Awed and Repelled

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?

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  1. #1 by Steph on January 20, 2010 - 8:32 pm

    Hey, Gayle good job that was interesting. What I always think about in relationship to this article is braces. Americans spend thousands of dollars on braces so they will look better. When I took my kids to the orthodontist I asked her why they needed braces. She looked at me dumbly. I wanted so badly to have a medical reason – not just cosmetic – to get my kids teeth fixed. Part of me feels that braces is the first step that will lead eventually to everyone getting plastic surgery. I want to fight it, but I can’t fight it with my own children. I can’t help but feel that they will be looked down on if they have bad teeth. I know God made the teeth like that and he doesn’t care but I will have to let someone else fight that battle.

  2. #2 by A F on January 22, 2010 - 7:34 pm

    Here are my thoughts in reaction to your entry:

    1. Familiar Story of Addiction.
    I think this story is like so many others we have seen. Someone likes
    a glass of wine with dinner. No problem. Is collecting wine (or
    single malt Scotch) a hobby-still likely a “net positive”. Addictive
    behavior in all of its examples can have profound effects on a person.

    2. The Case Against Perfection.
    For me, this issue has much in common with several other
    topics–athletes using steroids, parents determining the genetic
    characteristics of their kids and the increased termination of
    pregnancies due to genetic deficiencies. The real evil thread that
    runs through these issues is the pursuit of perfection. Borrowing
    from the book of the same title–we have allowed ourselves to fall
    into the trap of not only desiring, but expecting, perfection. What is
    so tragic about this pursuit is that it misses the point–it is not
    the attainment of perfection that is so notable, but rather its
    pursuit. Accomplishment that is the result of the combination of
    talent and hard work. Why stop there? Why are these the only
    ingredients of success that we (should) value? Because–talent (that
    close kin to the concept of “luck”), like anything that is rare,
    generates the feelings of “wonderment” and the concept of “hard work”
    is a core value of our social fabric. For most, it represents a form
    of talent that is deserving of our admiration while for Christians, it
    is also the proper use of God’s gift of talent. I concede that there
    is a fine line between constructive self-betterment and excessive
    elective use of artificial means to achieve an (unnecessary?) outcome
    not otherwise possible. But, I don’t get diverted by such line
    drawing. Like other topics–on this one, you know it when you see it.
    Vitamins, good nutrition? Good. Anabolic steroids? Bad.

    This unrealistic expectation of perfection also serves to lead many
    astray from their faith. The Church’s standard for conduct necessary
    to live Christ’s message is very high–and The inability to attain it
    frustrates some and causes them to reject the standard. For me, it
    misses the point–it isn’t the attainment of the standard that is the
    point of this life-it is the pursuit of it that is our mission.

    Like Tom Hanks says to Geena Davis in “A League of Their Own” when she
    quit baseball because it was too hard:

    “Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard,
    then everybody would do it. It’s the “hard” that makes it great”.

    And, that’s the point.

    3. Angst Over Self-Image
    Do you really think these Hollywood-types (men too)are doing all this
    to please us? I am not so sure. I think that is has more to do with
    their self-image and related issues. Like many performers (cf., Bono’s
    Harvard commencement), I think that these people need the adulation of
    the fans to fill some hole in their psyche. I think that they only
    care about the public to the extent that it gives them what they need.

    My concern is how to keep guide my kids (my daughters, primarily)
    through this morass of issues known as “body image”. Not an easy
    task, by any means!

  3. #3 by J. on January 26, 2010 - 7:43 pm

    thought your article was excellent. The only advice I’d give
    (and I’ve been thinking about this with my own teaching recently) is to
    be careful with the words “we” and “us.” In fact, just this morning,
    someone pointed out to me how I’d used the word “we” and it had
    created some ambiguity as to what I meant. To that end, I think there
    were a couple of places in the article where it might have been better
    to say “the church” or “the culture,” instead of “we” or “us.” If your
    audience is serious evangelicals/Catholics, I suspect they may not be
    guilty of some of the cultural pathologies you’ll be discussing. I do
    understand, however, that the issue of personal versus corporate
    responsibility is a very tricky one, and you don’t want to let people
    needlessly off the hook for corporate sin when they need to be
    challenged. This is just an issue I’d recommend keeping in mind as you
    write. As I said, though, the article was very well done, and I applaud
    your ability to find the time to do this. I know what a commitment it
    is to find the time necessary for this kind of effort. I pray that your
    words will find their way to those who need them and that God will bless
    you in this endeavor.

  4. #4 by Gigi on February 17, 2010 - 8:13 pm

    I wanted to relieve Steph’s conscience by explaining that orthodontic work is not strictly for vanity. There are various reasons beyond creating a pleasing glance in the mirror. For example, in many cases, braces help align teeth that may overlap leading to potential cavities. Yes, braces may sometimes be chosen simply to create the perfect smile, but a confident smile exudes self-esteem which is key for adolescent development. I have a cousin who refused to smile because he had a set of teeth that could be in a horror movie…forgive me for stating it this way, but it was truly an unattractive head-turning set of teeth. My distant cousin was 16 years old when my father noticed my cousin would cover his mouth when talking and would rarely laugh. My father paid for my cousin’s orthodontic work. My macho male cousin cried tears of relieving joy the day he received his braces. It was the most important gift he could receive. It was the gift of self-confidence and a lifetime of carefree laughter. Yes, cosmetic work may be frivolous and in pursuit of perfection to boost vanity, and it most definitely is a difficult topic to address when raising teens. On the other hand, cosmetic work can actually change a person’s “inside” even more than their “outside.” I think that kind of gift is a blessing. Good luck with your conscience in determining where to draw the line, and I think your children are blessed to have a caring mother who ponders what braces may do to her children’s spirit…good for you, Steph!

  5. #5 by Gwen on February 24, 2010 - 2:00 am

    One aspect of ascetics I wanted to mention is that I thought ascetics torture themselves to punish and cleanse themselves for sins in an effort to be more like Christ. I haven’t done any hard core research on this aspect of ascetics, but I was wondering if this is a perspective other people share. My mind won’t erase the vivid images of the ascetic in The DaVinci Code.

    I don’t think Heidi Montag is sculpting her body to be more like Christ. Nor is she undergoing the knife as a gesture of repentance and desire for forgiveness of sins. She sees herself as a product in a commercial world, and she believed she needed a “new and improved” packaging.

(will not be published)