"Beauty often wins love. It just does," write Karen Lee-Thorp and Cynthia Hicks in Why Beauty Matters. No wonder women and, increasingly, men are willing to endure the pain and risk of elective cosmetic surgery to attain it. New York Times reporter Alex Kaczynski states it bluntly in her cosmetic surgery expose, Beauty Junkies. "In the end it all comes down to sex …. We are looking for love. And we will accept lust."
Few admit this with the aplomb of Cena Rasmussen, a former model who readily confesses that her cosmetic surgery addiction was fueled by the bliss of turning heads. By her own admission, Rasmussen has spent years looking in the mirror. Aesthetic surgery was a biannual ritual that continued for two decades. There were rhinoplasties, breast surgeries, lifts—eyes, face, neck—and non-surgical procedures as well.
Although she had medical complications along the way, her regimen ended with a hyalauronic acid peel in 1999 that burned the skin on her face so badly, it left her looking like a "freak of nature," she says. Since then, Rasmussen has had nothing but $4,000 worth of laser treatments to reduce the scarring. Still, she remains undaunted and is planning another facelift—her third, or is it the fourth? She can't recall.
Rasmussen may represent an extreme in the use of cosmetic surgery, but the trend saw no signs of slowing until the economic crisis. In 2006, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported that Americans spent just under $12.2 billion on 11.5 million surgical and non-surgical procedures. That's a 446 percent increase from 1997. Surgical procedures increased by 98 percent, and nonsurgical procedures by 747 percent. Liposuction, breast augmentation, eyelid surgery, abdominoplasty (tummy tuck), and breast reduction were the top surgical procedures that year, while Botox injections, hyalauronic acid, laser hair removal, microderm-abrasion (skin peel), and laser skin resurfacing were the most popular non-surgical techniques.
So is it a sin to get a nip and tuck? It depends on whom you ask.
Lilian Calles Barger, author of Eve's Revenge, says the choice to have cosmetic surgery is not a free one. "If you tell me, 'my mother had cosmetic surgery. She's a very independent woman. She really loves God and she wants to do this, and this is her choice,' I say, 'This is not a free choice. This choice is under duress.'
"The body is not just a hunk of meat," Barger insists. "The Bible talks about how we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God. The question is, what are we offering our bodies up to when we do that?" She concludes that we're offering them up to "false beauty and to cultural norms that we should be challenging," but adds, "so that is where you can be compassionate, because you can understand that sin is not the sinner by themselves. It is collaborative, communal, reinforced. We support each other in this."
Barger's claim was born out in interviews I conducted with several cosmetic surgery patients, all of whom made their decisions within the context of relationships both personal and professional.
"I don't think [cosmetic surgery] is a spiritual issue in any way," says Rasmussen. "I personally believe that when we die, we're going to have a glorified body that's not going to be physical in any way. So what does the Lord care what we do to our skin?" Rasmussen explains that she both saved for her procedures and tithed faithfully throughout the exercise of her habit.
A middle-aged patient who asked not to be named has had eyelid surgery, a chin implant, a mini-facelift, and Botox. She says that as she struggled with the idea of tampering with the body God gave her, she sensed him saying, "My beloved, you're beautiful. You don't need to do this." She doesn't believe, however, that tuning out the voice of God was sin. What matters, according to this patient, is "where your heart is."
Cissy Brady-Rogers is a therapist who has had a mastectomy, but no reconstruction after breast cancer years ago. She says that our culture "sets women up to feel shame about our bodies." Body shame originates at home where children are not taught what to do with developing bodies and sexual impulses. It is then reinforced in school and through the larger culture. This coincides with what she calls "disembodiment," the phenomenon by which a subject looks into the mirror and sees that he or she does not measure up to cultural ideals and then comes to view their body as an object in need of repair.
Brady-Rogers holds a Master of Divinity along with her counseling credentials. She says patient/consumers are trying to figure out how to save themselves, just like the Galatians were, and, in the process, are biting and devouring one another by increasing the social pressure on all of us to conform to false ideals. "There is always going to be some law, some culturally offered avenue to save ourselves, to make ourselves okay, to fix what's not working," she says. What Paul said is that it's not going to work. Christ is the only one who can save us. "We are free to have plastic surgery. There is not a biblical law that says, 'Thou shalt not have plastic surgery or drive a BMW,' but what Scripture says is: do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love serve one another."
For a woman contemplating aesthetic surgery, she advises, "I would like her to have a group of soul sisters who could support one another in becoming who they are in Christ, and support her in a process of discernment about that decision, not as a solo journey. That may be part of the problem; too many women are making these decisions in isolation from other women."