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Is Plastic Surgery a New Religious Rite of Passage?

Though it may be a global phenomenon, the roots of this fixation on the body may lie partly in American religion.

"The worldwide pursuit of bodily improvement,” Photographer Zed Nelson claims, “has become like a new religion.”

In Love Me, Nelson turns his lens on the global obsession with obtaining perfect bodies. His photos depict in loving, if sometimes lurid, detail evidence of body fanaticism from around the globe: a preposterously muscled bodybuilder in Las Vegas, prosthetic nose implants in Beijing, a billboard in Senegal advertising a skin-lightening product, and the winner of a maximum-security-prison beauty pageant in Rio.

The pursuit of physical perfection as a new religion? There’s reason to think so.

Inner Goodness, Outer Evidence

Though it may be a global phenomenon, the roots of this fixation on the body may lie partly in American religion. We need only think of America’s many corporeal obsessions (from dieting to fitness crazes to cosmetic surgery) to begin to suspect that beliefs and commitments at the very heart of American culture are at work here. Harvard’s  R. Marie Griffith argues that religion, specifically Protestant forms of Christianity, has been a key influence on the conception and creation of American bodies. Protestant ascetic expressions of Christianity, Griffith argues, promote what she calls “corporeal acts of devotion.” Griffith traces shifting Christian conceptions of embodiment from these early-modern Protestant roots through Christian Scientism and the New Thought Movement. The emphasis on manifesting the inner, spiritual self through disciplines shaping the outer, physical self has thrust the body to the forefront of the American imagination.

According to Griffith, the ideal of bodily perfection rose to general prominence toward the close of the twentieth century, emerging from the evangelical devotional diet movements that first cropped up in the late 1950s. Promoting the belief that inner goodness was apparent in one’s outer aspect, this vein of devotion was built on the doctrine that “fat was sin.” A thin, firm, beautiful body, it was believed, was the visible reflection of goodness and godliness. 

The idea that “fit bodies… signify fitter souls” permeates the American consciousness with anxiety about the body while shaping beliefs about beauty.

Today, as Zed Nelson wants to show in his work, the forces of globalization have propelled the American conception of the perfect body into the world at large, where it has merged with and inflected traditional Western ideals of beauty. Nelson writes, “The promise of bodily improvement is fueled by advertising campaigns and commercially-driven Western media, reflecting an increasingly narrow palette of beauty.”

Holy Anorexia

Anxiety and devotional attention to the body are, of course, nothing new in religious life. Scholars of medieval religion know that control over eating was, as  Caroline Walker Bynum has said, “at the core of religious world-denial.” 

Today’s body disciplines extend well beyond attention to diet. The rigors of cosmetic surgery, for instance, are also anticipated in medieval practices—but with the aim of indulging in, rather than renouncing, the material world. In her 2006  New Yorker article “ Proud Flesh,” Rebecca Mead compares the modern obsession with cosmetic surgery to Christian asceticism. The surgery addicts she discusses describe their fixation in “the language of religious experience, with its wretchedness and its sublimity and its consciousness of transgression.” They display all the “self-scourging rigor” of medieval ascetics. Mead speaks to women who regard cosmetic surgery as both “a passion and a pastime”; they are “beauty nuns, dedicated to the discipline of personal physical reformation.”

Like Christian asceticism, Mead points out, cosmetic surgery is predicated on the possibility of human perfectibility—although, as she writes,

the means of achieving perfection, and the rewards thereof, are the opposite of those in a Christian theology. If for St. Teresa perfection required transcending the allures of the material and the sensual, adherents of the cult of plastic surgery undergo surgical mortification of the flesh in order to embrace the sensual life more fully.

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