I'd never thought much about plastic surgery until 28 years ago, when my then 2-year-old son bit through an extension cord and burnt his mouth. Even though we had no insurance, my husband and I found a plastic surgeon who restored symmetry and proportion to our son's features. To have left our child's face distorted would have been unthinkable, and Christian friends supported our decision as parents.
Twenty years later, when I considered restoring symmetry and proportion to my body after a 70-pound weight loss, I received the opposite response among Christian friends; many questioned my motives and some my spiritual integrity. Cosmetic surgery was a pursuit of the vain and shallow, they told me, even though I desired the same restoration for myself that I had wanted for my son.
A seminary grad, I began investigating cosmetic surgery through a biblical lens, particularly a theology of beauty and the implications of cosmetic surgery in a postmodern, consumer-driven culture. I wrestled with my motives: What did I really believe I'd achieve through such surgery? Was the story I was telling myself about who I was and would be if I had surgery consistent with God's story for me? And what about stewardship? My husband was a Christian school administrator. Could we justify the expenditure?
In many ways, I saw myself as an unlikely candidate for cosmetic surgery—different from "other vain" women I envisioned. I was a Christian school teacher who didn't know another soul who'd had a cosmetic procedure. (If they had, they didn't talk about it until I came looking for them.) But I discovered on my journey that I was very much like thousands of other women—Christian and non-Christian—who seek cosmetic surgery. I wanted restoration. I wanted healing from emotional pain. I wanted to be average—not a beauty queen, just a woman beautiful for my husband, even though he already declared me beautiful.
My investigation into cosmetic surgery led me to discussions with Dr. Stephen Beals, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and one of Arizona's top plastic surgeons. Beals is a Christian who practices craniofacial and cosmetic surgery in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic. I've had the honor of working with him on a forthcoming book on the topic of faith, beauty, and cosmetic surgery. Our discussions gave me the courage to complete a consultation with a cosmetic surgeon he recommended. An inheritance offered me the financial means to pay for surgery without impacting our family finances. But in the end, my fragile neurological history disqualified me. I grieved the loss for months, but came to see the answer as God's closed door. And my neurologist's unequivocal "no" gave me the opportunity to divert funds to a friend in need and sparked a new interest in children born with craniofacial deformities.
As part of my research on cosmetic surgery, I interviewed dozens of Christian women who have had procedures ranging from breast augmentations to breast reductions to face lifts to tummy tucks. They represent a wide range of backgrounds: authors, ministry leaders, Christian school teachers, professionals, and stay-at-home moms. Almost everyone I spoke to was reluctant to discuss the procedure with friends or family due to a fear of judgment within the Christian community. The vast majority sought their procedures from a desire to look "normal." Yet each was acutely aware of the bias among Christians against cosmetic surgery and chose to avoid the scrutiny of people quick to assign motives to their actions without knowing the truth about their stories.
Cosmetic surgery is a tool. The question, of course, is how we use it. The church has remained relatively silent on the issue and has not proactively equipped believers to make biblical choices regarding cosmetic surgery. As Edward Farley states in Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic, " … beauty's function depends upon being part of a 'master narrative' that society takes for granted." As a Christian, I must recognize that beauty as an end unto itself is valueless, because all beauty is rooted in God and has a moral context.
Decisions for or against cosmetic surgery are ultimately theological decisions. All beauty originates in God (Ps. 27:4). Beauty is important to God and reflects spiritual significance, as evidenced in the rainbow (Gen. 9:13), creation, and the God-ordained design of the Tabernacle and priestly robes (Ex. 25-28). As image-bearers, our beauty is secure and fixed in the loving, eternal gaze of our heavenly Father (Eph. 1:3-4). Yet our bodies are important to God; Jesus died to redeem both our bodies and souls (Rom. 8:23).
Yet that which delights the eye may be unbeautiful because our concepts of beauty can be derived from faulty human perception (Gen. 3:6-7). Our inward and outward beauty is to bear witness to God's character as we fulfill roles of stewards (Rom. 1:20).
Can Christian women pursue cosmetic surgery to the glory of God? Jonathan Edwards offers a valuable insight that can help us evaluate motives and goals not only for cosmetic surgery, but for all areas of our personal conduct, including our judgment of others in areas where Christian liberty is granted: "Beauty is achieved when the thing created most closely and most perfectly glorifies its Creator."
Shelly Beach is a national speaker and author of The Silent Seduction of Self-Talk (Moody), Ambushed by Grace (Discovery House), as well as a Christy Award-winning novelist and writer for Zondervan's NIV Stewardship Study Bible. She can be reached at ShellyBeachOnline.com. Mollie Hemingway also wrote on cosmetic surgery for Christianity Today.