Plastic Surgery: "a burqa made of flesh"?

Plastic surgery:  yea or nay?  In truth, I don’t think about plastic surgery so much, but I’ve been thinking about it a little more this week, because in class on Friday we’re talking about anthropology, which includes conversation about bodies and sexuality.  So that was all in the back of my mind when I read this article in The New York Times:  Catholics Reflect on Plastic Surgery.  It discusses a part of the following paper, written by a group of women for the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture: Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.  Specifically, the article talks about the part of the paper that discusses plastic surgery.  [And, just as an aside & fair warning, the document also uses outdated language & imagery that focuses on antiquated essentialist understandings of women & their wombs.  So, the document itself is not unproblematic–read it and see.]

But regarding the issue of plastic surgery, the paper is critical, even endorsing the phrase, “Plastic surgery is like a burqa made of flesh.”  In this way, it stands with other official statements from Islam and Judaism, which also criticize unnecessary plastic surgery–even as they recognize that for some women, perceived flaws in their appearance are so damaging to the psyche that to correct them is not theologically problematic.  For me, I don’t have an all-or-nothing stance on plastic surgery; what I do believe is that it is a topic of theological reflection, and I’m happy to see any faith community wrestling with it.  Important issues are at stake here:  the goodness of bodies, the value of individuality and diversity, the possibilities of new technologies, the place of the individual in the larger society, and, of course, the various manifestations of sin.  

I want to preserve the freedom of women and women’s control over their own bodies, but I also know that in a society where women’s self-image still is dominated by the male gaze, and standards of beauty are derived from men’s pleasure, it often is impossible to sort out what women want for themselves, and what they want to please men.  Is plastic surgery a tool of liberation or bondage?  Like most things, it’s both, I suspect.  In any case, it’s never purely a “personal” decision; that is, it’s not unrelated to our relationship with others, and our relationship to God.  The fullness of who we are matters to God, and we relate to others [and to God] in and through our bodies; plastic surgery affects those relationships, so let’s think more critically [and more theologically] about it.

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