Considerations on Cosmetic Surgery

Last year, we talked about the sin of vanity, and it’s good if we expand on what we said at that time.  Vanity touches insecurities deep within us that take a long time to heal.

There is a wonderful article by Fr. Tad Pacholczyk about the morality of cosmetic surgery.  Has that ever crossed our minds, the possibility that we could change something about our appearance that we don’t like (this is elective surgery, not restorative, which fixes something that has been damaged)?  If so, it reveals a dissatisfaction with our appearance, which is what we’re focused on.  However, would it be right?  Fr. Tad (and the Church) doesn’t say when it’s a sin and when it’s justified, but gives certain moral considerations: surgery always involves medical risks (nerve damage, infections, fluid buildup, scarring) — are those risks justified?  It also seems to cross a line when we feel pressure to change our bodies by surgery to meet society’s ideal of the body.  In addition, is it possible that cosmetic surgery would lead us to become shallow?  Finally, if it gave us a boost in self-esteem (which is good), would it heal the wound in the human heart?  Eventually, we will become old anyway and lose our beauty—how would we feel then? 

Today, the Entrance Antiphon we sang was: “Of you my heart has spoken: Seek his face.  It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face from me.”  The key word here is ‘face,’ God’s face.  Deep down, the human heart desires the face of God, Whose beauty corresponds with His goodness, whereas, with us, we may have a physically beautiful person who’s rude.  So, when we see shallow beauty, God is actually drawing us to His face.

But then vanity focuses us back on our own face, maybe to the point of being self-centered and not as concerned as we should be for our neighbour.

Today’s antiphon was chosen by the Church, because, in the Gospel, Jesus’ face radiates like the sun.  The text says, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt 17:1b-2).  Whenever Jesus goes up a mountain, it’s so that we may come close to God and so that He may reveal something to us.

Through the Transfiguration, God reminds us that we’re made for beauty, to see it and possess it.  That’s why a part of us resists signs of aging when we lose our beauty.  So, why do we lose it?  He allows it to point us to a deeper beauty.

In the Transfiguration, from where does the light in Jesus’ face come?

“Transfiguration” by Carl H. Bloch

From within.  This is important, because, when Moses’ face shone, it came from the outside.  “As he came down from the mountain… Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Ex 34:29).  This is what can happen to us: When we spend time with God, our faces can radiate peace and joy.  And, thanks to the gift of Baptism, we can be like Jesus, where the beauty comes from within us.

Can I tell you an amusing story?  Over ten years ago, an elderly, zealous, and joyful priest shared with me that, when he was younger, it bothered him that he was losing his hair—I really admired his honesty.  That gave me courage, and so, when I next saw my spiritual director, I revealed, “Fr. Jim, I’m afraid to admit that it bothers me that I’m losing my hair.”  He said, “Well, does it bother you that I don’t have hair?”  I said, “Well, that’s you, Father, you’re not important.  We’re talking about me.”  Just kidding.  What helped was prayer, allowing Jesus to shine on us and through us, which allowed us to admit our insecurities and vanity.  And, over time, being in love with Him and contemplating His face diminished our insecurities and vanity.

In the Transfiguration, we also see that Jesus’ garments become white.  In Revelation, the saints in heaven wear white.  Do we remember how their garments become white?  “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14).  It’s through Jesus’ Passion, through sacrifice and love, that we become beautiful.  The most beautiful thing in the world is virtue.  (If you’re looking for a spouse, look for virtue.)

So, if we were to go ahead and get cosmetic surgery, would we become more beautiful?  We’d look better, but how deep would that beauty be?  Would we still be self-centered and vain?  And what kind of people would we attract?  People who are equally self-focused and vain?

A man who used to come to our parish, once made a very valid comment.  He said that, when he got his teeth straightened, it gave him more confidence.  That’s good!  And I hope there was no vanity in his motives when he got the dental work.  But did straightening his teeth heal his lack of self-confidence, or just hide it?  Will he again lack self-confidence as an older man, when he becomes more wrinkled, etc.?

While seeing Jesus in glory, St. Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mt 17:4).  The Jewish people believed that, in the end times, they would dwell with God in huts, so Peter’s comment reveals that he thinks: ‘This is it!  Now we’re in glory!’  But Jesus later has to teach him that we get to the end times through the Cross (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 308-315).

As we said last year, at the end of the world, when we all receive a new body, our bodies will be as beautiful as our souls.  The more loving we are, the more beautiful we will be.  Ironically, those who suffer from vanity and superficiality will look less beautiful.

I’m told many people reacted badly to Madonna’s extreme facial surgery at the 2023 Grammy Awards.  What can we learn from this?  After being so successful in the world, she’s still insecure deep down, and so she’s spiritually poor.  She has not lived a virtuous life and so her real wounds remain.

Aging gracefully is a gift of God.  By His grace, people who are wise accept what is beyond their control and are not bothered by their imperfections.  They take care of themselves and try to look their best, but don’t obsess over it, and they’re more focused on acting beautifully.  They’re at peace because, in light of eternity, these things aren’t that important.

As we said last year, it’s hard to know if we’re taking care of our appearance out of vanity or out of a healthy love of self.  Ven. Pope Pius XII spoke about ‘proper proportion’ when it comes to taking care of our bodies, and here are four criteria: 1) It does not lead to worship of the body; 2) It strengthens and energizes the body rather than drains it; 3) It provides refreshment for the spirit; 4) It does not lead to spiritual sloth or crudeness (See Kevin Vost, Fit for Eternal Life, xxi).  Applying these criteria is different for each person.  For example, eating.  We should all eat what we need for our bodies, and we all have different preferences, so we eat differently.  When it comes to looking beautiful, each person is different, but don’t worship your body.  Focus on your soul.

To that man who felt more confident with straightening his teeth, I’d like to say, “I’m thankful to God that it helped you.  Now that you don’t feel self-conscious about your smile, I hope you have more freedom to work on your soul; now that the psychological discomfort is gone, I hope you discover God’s love for you and that there are more important things in life.”

Furthermore, this goes for all of us who have had dental work, cosmetic surgery, etc.  Let’s heal our deepest wounds, and realize that we’re loved by God and others even though we have physical imperfections.

Once we experience this, then we’re set free!  We start taking better care of our appearance, not out of insecurity, but to honour Jesus, Who made us His Temple.

By the way, at the end of March, 2023 we’re going to have at our parish an exhibit of a replica of the Shroud of Turin, where we can contemplate an image of what most people believe to be Jesus’ face.

If we seek His face, then our vanity will slowly fade and His light will shine through us.

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