Late-night comedian Craig Ferguson once noted that society went off the skids when advertising executives began targeting young consumers in the 1950s. They did this, he explained, so that people would commit to products at a younger age and therefore spend more on a given brand over their lifetimes.
But then everyone got on board, celebrating youth rather than the wisdom and wit that come with age and experience. When it became fashionable and desirable to be young, people became frightened not to be so, he argued. "People started dying their hair, mutilating their faces and bodies in order to look young. But you can't be young forever! That's against the laws of the universe!"
Death is still inevitable, it turns out. But people are doing their best to fight against aging by getting nipped and tucked wherever they can.
I'm one of those people who frown on cosmetic surgery. Ever since I realized my friends were getting nose jobs for their 16th birthdays, I felt that body modification was somehow cheating. And when I see aging celebrities with lips that look like they belong on a duck, I actually cringe.
Hans Madueme, a medical doctor completing a Ph.D. in theological studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, outlined a number of ethical questions surrounding cosmetic surgery in a recent article for The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
He notes that, for many of us, cosmetic surgery elicits a reaction of repugnance. Ethicist Leon Kass talks about the "wisdom of repugnance," the idea that our revulsion indicates an intuitive understanding that something is morally awry. Indeed, Michael Jackson's and Joan Rivers's adventures under the knife seem like modern-day morality tales.
But is plastic surgery bad because it's unnatural? Shaving armpits and legs is unnatural, but you don't hear a lot of popular sentiment about how Americans are going against nature and nature's God when women buy razors.
Some might argue that most of our grooming (such as dying one's hair or tweezing unwanted facial hair) is a temporary aesthetic fix, whereas cosmetic surgery permanently alters what God gave us. But the duration of change is hardly the best ethical barometer. Besides, we don't seem to have problems with knee replacement surgery or the permanent removal of teeth.
Is the real difference, as I've long thought, one of treatment versus enhancement? A woman getting cosmetic surgery following the removal of a cancerous breast is okay, but one expanding her bustline without medical necessity is suspect.
"If only things were so easy," says Madueme. "The world is bursting with ethical and moral complexity," he says, noting that perfume and makeup are also enhancements.
A pastor friend of mine once told me, "The Lutheran answer to every question is, 'Why do you want to know?'" A question about the morality of abortion will be handled differently based on whether the person asking is a post-abortive woman seeking forgiveness, a pregnant woman facing a crisis pregnancy and considering abortion, or a curious youth who's simply seeking instruction.
The answer doesn't change, but the way we address the issue does.
Likewise, perhaps the best way to approach questions about the morality of cosmetic surgery is to pinpoint why we're pondering the issue. A woman who thinks her marriage will improve if she improves her bustline certainly needs help—but probably not the kind of help that a scalpel provides. But what about the man who recently lost hundreds of pounds and has the saggy skin to prove it? Is he morally justified in getting a skin tuck? What about someone who has a birthmark that, while harmless, is tremendously distracting to others?
Just because the issue is morally complex doesn't mean there aren't answers. It does mean, however, that there are limits to what we can say with certainty. But understanding the reason someone seeks cosmetic surgery helps us understand whether it's moral or not.
And there's another part of this, going back to Ferguson's rant. Yes, our nip-and-tuck culture is about beauty and covetousness. But it's also about our frail and failing bodies, and even more about discontent. We yearn for more meaning and fulfillment and think we might be able to get it if we can just improve this one part of our failing bodies.
Culturally speaking, we do worship our bodies rather than God. And while some cosmetic surgery is a beautiful gift from God, some of it is also symptomatic of our larger cultural rot.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Collin Hansen also wrote on plastic surgery for "Theology in the News," and Christine Scheller wrote about it for Her.meneutics.
Previous columns by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway include:
Segregated in a Whole New Way | A church family from the same generation isn't much of a family. (January 28, 2010)
Sin: The Rest of the Story | What the snark-infested news media just don't seem to understand. (October 26, 2009)
White Flag in the Mommy Wars | The theology that many parents are missing. (September 28, 2009)
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