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Religion & beauty

Article-Religion & beauty

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  • "Is cosmetic surgery a sin?"

In a recent newspaper article published in The Virginian-Pilot by Betsy Wright Rhodes entitled, "Beauty May be Only Skin Deep, But It Lifts the Spirit," she poses the question, "Is cosmetic surgery a sin?"

A faith-based author, she appropriately makes the distinction between reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. She notes that enormous amounts of money have been spent by consumers on elective medical procedures to rejuvenate themselves as physicians and corporations hail their wares as "fountains of youth," only to be greatly popularized by varying media outlets available today. But for all the hype and supposed glamour, is it too far of a stretch to understand that some changes on the outside may make a world of difference in how these individuals view themselves and interact with those around them? Does it help them to love thyself and thy neighbor?

INNER AND OUTER BEAUTY The intersection of religious beliefs and the ethics of cosmetic surgery is a busy crossroad. Be prepared to stop, look and listen if you journey down this road, for viewpoints become as varied as the people discussing them. Ethically speaking, are physicians who perform cosmetic surgery doing so to heal? Do patients have the right to "self-mutilation" by asking physicians to inflict wounds merely to enhance their own beauty? Is cosmetic surgery a vile alteration of God, who created each person in His image, exactly as they should be?

The writings of Judeo-Christian law on the subject of cosmetic surgery also ask similar questions: What are the implications of changing or "improving" God's work, as people are created b'tzelem Elokim (in the image of God)? What are the risks to life? Does this represent a form of Chavalah (wounding) or mutilation of one's body? Are people allowed to express vanity?

Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits discussed these issues in 1961 at a symposium for the American Society of Facial Plastic Surgery. He concluded among other things that vanity should be forbidden unless certain requirements were met. The "vices" of cosmetic surgery could be set aside if:

  • The surgery was performed to correct not only a traumatic deformity, but also to correct abnormalities as viewed by the patient that resulted in severe psychological problems.
  • The surgical procedure would rectify or maintain a blissful marriage, or even lead to marriage.
  • The surgery enabled a person to contribute responsibly to society or earn a living.
  • The surgery did not contribute to the person's death or worsening state of health.

An example given is that a person is allowed to remove a scab from the body to alleviate pain, but not for beautification. In response to this, a theological scholar (author unknown) replied that "if the only pain...a man...suffers is that he is embarrassed to walk among people, and then it is permissible, because there is no greater pain than this."

THE HEART'S BEAUTY Christianity also guides its followers to avoid vanity and not draw attention to oneself. The New Testament advises to consult with God about one's concerns and that "...through...the word of God, we have the ability to make decisions..." While there are no clear directions written in the Bible concerning cosmetic surgery, there are several references to rewarding the beauty within the heart and as well, the beauty of one's physical features and the desires for adornment. The recalcitrant acceptance of reconstructive surgery (and in modern times of cosmetic surgery) by religious leaders has been slow, but its condemnation was swift. Following the publication by Italian surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi on creating a nose from an arm flap in 1597 (De Curtorum Chirurgia per insitionem), theologians and other authorities demonized his work and other similar surgical procedures resulting in centuries of dormancy for cosmetic and reconstructive surgery.1 Yet the disparity between religious beliefs and plastic surgery has been overcome by witnessing the beneficial effects of such procedures, and, as with many diverging views, the passage of time.

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