Exposing the wacky body obsession of today’s artistic elite, Brian Dillon writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Pumped into lumpy strangeness at the gym, filleted and stitched by the surgeon, embalmed in Botox, our contemporary celebrities look more like survivors than people who are going places.” From Howard Hughes, to Andy Warhol, to Michael Jackson, Dillon reminds us of celebrities overwhelmed by perceived imperfections of their bodies, whose success caused them to suffer “agonies that only can be treated with opiates.” If religion is the opiate of the masses, Demerol works quite nicely for the rich and famous.
He argues that “a fretful attitude about one’s body has become an essential requisite for the vocation of modern fame,” and sees this “excessive concern with one’s body” resulting in a sickness that celebrities endure in a “state of almost constant near-collapse.”
Dillon asserts that “few, historically, have had such resources or occasions for self-mutilation as the rich and famous in our century.” When we look at celebrity bodies, knowing the monetary and physical cost to achieve bodily perfection, we fill with awe and repulsion, envy and disapproval.
People magazine, the bellwether of conventional celebrity culture, details the most open and perhaps egregious current example of the “Pain of Fame” as described by Mr. Dillon.
In the article “Addicted to Plastic Surgery” embellished with gripping pictures, People describes the attempt of the already attractive and young twenty-three year old celebrity Heidi Montag to perfect her body appearance via head to toe plastic surgery involving ten procedures in just one day. She sees her surgery as an investment in a future career as a pop star on the order of Britney Spears, the apotheosis of the celebrity in almost constant near-collapse.
Montag shares something in common with the famous ascetics of the Christian faith. The Christian ascetics engaged in the mortification of the flesh to imitate Christ’s suffering, hoping thereby to bind themselves eternally with the Suffering Servant. Practices ranged from staring at a cucumber and resisting the temptation to steal it, refraining from sexual intercourse, to self-inflicting severe bodily injury.
Paul IV stated, “The necessity of mortification of the flesh stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam’s sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. This exercise of bodily mortification — far removed from any form of stoicism — does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which the Son of God deigned to assume. On the contrary, mortification aims at the ‘liberation’ of man.” In the Catholic Catechism, “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross.”
Although Montag reveals that she prayed about her surgery for a long time, she never had the feeling that the surgery was wrong. Instead of a desire to identify with the Suffering Servant, fairy-tale dreaming compels Montag to go under the knife. She tells how she was an “ugly duckling” before surgery, and she had ears sticking out like Dumbo. She sees her post-surgery self as a Cinderella story, yet one that does not end happily ever after but promises further surgeries to make her “as perfect as I can be.”
Moving from fiction to fact, when she compares herself to stars like Angelina Jolie, her pre-surgery self does not measure up. She rationalizes that “every starlet is getting surgery every other day.” Yet she conceals the surgeries from her family until after she has completed them. While the ascetics held themselves up against the Suffering Servant, Montag measures herself against actresses like Jolie who have gained fame and commercial success, but also notoriety and criticism. She aches for temporal success much in the way that the ascetics ached for eternal perfection through suffering.
The aftermath of the surgery makes Montag feel fragile and at one point after the surgery, she was in so much pain that she wanted to die right then. In her extreme pain, she asked for more Demerol, slowing her breathing dramatically. She had the feeling of life slipping away from her.
While some dismiss Montag’s struggle, what responsibility do we bear for her actions? Dillon argues celebrities undergo this struggle “for us, and our morbidly projected fears for our own bodies.”
Countering those who would criticize her actions, Montag states, “It’s what’s inside that God cares about.” If, as Montag maintains, her body is “just a shell,” then self-mutilation makes perfect sense if it is a good career move. As the ascetics endured bodily torment for reward in the eternal realm, Montag endures torturous elective surgery for reward in this life.
Montag seeks to win over a culture that envies her body but disapproves of her extreme measures. Whether she will achieve her aim remains to be seen. When we compare ourselves to Montag, who measures herself against fairy tales and troubled actresses like Jolie and pop stars like Spears, we subject ourselves to the same torment experienced by celebrities. Can we resist the temptation of envy, knowing that resistance can lead us to healthier and joyful lives, and in doing so, release these celebrities from the bondage of their quest for bodily perfection in this life? Can we make her surgeries less rewarding for her and for us?