Plastic surgery poster child Heidi Montag again drew attention to her quest for bodily perfection at her twenty-fifth birthday party held at the aptly named Vanity nightclub.
The wacky body obsession of the artistic elite is nothing new. Brian Dillon observed that many celebrities are “pumped into lumpy strangeness at the gym, filleted and stitched by the surgeon, embalmed in Botox” and “look more like survivors than people who are going places.” From Howard Hughes to Andy Warhol to Michael Jackson, success mixes with perceived bodily imperfection to bring “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.
Fretting over one’s body has become “an essential requisite for the vocation of modern fame,” Dillon noted, based on the number of pathologically obsessed celebrities existing in a “state of almost constant near-collapse.”
He marveled 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, periodically details this phenomenon.
An article last year on plastic surgery addiction exposed a particularly spectacular instance of self-mutilation. Montag, already attractive and then only twenty-three, underwent head-to-toe plastic surgery involving ten procedures in just one day. At the time, she saw 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.
Just one year later, Montag’s photo shoot for Life & Style magazine revealed her surgical scars and uneven body parts. “Surgery ruined my career and my personal life,” Montag said, “I don’t regret anything, but if I could go back, I wouldn’t do it.”
Montag shares something in common with the famous ascetics of the Christian faith. The Christian ascetics mortified the flesh to imitate Christ’s suffering, hoping to bind themselves eternally with the Suffering Servant. Practices ranged from self-inflicted severe bodily injury to hungry contemplation of a cucumber.
“The necessity of mortification of the flesh stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature,” said Paul IV, because flesh and spirit have had contrasting desires since Adam’s sin. “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.”
Montag prayed about her surgery for a long time but never felt the surgery was wrong. Fairy-tale dreaming, not identification with the Suffering Servant, impelled Montag to go under the knife. She was, she claimed, an “ugly duckling” before surgery, with ears sticking out like Dumbo. She saw her post-op body as a Cinderella story, though she acknowledged she would need further surgeries to make her “as perfect as I can be.”
While the ascetics held themselves up against the Suffering Servant, Montag measured herself against actresses like Angelina Jolie. Montag ached for commercial success much in the way ascetics ached for eternal perfection through suffering.
The suffering was considerable. The aftermath of the surgery made 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 argued celebrities undergo the struggle for physical perfection “for us, and our morbidly projected fears for our own bodies.”
Countering those who would criticize her actions, Montag stated, “It’s what’s inside that God cares about.” If, as Montag maintained, her body is “just a shell,” then self-mutilation could make perfect sense as a good career move. As the ascetics endured bodily torment in search of reward in the eternal realm, Montag endured 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. She measures herself against fairy tales and troubled actresses like Jolie and pop stars like Spears. Her admirers and detractors compare themselves to her and subject themselves to the same torment.
Hindsight provides some perspective. With the results of her surgeries in clear relief, we can better resist the temptation to envy, knowing that the scalpel will not bring us healthy and joyful lives. If we succeed, we might even release these celebrities from the bondage of their quest for bodily perfection in this life.
Gayle Trotter is a writer, lawyer, and mother of six who lives in Washington, DC.