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MINISTRY & MEDICAL ETHICS

Reshaping Beauty: The Ethics of Aesthetic Enhancements

Does society place too much value on how a person looks instead of valuing his or her character?

In today’s competitive workplace, more men are undergoing cosmetic surgeries in an effort to appear healthy and youthful. The demand for aesthetic enhancements for both men and women has grown tremendously in the last two decades.

For example, between 1992 and 2005, annual U.S. cosmetic surgery volume increased by 725 percent.1 Cosmetic surgery, once primarily used by those in the entertainment industry, is now widely available on a fee-for-service basis. In the future, advances in gene therapy could make it possible for individuals to enhance their appearance, or the appearance of their offspring, by altering their DNA.2

The availability of elective surgery to alter the appearance of a healthy individual raises ethical questions. Does society place too much value on how a person looks instead of valuing his or her character? Are cultural standards of beauty unrealistic? Should people expose themselves to the risks of surgery when there is no health benefit? What should be the basis for self-worth?

Some pastors may find themselves counseling individuals considering surgery for aesthetic reasons. However, all pastors can benefit from understanding the ethical concerns that drive decisions about aesthetic enhancement, because the underlying issues of defining beauty and enhancing self-worth affect many individuals, even if they do not seek to alter themselves through cosmetic surgery.

Defining Beauty

For the purposes of this discussion, beauty encompasses the term handsome, reflecting a desired physical appearance. Plastic surgery to restore appearance after an accident or illness is not included in this ethical analysis of aesthetic enhancements. With the term defined and the scope of discussion narrowed, what constitutes beauty?

Studies dating back to Pythagoras in ancient Greece have shown that humans associate beauty with symmetry. We perceive certain geometric proportions of facial features as aesthetically pleasing. For example, the plastic surgeon Dr. Stephen Marquardt calculated that people considered beautiful have mouths 1.618 times wider than their noses.3 Thus, we can reshape beauty through surgery, following a mathematical formula.

People often judge a person’s competence and personality based on appearance. Therefore, improving one’s appearance can increase a person’s success socially and financially.4 While outward appearance may not be the best or most appropriate predictor of character and performance, if society rewards outward beauty, the demand for aesthetic enhancements will increase.

A biblical view of beauty includes the warning from Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

A similar lesson for men is delivered in 1 Samuel 16:7: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ ”

God did not choose the future king of Israel based on appearance, but based on his heart. A Christian must not neglect caring for his or her inner beauty and spiritual health to conform to worldly standards of beauty. Pastors who emphasize the importance of character development provide a balance to the societal focus on outward appearance.

Considering Safety

All surgeries, including cosmetic procedures, carry risks, such as complications related to anesthesia, possible infection at the incision site, fluid buildup under the skin, bleeding, scarring, and nerve damage. The choice of a board-certified plastic surgeon reduces, but does not eliminate, risks.

Bariatric surgery for weight loss, which includes procedures such as gastric band placement and gastric bypass surgery, carries risks, but also delivers health benefits, such as recovery from diabetes and reduction in the likelihood of cardiovascular disease.5 While bariatric surgery provides aesthetic enhancement in the form of a thinner and more youthful physical appearance, the medical benefits of the procedure offset the risks.

A Christian seeking an aesthetic enhancement must consider how protecting his or her health is part of honoring God in his or her body. The Bible teaches that we are God’s possessions, sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13,14). The benefits of any aesthetic enhancement must justify the safety risks.

Finding Self-Worth

The beautiful Italian actress Sophia Loren once said, “Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes.”

Loren recognized the importance of self-worth in feeling beautiful. For the Christian, self-worth comes from being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26,27). God makes each person as a masterpiece of creation. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and full of purpose (Psalm 139:13–16).

First John 3:1 proclaims: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”

Our worth comes from our eternal connection to God and His everlasting love for us. In contrast, self-worth based on external beauty is fleeting.

In society, everyone can benefit from public education that emphasizes health and the beauty and uniqueness of diverse body shapes. This approach can help people become more satisfied with their own bodies, decreasing the demand for aesthetic enhancements.

While aesthetic enhancements may be appropriate in certain situations, an individual considering such procedures should weigh carefully the risks involved and whether these enhancements represent a good investment of his or her financial resources.

The potential aesthetic enhancement patient also might want to consider the best response to the societal pressure to appear young and healthy and conform to certain ideals of physical appearance. Should a person resist this pressure or acquiesce? What message is a person sending to others, particularly the younger generation, when choosing aesthetic enhancement? Is the choice empowering, or does it reinforce unrealistic standards for beauty? Will the choice truly enhance self-worth or simply become an expression of personal dissatisfaction?

These questions can help a person make a God-honoring and ethical decision regarding any potential aesthetic enhancement. A pastor can come alongside individuals navigating these decisions, making sure they do not overlook important areas of concern. Such discussions may turn from seeking physical changes to embracing the spiritual changes that bring much more lasting satisfaction.

Christina M.H. Powell

CHRISTINA M. H. POWELL, an ordained minister, author, medical writer, research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University, and the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard Ph.D. Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014).She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at www.questioningyourdoubts.com.

NOTES

1. T.S. Liu and T.A. Miller, “Economic Analysis of the Future Growth of the Cosmetic Surgery Procedures,” Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (2008): 121 (6): 404e–12e 10.1097/PRS.0b013e318170818d.

2. S. Goering, “The Ethics of Making the Body Beautiful: What Cosmetic Genetics Can Learn from Cosmetic Surgery,” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly (2001): 21(1): 21–27.

3. B. Maddox, “The Math Behind Beauty: A Plastic Surgeon Computes the Perfect Face,” Discover (June 2007).

4. C. Feng, “Looking Good: The Psychology and Biology of Beauty,” Journal of Young Investigators 6 (December 2002).

5. M.K. Robinson, “Surgical Treatment of Obesity — Weighing the Facts,” New England Journal of Medicine (2009): 361(5): 520–21.

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