I wrote this over a week ago, but I didn’t post thinking Renee Zellweger’s new face would turn out to be a hoax. I couldn’t ignore it as a compelling writing prompt, especially considering my focus these days on exploring a scriptural, foundational understanding of beauty.
And so, before I grapple with beauty’s origins, I post about cosmetic surgery.
I put up this picture on my Facebook profile on October 21, the day after Renee made her big reveal, a new face. I put it up to prompt discussion, but I was also worried because I thought people might perceive me as an agitator, leading the march against plastic surgery. I wouldn’t go so far.
Renee’s new face disappointed me. That is me admitting my visceral reaction. Both Renees are physically gorgeous, but in my mind, one of them isn’t Renee. Instantly, I miss her endearing squint. I didn’t even know I would and now it’s gone forever. But, like, who am I to Renee? And suffering children are dying in this world.
Except I think this issue is important because, in fact, children are actually dying over the issue of body image and beauty. There’s an alarmingly high percentage of girls suffering from eating disorders alone. This is a statistic that won’t stop climbing. Someone make it stop climbing. At the pinnacle of their youth and vitality, our girls are destroying themselves.
So, yes, Renee’s new face is as important a topic of conversation as ebola. Because it makes us ask important questions about beauty and our worth, where we find it and what can we do about it.
On the face of it (pun intended), it seems as though Renee simply modified the body parts she was dissatisfied with. Renee, without speaking, tells us that surgical modification is a solution. This becomes the message that we contend with. Renee’s public reveal pushes plastic surgery into the realm of the norm. What, if anything, is balancing that message?
I have been doing a lot of reading about cosmetic surgery and its history. Dr. Gasparo Tagliacozzi was a reknown Italian surgeon and pioneer of plastic and reconstructive surgery in the 1500s. His greatest achievement was in the area of rhinoplasty, rebuilding noses by using bicep tissue. In his writings, Dr. Tagliacozzi professed that the job of the plastic surgeon was “to restore, repair and make whole those parts of the face which nature has given but which fortune has taken away, not so much that they might delight the eye but that they may buoy up the spirits and help the mind of the afflicted.”
Modern cosmetic surgery developed in earnest during WWI when soldiers suffered from gruesome facial wounds as the result of “bigger and better” weaponry, which, if it didn’t kill, would mutilate. Reconstructive surgery was often a necessary part of recovery. While someone might be able to function and survive with a portion of their face missing or deformed, besides the distress of the injury, there would be the additional devastation of having become repulsive.
In the book Beauty Junkies (read this book!), author Alex Kuzynski writes, “plastic surgery began with the notion that social acceptance and the ability to belong to a community were inextricably related to looking like, not better than, other people.” Which is to say, a deformed or misshapen appearance is an obstacle to relationship.
Side note: There are benevolent people who train themselves against the notion and purposely reach out to those who are physically grotesque (never mind that those are often some of the most inwardly beautiful people). As a further example, there are those, who I can only say are governed by evil, who deliberately disfigure people’s faces as punishment. They prey on the idea that it not just a physical scar, it’s an emotional one too.
This is the nobility of plastic surgery – it is an agent of well-being for those who suffer.
Then the idea of suffering started to morph. At first, plastic surgery was about reconstruction, then it became about augmentation and enhancement. Initially, it was about attending to the physical reparations of victims of war or cruelty or nature and its practice was essentially medical. Eventually, the inferiority complex became the plastic surgeon’s foremost client and surgery the psychological prescription.
I spoke with a family friend who is a cosmetic surgeon. He has many interesting ideas about beauty and we’ve only just started the conversation about it. He talked about the women he helps. (Easily 90% of his patients are women, which is a statistic that needs unpacking.) There are women who are paralyzed by their perceived flaws. They are immobilized by worry and concern about it. But with a simple surgical procedure, he told me, they can be freed from this burden and carry on a normal, productive life. Just like that.
It seems like such a gift. Yet, at the same time, I wondered, how could anyone be so self-consumed as to be paralyzed by a perceived flaw. It seems so… wrong.
“Consider this,” he told me, “that those who are quick to speak out against cosmetic surgery have probably never needed it themselves.”
I did consider it. It’s a point worth considering. I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere near perfect, which is a nebulous ideal, and from time to time I have unhappy thoughts about a few parts of my body. But that hasn’t stopped me from building friendships or getting work or being intimate with my husband. Others can’t say the same and so, for them, surgery becomes a compelling solution to their desperation.
I read one article entitled, Leave Renee’s face alone, the thesis for which is that “there is a very real reason why the actress would want a whole new face: we were all incredibly mean to her old one.” There are only two things I find wrong about that, which is to say I find it completely wrong. Firstly, Renee hasn’t given any reasons… her response to the hoopla about the extreme makeover is ambiguous. “I’m glad folks think I look different! I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.” Perhaps it shows indeed.
While we may take her surgery as an admission of dissatisfaction with her features, she has not said it’s because of the bullies. And, secondly, if that were so, if the unkind word of bullies made her do it, then I won’t leave her face alone because it becomes the mascot for the power of bullies. Because Renee’s altered face would then be saying the the bullies were right all along to mock and belittle and she agreed with them.
The other day my daughter was teased about her thin body by an ignorant boy. If she listened to him or others like him, who have no knowledge of her incredible inner beauty, who have no care for her natural elegance and grace, who don’t know her creativity and shining personality – not separate from her appearance, but tied into it – who are only concerned about their personal lusts and desires. If she changed herself because of that, then the world should be disappointed.
And this is where I struggle. Because if you had a concern about your appearance and you go to a plastic surgeon for a consult and also asked me for advice, we would, most likely, present you with two different answers. The surgeon would say that there is a simple fix, but from time to time you may need to tweak that fix, but otherwise, your problems are solved. And I would say that with some time (perhaps years) spent learning and immersing yourself in truth about the unique beauty God made you to be and the worth he places on you, and the redeeming power he will bring to your existing body, as it stands, flaws and all, you will find lasting healing. And I have no proof, just suspicion, that the two choices may be steps down separate paths. One choice is to place your hope in the temporal, and the other, in the eternal.
If I were Renee’s friend (and after watching Bridget Jones’ Diary, I really thought we were!), if she asked me whether she should go for this procedure, the lift of the lids, the “flaws” she sees (and we enjoy) at 100x magnification, in HD, and all the rest of it, I would say, never, never do it. I would say it because there are people who love her the way she is – and not in a conciliatory way. True friends really love all those physical bits and pieces that are somehow linked to our soul and who we know each other to be. Turns out fans love those bits and pieces too. I would tell her to speak truth to herself in order to silence the voices of the evil one’s accomplices who speak out of lust, envy, or fear.
And then, if she went through with it anyway, I’d like to think I’d support her recovery and bring her a meal. (Or, more realistically, order in.) The varied consequences, both good and bad, of this choice to alter her appearance, are hers to bear and can be heavy… I truly hope she has good friends to help carry her through it.
If, in fact, this doesn’t heal her emotional pain or make all the insecurities disappear, I hope she would be open to another solution, a harder road to travel, but one that leads to eternal healing.
Therefore, do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day… (2 Corinthians 4:16)