You may have heard of the recent hubbub surrounding the release of a new children’s book that is intended to help the offspring of those who have had plastic surgery cope with the surgery’s transformative effect on their parents. Written by a plastic surgeon, My Beautiful Mommy represents an interesting first in the plastic surgery world–it introduces the process to children.
Which got me wondering–how long until parents subject their children to plastic surgery? We already know that many parents subject their embryos to genetic screening in order that they might avoid having to parent a disabled child (see Dr. Al Mohler for more on this). We also know that many parents subject their children to relentless pressure to fit in and exceed throughout their young lives. See Alexandra Robbins’s recent The Overachievers for some background on this phenomenon. In addition, modern America is obsessed with physical beauty. Alex Kucynzki’s Beauty Junkies makes just this point. One wonders, then, when these cultural trends will coalesce into a perfect storm and form an impetus for parents to pay for plastic surgery to correct the imperfect features of their children? How far away can such destructively narcissistic practices be?
The line to be crossed here is the direct exhortation of parents to their children to have plastic surgery for supposed defections. Currently, plastic surgery forms a popular and expensive graduation gift for teenage girls in wealthy areas of America. Yet we not our language carefully here–this surgery is not an order but a gift. The comments made by one mother in a story two years old about plastic surgery among teens confirmed my worst fears–parents are increasingly encouraging and exhorting their children to undergo plastic surgery. See this:
Take the case of Katie Underdown of Georgia. Last year, the 17-year-old had a nose job and a chin implant by the same surgeon who did multiple surgeries on her mother, Jan, and several of her mom’s friends. Although the teen had a deviated septum, a medical condition that makes it harder to breath, she initially balked at surgery. Her mother urged her on, though.
“I told her, ‘It doesn’t bother you right now but it may later. Let’s just get it fixed.’ I had a great surgeon, I was able to pay for it and nurse her back,” explains Jan Underdown. “Katie had a recessed chin like me and I said, ‘Put the chin implant in.’ She did it. It turned out great. I think of it like her braces. You fix what you know is an issue and then you go on and live your life.”
Did you catch the verbal nuance here? “Let’s just get it fixed.” That’s what Jan Underdown said to her daughter, a seventeen year-old girl. One can understand surgery for a nasal condition, but the mother in the case also urged her to daughter to get a “chin implant,” whatever that is. I’m guessing that we’re going to see many more such cases of parental pressure on topics like this. I live in an incredibly posh town in Illinois, and I constantly see middle-aged women attempting to look like teenagers, dressing in the same clothes, bleaching their hair the same color, adopting the same “haughty cool” attitude that one expects to find in teenagers. For these women, beauty is not merely a virtue, it’s an obsession. As many of these women turn to cosmetic surgery to keep up in the race to stay young as long as possible, how many of them will encourage their impressionable daughters to do the same? In a society that increasingly turns its back on things that really matter, on traditional principles and virtues, how hard will it really be for parents to push their bucktoothed daughter or large-nosed child to go under the knife in order to look “right”? I don’t have any statistics, and I haven’t seen any stories on this, but I would cautiously and nervously predict that it will not be long before narcissism, parental pressure, and the beauty culture collide and form a society in which regular children are pressured to be surgically transformed into something they are not.
Some might say that this is nothing new, that beauty has always been an issue for kids and that little will change in this regard. I would respond that this is true, but in our age, we have the means to change our appearances, an ability that prior generations did not. As plastic surgery becomes increasingly inexpensive, and as the culture continues to slide away from a biblical definition of life and of beauty, it only makes sense that parents would desire to correct and shape their children to be that which they believe to be truly important. Our media-saturated culture, after all, drives such an obsession with physical appearance. When your average person watches multiple hours of television and films each week, and takes in the appearance-frenzied environment that television puts forth (the medium is the message, in this case), this person cannot help but end up appearance-crazy. The result, I would predict, will be that those with money will increasingly turn to perfect not simply themselves but their children. Children do, after all, reflect their parents. Whatever their parents prize, then, children will come to look like in a most literal way.
If all this is true, what can Christians do in today’s appearance-obsessed culture? Christian parents can teach their children what really matters, and avoid forming a conception of identity in their children that centers around looks. Parents can consciously work against a culture that is obsessed with appearance by themselves avoiding vanity and concentration on physical beauty. Parents should, in my opinion, be very careful about complimenting their children based on beauty and in explicitly delineating amongst attractive and unattractive children. Beyond this, each Christian person in a decadent culture should consider what they can do on a personal level to resist sinful focus on their appearance. We can’t singlehandedly turn back the tide of our world, but we can all resist its influence and claim kingdom ground in the war against it. Most importantly, by exalting the gospel in our homes, our churches, and our daily lives, we can teach ourselves and those around us what truly matters and show a watching world that in Christ, we have found true beauty. It is not first and foremost physical attractiveness, but is self-sacrificial love such that the guilty go free and the sinfully ugly become pure. This is beauty. Even as those around us sacrifice their children on an altar of obsession, we can work to train them in believing the message that alone can liberate us, that alone can make us beautiful in the eyes of the only One who matters–God.