Culture Watch — Cosmetic Surgery and the Customized Self

Culture Watch — Cosmetic Surgery and the Customized Self

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
September 14, 2005

Cosmetic surgery is becoming a rite of passage for many women — a way to reinvent the self by the skill of a surgeon’s knife. This is a major cultural shift, as cosmetic surgery is transformed from an eccentricity of the rich into a new normal for mass culture.

In United States, Europe, and some Asian nations, cosmetic surgery has become big business, with patients able to choose between computer simulations of new looks, complete with new body shapes, new features, and new faces.

This transformation of cosmetic surgery reflects the culture’s expanding demand for control — even for control over our physical features. A society increasingly focused on physical appearance and artificial notions of beauty will now subject its women to surgery, just in order to meet the subjective and unrealistic demands of the eyes (and of the fashion industry). Airbrushed and “aesthetically enhanced” beauties smile from magazine covers, creating an expectation of physical attractiveness that defies nature and renders the human body as a plastic instrument for self-expression.

In Great Britain, a majority of women now report that they expect to undergo cosmetic surgery during their lifetimes. After investigating the vast expansion of demand for cosmetic surgery, The Guardian [London] reported:

Whatever the precise magnitude of the explosion, its impact on us has been overwhelming. A practice widely regarded not a decade ago as physically risky, morally doubtful, prohibitively expensive and socially embarrassing has been rebranded as something so innocuous and sensible as to be mundane. A survey this summer for Grazia magazine found that more than half of women now expect to have surgery. A quarter of teenage boys polled in May thought they might too, while more than 40% of teenage girls said they had considered it. Zoo magazine is currently running a competition for readers, in which the winner wins a breast augmentation for his girlfriend.

It’s like a big game we play, isn’t it?” the editor of Grazia told me. “What would you have done if you won the lottery? It’s the thirtysomething equivalent of the game you’d play at school, about who you would snog. We see beauty products and surgery as basically the same now.”

Acquitted of all its old political and psychological significance, cosmetic surgery has joined a humdrum spectrum of consumer lifestyle choice, alongside fashion and home furnishings. Radical transformations on this scale seldom, however, occur by accident. Who or what was responsible for changing our minds? And why were we so willing to be persuaded?

During last spring’s graduation season, various media reported that increasing numbers teenage girls are requesting — and getting — cosmetic surgery as a graduation gift. In this trend, teenage girls are asking for breast enhancement surgery in order to make themselves more sexually attractive. Such a request should serve to awaken parents to the out-of-control nature of media influence and the unrealistic and unnatural expectations of young men — largely fueled by exposure to pornography and sexually-suggestive advertising and entertainment.

According to one report, Last year, 3,841 women 18 or younger underwent breast augmentation, a 24-percent jump from 3,095 in 2002, which represents a 19-percent increase from 2,596 in 2001, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Only 978 girls had the procedure in 1992. (Women between 19 and 34 account for a large segment of those getting implants; 114,005 last year.)

More: With television shows like “The Swan” showcasing plastic surgery, more teens view breast augmentation as a commonplace procedure. A 17-year-old who saw Dr. Edward Melmed before graduation “thought it would be a fun thing to do,” said the Dallas plastic surgeon, who removes implants and testified before the Food and Drug Administration’s advisory panel in October. “They regard it as having your hair done or getting a new watch. She had no concept that this was a serious operation.”

But for many teens, appearance trumps caution. “Our biggest concern with adolescents is that they may not necessarily appreciate the relative permanence of the changes,” said Dr. David Sarwer, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Center for Human Appearance in Philadelphia. He has gathered anecdotes about “suburbs of big cities where cosmetic surgery is a relatively common Sweet 16 or high school graduation gift.”

Why would parents buy into this kind of logic? It’s clear that teenagers can’t afford such surgical procedures on their own. The fact that some parents would give cosmetic surgery as a graduation gift indicates that too many adults are complicit in the cultural conspiracy to redefine human beings — especially women — in terms of unrealistic and unnatural standards of attractiveness.

Surely Christians would resist this trend? We must hope that this is so. This phenomenon objectifies women, accommodates distorted and sinful cultural standards, and creates a two-class structure, ranked by ability to buy physical features and attractiveness. Compare this remarkable rise in demand for cosmetic surgery with the portrait of the ideal wife as found in Proverbs 31:30-31:

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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