Several years ago I encouraged my friend Hans Madume—a physician, theologian, and bioethicist—to provide me a justification for condemning cosmetic surgery. We would often discuss the differences between therapy and enhancement and since the latter triggered my “yuck” reflex—and because I’m an advocate of Leon Kass-style “wisdom of repugnance” theorizing—I figured a knock-down case could be made against it (at least by someone as smart as Hans).
To my dismay, he always refused to provide an easy answer, choosing instead to push me toward the realization that the issue might not be as clear-cut as I assumed. Why, for example, did I presume to find fault with a woman getting Botox injections in her forehead yet think it was acceptable to pluck the hairs from my own face that threatened to create a caterpillar-like unibrow? I didn’t know the answer then; I don’t know how to answer now.
Eventually Hans wore me down and forced me to recognize that there was alternative way of relating to the issue rather than simple condemnation. As he explains,
There is another dimension to all this, however, drawing from virtue ethics in the Christian tradition. In short, ‘nip & tuck’ culture can serve as an old-fashioned moral parable. Cosmetic surgery is a relatively new technology, one that allows us to gratify old desires in new, more effective ways. The moral narrative here is certainly about beauty and covetousness, vanity and denial. But it is perhaps broader and deeper than that. It is about men and women, about us. You and I are frail creatures, wearied by the relentless punishments of life, dissatisfied with our lot, restless and often inconsolable, searching after something beyond us. There is an insatiable longing in our hearts, a yearning for meaning, for transcendence, for fulfillment. What are we after? What do we want? What are we willing to do to get it? Like the practiced fingers of a surgeon, these questions peel away our polished masks, revealing our true selves, our real identities. From wearing makeup to choosing friends, from buying a house to considering liposuction, life in its ordinariness, life in its spiritually charged imperfections and sufferings, reveals the kinds of people we are and are becoming. Botox culture vividly reminds us, if we are listening, that we are men and women with longings, loves, and lords.