If Only I Were Pretty

"To be totally honest, most of the time I think I'm ugly. I see myself without makeup every morning, and that's why I don't have illusions anymore." -Halle Berry

"There are beautiful women, and then there's me. I've seen this face in every mall I've ever been in. I'm not that special." -Heather Locklear

"I feel intimidated by Victoria's Secret. Hollywood is one of those endless competitions, but it's like running a race toward nothing. There's no winning. You're never going to win the pretty race"? -Reese Witherspoon

"I hate my body. I like so many other people's bodies. A good pair of legs on someone else always makes me jealous." -Keira Knightley

If these comments from some of the world's most attractive women are accurate, how can the rest of us ever hope to make peace with what we face in our mirrors?

Many people-both male and female-are increasingly turning to cosmetic surgery as one solution. Such procedures have become easily accessible and relatively affordable. But does it really make a difference? And what about the complicated issues of vanity, stewardship, and tampering with God's creation?

Two are better than one
"I had two physical features that were long-standing issues for me," says Charlotte, a writer in her early 30s.* "I always hated the bump in my nose and seeing myself in pictures, and I was very self-conscious of my grade-school chest size. Also, I had inverted nipples, which could have been an issue if I ever had children and wanted to breast-feed."

When Charlotte was 29, her allergist recommended surgery to alleviate her sinus problems. He was also a certified plastic surgeon, so Charlotte decided to have him do a rhinoplasty (nose reshaping) at the same time. "I don't think he had done rhinoplasties that often, though," reports Charlotte. "I ended up with a nose that had a scoop instead of a bump."

Within the next two years Charlotte went through a divorce and faced the prospect of making a new start in life. "After the sale of our home, I decided to use some of that money to invest in my future," she says. "I checked out having my nose fixed, as well as the breast surgery that I had always wanted. It was certainly a financial commitment, but I thought, If I ever have a new husband, he may not be willing to shell out the money!"

The nose surgery went well, but after the breast surgery, Charlotte once again had complications. She developed a tissue infection, and one implant had to be removed for six weeks. Also, in the process of repairing her inverted nipples, the surgeon had to cut her milk ducts, making it impossible for her to ever breast-feed.

"Cosmetic surgery isn't everything that TV can make it out to be," she states. "There's a fair amount of risk; you don't know what's going to happen, and the results are pretty much permanent."

Charlotte says that she prayed a lot before her appointment with the second surgeon. "I consulted God, as I do for everything in my life. I said, 'Lord, I've got this window of time between relationships. Would it be too much to ask for a sign?' " she remembers.

When she went for the consultation with the second surgeon, he seemed to understand the problems she described, the scheduler happened to have a cancellation, and she had the money in hand and wouldn't have to go into debt. Still, she raises the question, "Because I had complications, does that mean that God didn't want me to have the surgery?"

She is comfortable, however, with having had the procedures, explaining, "People might bring up the Bible text about our body being the temple of God [1 Corinthians 6:19] and say that we should live with what He gave us. But my relationship with God doesn't happen through my nose or my breasts; it happens in my heart."

She adds that when a child has a cleft lip, no one faults the child or the parents for obtaining plastic surgery. And when women have reconstructive breast augmentation after cancer surgery, these cases don't seem to provoke people's negative opinions about plastic surgery. "Yet on the flip side," Charlotte says, "it's easy for people who are satisfied with their appearance-people with straight noses and ample bosoms-to condemn plastic surgery and those who have it done."

Has her life changed? Yes, somewhat. "After my surgeries, I would describe myself as being less self-conscious rather than more self-confident," she shares. "I didn't tell many people about my procedures, but afterward a female coworker commented that I just looked good. I think the secret to good cosmetic surgery is that it enhances the way a person looks overall, but when people look at you, they can't quite put their finger on it."

Charlotte did remarry several years ago. She says about her husband, whom she knew before, "He's really happy with the improvements, but he never would have put out the money for me to do it!"

Getting a lift
Nicole, a retired professional woman in her mid-60s, decided to have her eyelids lifted when she was in her mid-50s. Her decision was motivated, in part, by her experiences in the workplace. "There's some sense of getting over the hill when you're in your 50s, when age starts to work against you," she says. "Having my eyes done wasn't a big deal, really. I had thought about it for a while, because eyes that have a dragged-down appearance don't make you look as pleasant."

Did the surgery change her life? Not really. "Afterward, people couldn't quite figure out what was different about me," she remembers. "Some said they thought I'd lost weight."

Concerning the cost, she explains, "Everyone has X number of dollars to spend. My husband and I have given pretty generously to the church over the years, and I don't mind spending some money on myself and my kids. I briefly thought of tackling my underbite, which is quite serious. But the surgery would be fairly extensive and involve taking out part of my jaw, and it's not worth the money or risk to me. I'd rather take a big trip!"

Nicole, like Charlotte, doesn't believe that a person must live with what they've got. "As for the mind-set of staying like God made us, no!" she exclaims. "There is such a thing as unhealthy pride, and there's healthy pride, which is saying, 'I can do it'-whatever 'it' may be for you."

"I'll pay for it!"
Victoria is another professional woman who had her eyes lifted, in her case in her mid-40s. "About three years before I had the surgery on my eyes, I was putting on makeup at my mother's house," she recalls. "I said, 'Mom, don't my eyes look saggy? I wonder if I should get them done.' Her response, without a moment's hesitation, was, 'I'll pay for it!' None of the motherly 'No, honey, you look fine; we love you just as you are' stuff. It kind of took me aback. You better believe that when I finally decided to do it, I asked her for the money!"

Victoria says that in her family looks are very important, and most of the women have gone under the knife for one reason or another. "I?m a latecomer," she says with a laugh.

When she got to the point of having surgery, it was more for medical reasons, since her saggy eyelids had started to interfere with her vision. "I took a conservative approach to my surgery and had less done than my doctor suggested," she explains. "For me, it definitely was a question of stewardship. He said you could do this and this and this, but as he was talking, I was doing the math in my head. Before seeing a surgeon, you should know exactly what you're willing to do."

Victoria says that it was also important to her to preserve her Asian identity. "I didn't want to come out looking like someone else by changing my eyes too much," she says. "I wasn't interested in looking younger than I was, but I also didn't want to look older. We're all vain to varying degrees, and we're kidding ourselves if we say we're not. But I realize I'm going to age, and there's nothing I can do to prevent it."

Victoria does admit that she worries about her daughters and their concern with their appearance. "I always tell them that they look great the way they are and don't need to change," she states. "I worry about their view of their weight, and I throw away the Victoria's Secret catalogs that come in the mail. If I had more cosmetic surgical procedures done, it would send a message to them."

Like mother . . .
Laura's story involves three generations. "When my mother, who is now 85, was quite young, she had a breast reduction, which took five pounds off and made her much more comfortable," Laura explains. "And after I had children, I suffered from a hernia that made me look permanently pregnant. I had it repaired, and it was wonderful. Sure, I wasn't going to get sick or die from it, but it was very uncomfortable, and I couldn't see going through life without taking care of it."

Then, at age 57, Laura had a face-lift. "I always said I wanted a face-lift before age 60. I told my husband, 'You know, you got a new car; I want a face-lift.' "

Did it change her life? "It made me feel 10 years younger!" she states. "I wouldn't hesitate to have more procedures in the future, but they're too expensive, and I can't see spending all that money."

Now even Laura's daughter has had cosmetic surgery to remove a palm-sized fatty deposit on her stomach. "She had it from a young age," explains Laura, "and she was always ashamed to wear a bathing suit. I said, 'You know, you could have surgery done on that.' She said, 'Oh, Mom, I would love to.' I told her that if she really wanted to, she would have to pay for it. That way, I would know that she really wanted to do it."

Her daughter did go ahead with the operation and was so happy that she did. "I think it's great to be able to do something to improve your attitude," says Laura. "It is possible to be too extravagant and never satisfied, but I think that God wants us to look as nice as we can.

Trying to determine what God wants us to do is not a precise science. When asked by a group of students what he thought about makeup, a male college pastor replied, "If the barn needs painting, paint it."

Charlotte has a more cautious response, advising, "For women considering plastic surgery, I encourage them to become informed, get a few opinions, find reputable doctors, and then weigh the cost against their expectations. Most important, let God weigh in on the decision, just as you would when making any other big decision."

* All interviewees in this article have been given pseudonyms.

Shelley Nolan Freesland is the communication director for Adventist World Radio in Silver Spring, Maryland. She says that she's still waffling between Botox and Bora Bora!

Where do you weigh in on this topic? Send us your opinions and experiences! E-mail us at womenofspirit@rhpa.org or write to: Women of Spirit, 55 W. Oak Ridge Drive, Hagerstown, MD 21740.

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