsafe for me, and a difficult decision was taken out of my hands. To be honest, I grieved the loss deeply. My husband Dan and I had prayed about this and studied it from a biblical perspective for a long time, but God ultimately took the decision from our hands. And interestingly, at the same time he offered me the opportunity to divert the funds to a ministry need.

In my investigation of cosmetic surgery, it’s been my privilege to interview Christian Mayo Clinic cosmetic surgeons, as well as dozens of Christian women who have undergone procedures ranging from face lifts to breast augmentations. One truth rises to the surface in every situation: behind every procedure is a person whose story is worth listening to. I would remind Ms. Hemingway that when she so quickly frowns on cosmetic surgery, she also frowns on those who have chosen the procedures, many for motive she would never be aware of. Like the thousands of women who lose breast size when they nurse their babies and desire to be restored to their normal, God-given proportion. Or parents hoping to alleviate the emotional distress of their child’s life by opting for life-changing restorative cosmetic procedures.

Cosmetic surgery does have a place. The church needs to be teaching worldview principles and address the elephant in the room. To pass quick judgment on those who make choices different from our own, to quote Ms. Hemingway,  is “also symptomatic of our larger cultural rot.”

2 thoughts on “The Cosmetic Surgery Debate: The Call to Worldview

  1. Wonderful thoughts, Shelly. I read your guest blog post on her.menuetics, and decided to check out your website. Glad I did.

    I’ve longed to have cosmetic surgery myself, but have always felt as though I was being “vain” to even consider it. At this point, I don’t know if my desire is from vanity or from a desire to be restored (and find shirts/dresses that aren’t too baggy in certain areas).

    I was reminded of a story a friend told me. She works for a plastic surgeon, and said they had a patient come in for breast augmentation who was, in her words, “flat as a boy.” The surgeon gave her a nice, natural, feminine curve to her breasts. I think this is a case of a desire to have her femininity restored. I imagine it made shirt shopping a bit easier, too.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. You’ve made me think about the subject in a different way.

  2. Our longing for beauty is God-given. If we look at Scripture and see the perfection we were created for and the restoration that Jesus brings to all things through His death–even the restoration of our bodies, we can see that our longing for beauty is a spiritual reality that we are born with that points us to God Himself. But it is our stewardship of that longing that is the question. The answer is not in physical beauty, but what we believe the restoration will achieve for us.

    I am a victim of sexual abuse, and my cosmetic surgery was carried an aspect of reclaimiing and renaming. It was most definitely tied to a desire for physical restoration, but while beauty was the issue, vanity was not. And the totality of the process had to be “beautiful”–my act of stewardship, my honoring of my husband in the process, the manner in which I would regard my body in the future if I had the surgery.

    In the end, when my neurologist informed me I wasn’t a surgical candidate because of my neurological history, I grieved the fact that I couldn’t move ahead, but I saw the “closed door” as God’s choice for me. But I do deeply understand the longings of parents and women for what can be God glorifying choices in pursuing cosmetic surgery.

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