As of writing this, nearly five of my friends have gotten some form of plastic surgery. While some were more reparative in nature, and others purely aesthetic, they were all completely optional and something that was chosen with the express intent of looking better, and feeling better about how they look. Though, in every case, I told them that I thought they were beautiful the way they are and didn’t need to change (and I truly did), their decision was (as it should be) entirely based on how they felt about themselves. They went ahead with the procedures, and are almost universally happy with the results.
When looking back, I remember how upset I felt personally about these procedures. Though the bodies were not my own, there was something that deeply saddened me about people whom I loved and thought beautiful the way they were feeling the need to invest large sums of money in potentially dangerous operations to drastically change their appearances. While the decision was entirely theirs to make — and encompassed whole hosts of emotion and backstory that I, an outsider to their life, could not comprehend — there was a part of me that felt personally implicated. And I wonder now how much of that was selfish, motivated more by the reflection it had on me and my desire for my friends to remain the same as they’d always been to me.
Because when someone — someone you love, someone you consider beautiful — alters the way they look, what does it say about your looks? What does it say about your desire to remain “natural,” to work with what God gave you, and to not bend to society’s whims of what is most aesthetically pleasing? There is often a somewhat selfish undertone in the discourse around plastic surgery, this idea that you are somehow morally superior because you have chosen to remain unchanged, when really the decisions of others about their looks should have no bearing on you. The real threat it poses is to those who remain unchanged, who live with crooked noses or flat chests or thin lips because they have wanted to remain “natural.” For everyone who undergoes these procedures and feels good and happy about it, it is a chink in the armor of those who want to pretend that it is somehow morally unsound to do so.
If we were all honest with ourselves, there is almost certainly something about our physical appearances we would change. Whether it be a few pounds lost, or a facial feature reshaped, or a curve enhanced, there is almost universally some improvement to be made. And no matter how much rhetoric we’re bombarded by which tells us to unilaterally “love our bodies” with no real explanation as to how to go about it (as though accepting ourselves in spite of the onslaught of society telling us we are not good enough were as simple as flicking a switch), it is only natural to feel insufficient in some way. The standards of beauty we are measured against are as airbrushed and processed as paintings. There is so little reality left in the “reality” of bodies and beauty we’re presented that, even if we were as beautiful as the people on the billboards, we still wouldn’t be able to compete with them after a few healthy rounds of Photoshop.
No matter how much you want to love yourself, to look at every crinkle and dimple and crooked line in the mirror and tell it that it is perfect the way it is, it is just a drop in a bucket compared to the ocean of words and images that tell us otherwise. And in a way a cosmetic procedure is saying to the world — with your wallet as well as your voice — that you know you are not perfect the way you are. You know you could be improved, and you are doing so. It is, in a way, an acquiescence to the world around you which wants you to look a certain way and says you are not good enough (or not as good as you could be) if you don’t. But then, putting on makeup does the same thing. As does styling our hair, wearing fashionable clothes, or certain jewelry. It only admits this inherent imperfection to a lesser, more temporary degree. The changes brought on in the way you style yourself, unlike cosmetic surgery, are something that can be taken off at the end of the day if you decide to be “natural” again.
The truth is that it isn’t up to any of us to decide what is and isn’t acceptable for another person to do with their own body in order to feel better about themselves. If someone wants to get a horn implanted on the front of their forehead, and they have the means to do it, it should be none of our business. Their lives and their happiness — as well as any repercussions that could come with changing their appearance — are entirely their own crosses to bear. But it would be disingenuous to say that the way other people do or do not conform to society’s expectations of beauty do not influence us, and make us question ourselves even more than we usually do. None of us live in a vacuum, and none of us are impervious to the pressures of the people and media messages which surround us. Perhaps the real question to ask, then, when someone changes their body or their style to become what you perceive as more “conventionally attractive,” is: Why, when their idea of beauty has nothing to do with our own, do we care at all?