Beauty: To What Extreme?
As I watched the final tear-jerking moments of Extreme Makeover, I couldn’t help but feel envious. While the latest recipient of a plethora of cosmetic enhancement procedures walked into a room full of amazed family and friends, revealing her new “identity,” I sat on my sofa feeling fat, lumpy, and old.
Granted this woman had already won my heart with her life story of rejection, abuse, and poverty. She was a deserving candidate for an all-expenses-paid radical makeover if ever there was one. But as I watched her successfully undergo breast augmentation surgery, I was reminded of my own struggle to even “fill out” my bathing suit each year. As she revealed her sparkling new smile, I became more conscious of my medicine-stained teeth. And as this mother of six lost her belly with a simple incision, I bemoaned the crunches I would need to do before bedtime to stay in a matronly size ten.
I turned off the television and headed for the track to work off my fat the old-fashioned way. With pride oozing from my pores, I ran, contemplating the recent fascination with extreme makeovers. Quickly I decided that such radical measures to improve one’s appearance were pure vanity, and, therefore, strictly off limits for godly women such as myself. But things tend to change as I run. All too often God has gently changed my prideful heart as I have pounded the pavement. While I gloated over my conclusion that cosmetic surgeries, cosmetic dental procedures and treatments such as collagen injections were basically a combination of vanity and poor stewardship, I was reminded of a few points I had overlooked.
What about the $80 I had spent last month to have my hair highlighted? And the $25 I had spent on a pedicure? Or the $20 I had spent on over-the-counter teeth whiteners? I had spent large sums of money for purely cosmetic reasons without ever questioning the spiritual implications. Why was I now questioning the integrity and maturity of people who had simply done the same, albeit on a larger scale? As I finished my final lap I realized that I had been too quick to form an opinion about something I had not put adequate thought into, prayed over, or checked out in God’s Word.
The cultural trend
As with most reality-based television programs, Extreme Makeover does not actually reflect the reality of today’s culture. This ABC primetime show has enjoyed success because it offers an altered reality. However, according to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), the reality of the cosmetic makeover trend is that extreme is “out” and subtle is “in.” ASAPS’ November, 2003, survey of 1,000 American households revealed that 39 percent of women are dissatisfied with at least one facial or body feature and 25 percent of the women surveyed would consider cosmetic plastic surgery. Still, among those who would contemplate surgery, only 27 percent would favor an extreme change.[i]
While only one quarter of American women may choose to alter their appearance through surgery, an ever-rising number of women are deciding to have other types of cosmetic procedures done. According to ASAPS, approximately 5.28 million non-surgical procedures were performed in 2002. These purely cosmetic treatments include Botox and collagen injections, microdermabrasion, laser hair removal, and chemical peels.[ii] Women of all walks of life are suddenly in a position to contemplate more appearance-changing procedures than ever before. Today these procedures are widely available, tested and proven safe, financially attainable, and socially acceptable.
While most contemporary Christian women have no qualms about wearing cosmetics or acrylic nails, fewer of us have seriously contemplated such invasive procedures as augmentation mammaplasty (breast enlargement), abdominoplasty (tummy tuck) or rhytidectomy (facelift). Until recently, only movie stars and millionaires considered these surgeries.
But with the cultural trend of going to more extremes for appearances’ sake, it is normal to ask the simple question, “Is this okay?”
To accurately evaluate the issue of cosmetic enhancement, I must put all the cards on the table, side by side. When I honestly look at the issue, I come to the conclusion that while some procedures may be more costly, invasive, risky or drastic, ultimately they are all similar in nature: artificial and unnecessary. (I am only addressing surgeries and procedures done for primarily cosmetic reasons, not those done for medical reasons.)
I also have to admit that all cosmetic enhancements share these defining qualities, including acrylic nails, tanning lotions and teeth whiteners. The tint I put on my hair, the makeup I won’t do without, and the pedicure I get at the beginning of each summer are all artificial and unnecessary.
Then why do they seem more extreme?
In honesty I must admit that my inclination to deem some cosmetic procedures acceptable and others extreme really has an ugly root: envy. If I can’t afford the procedure or I am nervous about the surgery or my husband doesn’t want me to have the treatment, then I may arrogantly label what I can’t have as extreme.
Still, once I have put all of these cosmetic procedures on a level playing field, I need to make some decisions about their validity. Certainly opportunities for physical enhancement will only become more readily available and feasible. It is not unlikely that one of my friends, family members, or fellow church members could have what I might consider an “extreme makeover” in the near future. The conclusions I reach now about these enhancements will determine how I treat these people after they have had their teeth professionally whitened, their breasts enlarged, or their wrinkles erased. Will I talk behind their backs out of jealousy or will I be glad for them? Will I silently condemn them or rejoice with them? At the same time, perhaps I need to re-evaluate even the low-cost, non-invasive, cosmetic procedures I undergo on a regular basis.
The Biblical perspective
The subject of cosmetic enhancements is only vaguely mentioned in the Bible. Fortunately that absence of direct instruction does not leave us helpless. As with every other area of life, God has provided the necessary principles that will guide me through my personal decisions about cosmetically enhancing procedures—extreme or otherwise.
- Principle #1 – My body does not belong to me, but to God.
Any time we consider the body and how to treat it, we must begin with the fact that, as Christians, our bodies belong to God and are to be used only to bring him honor. Because my body no longer belongs to me, I need to treat it as if it were a precious item on loan from a friend. That means I will consult the Owner before I do anything to change it.
- Principle #2 – With my focus on pleasing God, I can make confident choices concerning my appearance.
With my self-esteem anchored in who I am in Christ, I can proceed forward in making wise choices about my appearance as well as other personal decisions. I can know that my efforts to beautify my face and body are not attempts to gain worth and value, but simply to be the best I can be.
- Principle #3 – God graciously allows me to make personal choices, but I am expected to make wise and godly decisions that distinguish me from the world.
The Bible teaches that as a recipient of God’s grace I can make personal decisions with a clean conscience. I need not fret over displeasing God if I happen to “mess up.” But in Titus 2:11-12, I am reminded that God’s grace is the very thing that teaches me to “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live [a] self-controlled, upright and godly [life] in this present age.” This principle leads me to see that while I have freedom in Christ, that freedom is never to be used in a way that will tarnish my Christian testimony. That is not to say I will have to decide against certain cosmetic procedures, but it does mean I must consider how some procedures may affect my relationships and my effectiveness as a witness.
- Principle #4 – My focus should be on my inner woman.
The Bible makes it clear that God is more interested in a beautiful heart than a beautiful head of curls. In 1 Samuel, David is anointed king rather than his tall, handsome brother because David has a heart for God. And in 1 Peter, women are reminded to put more effort into developing a gentle and quiet spirit than an outward beauty. Still, both of these passages go on to indicate there is nothing wrong with a lovely appearance or external grooming. David is said to have had “a fine appearance and handsome features” (1 Samuel 16:12) and Peter indicates that some outward adornment is the norm. The principle here is while outward adornment and beautification are fine, they should never become what drive me. If I spend more money, time, and effort developing my outward beauty than my inner woman, I need to rethink my priorities.
The bottom line
Now that I have identified envy as the root of my criticism of some of the cosmetic enhancement procedures I have often deemed as extreme, and now that I have searched the Bible for God’s authoritative word on the issue of outward beautification, I must admit that my opinion on the matter has changed somewhat. While I still am not planning to go under the knife myself, I no longer feel decisively superior to those who do. And my husband and I have talked a little more seriously about saving money so that I can have my teeth professionally whitened.
I know that my greatest source of beauty is a thriving and fruitful relationship with Christ. I know that a daily diet of his Word and the consistent exercise of prayer are what will ultimately enhance even my physical countenance the most. Still, I want to look and feel my best so that I can represent my Lord well. Therefore I am at peace with my personal decisions to tint my hair, wear cosmetics, and even indulge in the occasional pedicure. I also am at peace with the choices others make. I have learned that I cannot judge motives, nor can I arbitrarily decide what is extreme and what is acceptable.
The bottom line is I can’t make such personal decisions for someone else, but I can make confident, responsible, God-honoring decisions for myself. You can too.
If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, God has given you His Holy Spirit to help you live life according to His perfect plan, making Godly decisions on the way. Why not pray this simple prayer to tune into God and by faith invite Him to empower you with His Spirit:
Dear Father, I need You. I acknowledge that I have sinned against You by directing my own life. I thank You that You have forgiven my sins through Christ’s death on the cross for me. I now invite Christ to again take His place on the throne of my life. Fill me with the Holy Spirit as You commanded me to be filled, and as You promised in Your Word that You would do if I asked in faith. I pray this in the name of Jesus. As an expression of my faith, I thank You for directing my life and for filling me with the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, “When It Comes to Plastic Surgery, Extreme is ‘Out’, Subtle is ‘In,’” News Releases, 2003, <http://www.surgery.org/press/news-stats-22.asp>(January 8, 2004).
[ii] American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, “2002 ASAPS Statistics: Nearly 6.9 Million Cosmetic Procedures” News Releases, 2003, <http://www.surgery.org/press/news-stats-21.asp>(January 8, 2004).