Last week a friend of mine returned to Texas from her first visit to Utah in almost twenty years. When I asked her how she liked it, her first response was, “I’ve never seen so many fake boobs in my life!” Her comment reminded me of an article that I read in Forbes magazine a few months ago about how Salt Lake City is the “Vainest City in America”. Not only #1 in the number of plastic surgeons per capita, but on the amount of money spent on cosmetics and hair coloring products. I’m sure it’s only the nonmembers there having surgery and wearing all the make-up, right?

In a Conference talk in October 2005, Elder Holland pointed out that “a fixation on the physical. . . is more than social insanity; it is spiritually destructive, and it accounts for much of the unhappiness women, including young women, face in the modern world.” Yes, a fixation on the physical would do that, wouldn’t it? But here’s the problem: what is a fixation? As a brunette (and proud of it) I don’t quite understand the dedication of my fair(er) sisters who spend many hours and dollars keeping themselves blonde. Or tan (in the winter!), or have gorgeous (and very fake) nails.

Let me just pause here to state for the record that I am not pointing fingers. I have, at one time or another, colored my hair, gone tanning (though not in the last decade), and had fake nails. I also have had plastic surgery. Yep, I once had a really ugly chin. Now I don’t. And I did all of these things while not living in Utah, so I’m not saying that only our sisters on the Wasatch Front are dealing with the issue of vanity.

I remember the day before I had plastic surgery; my doctor was also my Stake President. I told him I felt rather vain for going to all this trouble for a new chin, even though I wanted it desperately. He said that if it gave me more confidence in myself then what was wrong with that? So I went through with it, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. In a way, I stopped obsessing over my profile once it was fixed. I became less preoccupied with my appearance once I had plastic surgery. I’m pretty sure this is not what Elder Holland had in mind, but it’s what happened to me.

Now that swimsuit season is upon me, I find myself stragely attracted to the idea of massive surgery to make my stomach look like it hasn’t carried six babies. And my thighs look like they belong to a nubile high-schooler. Yeah, I know, I should be celebrating my rolls and cellulite and stretch marks. I should embrace them as symbols of the marvelous job my body has done keeping me healthy and mobile. But I don’t. Not even close. I want to cover them up and pretend they don’t exist. I don’t really have any idea how to go about not obsessing over them.

I think Elder Holland is completely right. We are being “bombarded in movies, television, fashion magazines, and advertisements with the message that looks are everything!” We shouldn’t fixate on, as Nephi put it, our “vain imaginations”. I would love to love my body. But how? No, Really! How? I read my scriptures every single day and go to church every single week, but it still bothers me how limp my hair is, and I still am on my quest to find the perfect shade of lipstick.

I don’t really know how any of us are supposed to know if we are fixated on ourselves; if we have a superficial standard. Because we all do something with our looks. We all sit in front of the mirror at some point each day. There will always be a woman who spends more time and money than us making herself look beautiful, and there will always be someone who spends less. It’s so easy to judge each other. To look at one person and think, “she’s so vain with all that make-up and plastic surgery.” And to look at another and think, “how can she let herself go like that? She should try a little harder.” There must be a balance, but how to find it? I want to look pretty, and I also want to please the Lord. How do we decide what is acceptible, not a fixation? Is it a personal decision or should everyone follow the same standard?

33 Comments

  1. mindi

    June 20, 2008

    as usual, a fabulous article.

    when you figure out how to strike that balance, let me know. i agree with the theory about having something that you are so fixated on that it affects everything else: i had 4 kids all c-section and my stomach was a hot mess. i swim with my kids and friends (and others. UGHHH) 4 days a week in the summer, but i could hardly get from my coverup into the pool without sliding down my shame spiral.
    i had a tummy tuck in june 2006 and it was the best money i’ve spent. i stopped obsessing about my jelly and started having a good time playing with my kids in the pool.
    shallow?? maybe. some women can get around that. i couldn’t. and i think there is nothing wrong with wanting to look your best.
    funny thing is, my plastic surgeon was ALSO a stake president!

    and btw: i’ve seen photos of jennie, and her chin is fabulous–you go, girl!

  2. Tiffany

    June 20, 2008

    Truthfully, I don’t understand the need/desire for plastic surgery. But I do have a good friend that really worries about her tummy. I can understand her concern, but I don’t really share it. I still think she is beautiful.

    I guess I wish that we could be happy with our bodies, take care of them in a healthy way and think about other things.

    I appreciated this post a lot, because it gave me pause to consider. I hope my own daughter is happy with herself the way she is, because I think she is the most beautiful little girl.

  3. Dalene

    June 20, 2008

    As always, Elder Holland gave a wonderfully frank and honest talk. I so worry what kind of messages we are sending our daughters when we obsess over our bodies and wonder how we can offset the constant messages of “not-enough-ness” so prevalent in the media.

  4. Justine

    June 20, 2008

    I am almost ashamed to admit it — I love my body. I am completely fascinated by how my life has shaped by body. I see my parents in parts of myself; I see my children in others. My scars, my flab, my huge calves — I love it.

    But then as I consider more about what you wrote, I wonder if I’m too vain because I run? Am I pridefully anti-vain because I consciously refuse to wear make-up? I think almost anything we do could be considered vanity if done in the wrong attitude. A folklore story I heard recently goes like this.

    The question was asked of Pres. Monson, “Do I have to get rid of all the beautiful paintings and other things in my home to be a true disciple of Christ?” His reply was “No, you don’t have to get rid of them, but you need to be willing to part with them without a moment’s thought if the Lord asked it of you.”

    Does the same attitude apply here? Seems like it could.

  5. Claudia

    June 20, 2008

    I sometimes try to imagine what it will be like for those who have had major cosmetic surgeries when they wake up on Resurrection day. Will they recognize themselves? Will they be disappointed or will all the things that are not a part of their original package still be a part of them. I tend to believe the will be the total original package, not the new improved one.

  6. Wendy

    June 20, 2008

    This was a great post! I especially like your questions at the end. I know that in spite of my mostly make-up free, stay-away-from-hair-dye preferences, I am vain and get all worked up over my hair when I have bad haircuts (which has been a lot the last two years), and get really stressed about my lame wardrobe at times.

    I hope there will never be a single standard for everybody, because I like diversity in hair color & style, makeup, boob size & shape, clothing styles, etc. Personal appearance is such a PERSONAL subject.

    I do think there needs to be a lot more self-acceptance when it comes to our bodies (and our selves in general). But I don’t think that means no plastic surgery ever. I like what Mindi and Jennie both said about how after your plastic surgery, you didn’t worry about it anymore. I think that is they key. If we are obsessing, it’s a problem.

    I think women’s bodies are beautiful and we do need to appreciate our own beauty more. My love handles, by themselves, are horrid. But if I look at my whole body in the mirror naked, the whole picture is beautiful, ponch and love handles and double chin and all.

  7. Daisy

    June 20, 2008

    I think about our ancestor pioneer mothers and wonder if they ever had issues about their bodies? Maybe, probably likely. But did they really have time to obsess and feel bad about themselves? I doubt it. They had to get food on the table everyday, 3 X a day, without a grocery store or restaurant nearby. Their lives were too busy… surviving. And working hard….physically. Maybe we have become soft (physically) because the need to physically work and sweat is not a necessity anymore. Maybe we have become soft (spiritually) because we aren’t faced with the daily physical trials, the need to survive instincts that we could only face daily, with faith and strong testimony. Would they have had time or even desire to compare or find fault with other mothers who have physically and probably especially emotionally helped each other survive these daily hardships?

    We are too hard on ourselves as mothers, as women today. Why are we so unhappy? Is it just our bodies? If we could fix that would that make us happier? We are facing very different trials than our ancestors did. We NEED; not a physical need, a spiritual need, a need to belong and be understood, a need to be different yet the same. As women we are the same. Yet it seems today we are more disconnected than ever. Sometimes it feels as women we are more divided. Why is that so? Because we are more powerful, too powerful, together… helping and supporting, understanding, and loving. And the adversary knows this.

    We are meant to be happy in this life and we should be. How? By living, by working hard, by loving each other, and OURSELVES…. one day at a time.

  8. Wendy

    June 20, 2008

    Daisy, I LOVE what you wrote. All of it. Beautiful.

  9. C.

    June 20, 2008

    I started running a year ago to manage my depression. I refused to even consider taking medication — especially when I read a study showing that 30 minutes of exercise had as much effect as most of the pills available.

    Running has changed the way I view my body. It has helped me to gain a better understanding of the temple as a body doctrine. I used to think any focus on the physical was shallow and unproductive. But now that I see what a healthy (not skinny) body can do and the way my mind focuses and grows with physical exertion, I see a glimmer of understanding about why keeping our bodies strong and healthy is important.

    However, none of it has made me more tolerant of discussion after discussion of weight, what tummies look like after babies, muffin tops, relief society arms, etc between LDS women between the ages of 22 and 50. I’m now to the point where if I can’t change the conversation, I leave.

    I much prefer the conversations of the older, wiser women in the church. The ones with wrinkles and white hair and knowledge. My great-grandmother is 100 and I can’t believe she’d be any more attractive with a smaller nose or a tummy tuck or fake boobs. How long are those things good for? Twenty years? She can still touch her toes, which is a pretty good thing to aim for.

    I guess what I’m saying is that to me plastic surgery would be like taking a pill to cure my depression. Sure it would work, but I’d have missed out on all the better things I got by getting my but out of bed at 5 a.m. and going for a run. And at some point isn’t taking the easy way out going to catch up with us?

  10. Emily M.

    June 20, 2008

    C., I’m so glad exercise worked wonders for your depression. I think it’s helped my depressive tendencies as well. At the same time, I gotta put in a plug for pills–they are necessary, even vital, for many people, and I wish that any stigma attached to them would just evaporate.

    As for the plastic surgery question, I don’t know. I feel like it’s a personal decision, like Wendy said. And I have seen my face in the future, in the form of family faces. No matter what I do in my forties, fifties, and sixties to try to pretend I am thirty, I will end up in my eighties (if I live that long) with wrinkles, age spots, and sagging breasts. And the people who around me who love me will look at me, as I do with my grandmothers, and call me beautiful.

  11. rachel

    June 20, 2008

    I am happier with my body now than I ever have been. I’ve got a non-perky chest, and a saggy gut. I’m 5’3 and wear a size 12 and my bmi is ‘overweight but not obese’. My heart rate is low and my cholesterol is about 120. I’m no model, but I’m healthy.
    Would I like a tummy tuck? Yes. My pants would fit so much better. But… Am I out of debt and have a years’ supply of food storage? Are the kids’ college funds fat? That’s my bias about the whole thing. Remember the Segullah piece about bringing meals to a lady who’d had some work done? I think it’s a pretty touchy issue.
    I also think that asking a stake president who is a plastic surgeon if it’s okay to have work done is like asking John McCain who to vote for in the primary election. Or asking me (a psychotherapist) if I think talk therapy is good for treating depression. I also think if you want to have better self-esteem, therapy would probably do just as much good as a boob job. Finally, I worry about what message we send to our daughters–you won’t be loved/accepted/liked if you don’t look the ‘right’ way. I wonder if our sisters in 3rd world countries look at us with pity.

  12. C.

    June 20, 2008

    I should clarify that depression is very serious (I have huge family history of it). I wanted to try exercise before pills, and it is working for me. However if it stops working, and I revert back to depressive slumps I will happily take pills, and tell everyone about them.

    I make NO judgments about people on anti-depressants. For me there is just a parallel to the way I feel about cosmetic surgery. And like I said, the running has changed the way I feel about my body.

  13. Emily M.

    June 20, 2008

    Thanks for the clarification, C.–I appreciate it.:-) I do see the parallel you’re talking about with running and the way you feel about cosmetic surgery.

  14. Leisha

    June 20, 2008

    Great post. It seems clear that our social circles play a heavy role in how we feel about ourselves and our standards of beauty.

    I have skimmed the edge of certain circles where “looks are everything” and I’m always left scratching my head wondering “aren’t there more important things in the world to be discussing than achieving physical perfection” It’s so boring and everyone is miserable.

    Haven’t you ever been around someone who can only discuss how much they hate their thighs or their stomach or their whatever and all they talk about is dieting and exercise and how they wished they looked like so-and-so. They are in total misery (compounded by the fact that they are now boring and un-interesting to be around…)

    I say that a good predictor of whether non-essential plastic surgery will help you is your level of happiness before surgery. I mean, I have a chubby tummy and a nose I would rather trade-in, but my husband thinks I’m beautiful and I’m loved and accepted by friends and family for who I am. Surgery isn’t going to change those facts. I would look better, but people’s feelings about me (hopefully)wouldn’t change. If you are doing it for others or to feel more accepted, spend your money elsewhere. If you are just giving yourself a few “tweaks” here and there for personal satisfaction…go for it.

    If you don’t have some measure of peace with yourself before surgery, you aren’t going to really have it after (you will just start fixating on something else…)

    (p.s. I use self-tanner and I’m just about to get highlighs in my hair and I rarely leave the house without make-up, so it’s not like I’m Ms. Granola Crunchy-Pants saying ‘au naturale’ is the way to live! Just read a good book the next time your thoughts turn to physical imperfections…it’s more fulfilling.)

  15. Jennie

    June 20, 2008

    Leisha-great point about feeling good about yourself before surgery. Although there are about 101 things I would change about my body if I could, for the most part I’m really happy. My husband is really pushing for a boob job (for me!) and I just keep telling him to forget it. Getting work done because someone else will like it is just wrong. If I hated my chest it would be one thing, but my girls are fine (although not as peppy as they once were).

    Justine-I hope Pres. Monson really said that, because it’s great.

  16. djlott

    June 20, 2008

    When I was a teenager I wanted to dye my hair blond, but my mother helped me realize that I didn’t need to do it just because everyone else is. I am unique being a brunette with light hazel eyes. So I have to tell my 17yod over and over that I am really am not even interested in covering the gray hair that is showing now…. I have earned every single one of those gray hairs!@! This is the same daughter who is overly concerned with her hair, makeup and how she dresses. I struggle with helping her to understand that what is on the inside is more important, but I don’t think she gets it at all.
    I am approaching 50 and have health issues that make it hard to exercise, and lately I have been wondering if I should just say to myself that this is the way I am going to be and not worry about the extra weight. But I can’t seem to give myself permission to do that, so I really need to eat better, so that I can lose some weight. Then maybe I can avoid getting diabetes that runs in the family, and have less joint pain. I just need to get serious and do this for my health.
    Re: plastic surgery… if you need something done ,and can leave it at that, then great. But if it leaves you thinking just a little more, then I ‘ll be happy, then there are probably issues that the surgery won’t ever fix.

  17. jendoop

    June 20, 2008

    My opinion on this issue has changed many times over the years. From telling a boyfriend that if he chose to be a plastic surgeon I wouldn’t hang around to see it happen. To being influenced by a group of friends that a boob lift is the least I could expect after nursing babies. Application of it scares me to death, have you seen Michael Jackson?

    After my 3rd child I started running, I loved it and I loved that the pounds dropped off and I enjoyed wearing jeans again. I admit, I took pride in my appearance (though I was far from perfect).

    Now I’m dealing with early onset arthritis and the necessity of taking steroids. Those fun pills that make you swell and gain weight. Did I mention that this ‘wonderful’ affliction precludes running? So far I’m maintaining, but I am scared to get bigger. (that was hard to admit)

    For me the best thing to ward off excessive concern about body image is to watch what I watch. I don’t subscribe to ‘People’. I don’t watch ‘America’s Next Top Model’. Nor do I torture myself imagining what I could one day look like if I just fit into that dress I wore in high school. These things are important for my self-image but also for my daughters’.

  18. Heathermommy

    June 20, 2008

    When I eat healthy and exercise I am happy with my body. Even if it looks no different. If I am just actively taking care of myself I feel better. That said I think all this body image stuff is just yet another ploy of Satan’s to distract us from focusing on what is more important. I try to think about what I want people to say about me at my funeral. Do I want people to say how cute I am and how well decorated my house is? I think what I want people to say is that I was a good, patient, fun mom and wife and that I always helped others who were in need. So those are the things that I try to focus on because I am far from what I want to be in those categories.

    My concrete advice is shunning those cultural and media things that focus too much on body image. And the “f” word is a bad word in our house.

  19. christine

    June 20, 2008

    Hey, I’m looking for some insight from all of you wonderfully smart and in touch women. This is not exactly “plastic” surgery but it is still considered “elective.” I am seriously considering gastric bypass (for a BMI of 45- no other health problems except lots of fatigue and early symptoms of osteoarthritis) I am leaning toward having it and most of the time I feel like it is the right thing to do for my health and to be a more energetic person. However, sometimes I get a little nagging thought “is it okay to alter this body the Lord has given me?” and what about possible future plastic surgeries for sagging? I’m just interested in hearing your opinions. Forgive me if this is a thread jack but in my mind the questions are intertwined.

  20. Jennie

    June 20, 2008

    Christine–I’m going to try to find your email to send you a more detailed answer on this because one of my close relatives had this surgery and I have several strong opinions about it. I think gastric bypass is not so much about vanity. I mean, there is definitely the desire to look good, but it’s more about just being normal. I think it’s more about getting back a decent quality of life. Being very overweight affects every aspect of life. Not only does it kill your self esteem, but it can really hinder your ability to interact with your children, if you have any. No playing on the floor, no swimming, no sports. It’s simply not possible.
    It’s a completely different kettle of fish than someone who doesn’t like their nose, or someone who thinks they need a bigger chest.

  21. Azúcar

    June 21, 2008

    Not to defend Salt Lake entirely, but I do question the methodology they used to extrapolate that SLC is the Vainest City:
    “Next we calculated the number of surgeons per 100,000 people. Though there are at least 591 plastic surgeons in New York City, there were four per 100,000 people. Salt Lake City had only 45 surgeons but a total of six per 100,000 people. Unexpected entries like Salt Lake City, Nashville and Louisville might rise to the top, given smaller populations and medical or university programs and centers that focus on plastic surgery. An influx of younger, more affluent residents into the smaller cities may also account for the rising number of plastic surgeons.”

    A.) We have an important medical school in the area
    B.) There are higher concentrations of medical professionals (and really all white collar professions) because people WANT to live in the area.

    All that being said, the older I get the less I like the idea of plastic surgery. I am happier with my post-baby body than I am with my pre-baby body; this body seems so much more serviceable.

    You don’t want to know what I think about implants.

  22. Dalene

    June 21, 2008

    Azúcar makes an excellent point. Not only that, because of the medical school, PCMC (which also has a number of specialists on staff–including plastic surgeons)and a number of other specialty facilities, SLC is also the place to go for people in neighboring states. It is the regional source of care for a number of surgeries and treatments, which could certainly skew the “per capita” numbers.

    Jennie, could you clarify what you mean by “it’s more about just being normal“? Also, I’d like to argue that one can be overweight and still have self-esteem, interact with one’s children, play on the floor, participate in sports, swim, etc. It is possible for many people.

    Christine–since you asked, I will offer my viewpoint, but I will warn you that what I know about gastric bypass surgery is completely anecdotal. I agree with you that it is generally not about vanity–it’s about health. It can quickly and drastically improve your blood pressure, cholesterol, sleep apnea, blood sugar, arthritis, etc. The results can be amazing. I would just warn you that there can also be complications, and of everyone I know who has had it, the long-term results were disappointing. All but one gained their weight back over time. I know a couple of people who have had it done recently and I so hope their long-term outcomes are better. I wish you well whatever you decide.

  23. Jennie

    June 21, 2008

    I believe you can be totally happy and functional being overweight. But to be considering gastric bypass, you have to be more than just overweight. You have to be very, very overweight. Enough that it’s threatening your health and well-being. My brother-in-law who had the surgery was 160 lbs. over his normal weight. He couldn’t get down on the floor to play with his four kids. He could barely walk upstairs without sweating and having to rest. Walking to the park with them was out of the question, as were things like bowling and riding on most amusement park rides. He also couldn’t fit in an airline seat, so unless he wanted to buy two, air travel was not possible. All of his clothes were very expensive and he couldn’t shop very many places.
    He had the surgery a few years ago so that, in his words, “he could be normal”. He can do anything now that he wants to. He can shop wear he wants and travel where he wants. He still has some weight to lose, but he seems pretty happy not having to think about his weight, which wasn’t the case when he was so heavy.
    I’m not saying gastric bypass is the ideal solution since I know there are a lot of problems with the surgery, but as for him, he’s been glad.

  24. Justine

    June 21, 2008

    I’d say be very informed of the medical complications that are possible. Knowing and understanding them, however, I know my husbands cousin has had a remarkable result from it. Her quality of life and overall health has improved tenfold. She has, however, had to remain diligent about maintaining her diet and exercise routine.

    I honestly think the Lord should be involved in major medical decisions like this. He certainly will hear your worries. Good luck, dear.

  25. Amira

    June 21, 2008

    Although drastic consequences are rare from gastric bypass, we’ve known two people who have died as a result of the surgery. Anecdotal, yes, but still, there are risks.

    I do think the benefits often outweigh the risks, as long as the patient understands that it isn’t a one-time cure. It’s part of a process on overcoming weight problems.

    But I certainly don’t think that the surgery has much to do with vanity!

  26. les

    June 21, 2008

    great piece (a hot button/soapbox issue for me)- I do think this is a topic lots of women like to brush by and not explore deeply. I think going under the knife is usually not the fix- the fix is changing our hearts to truely believe that the lesson we give in YW, or the book we read to our child or the service we render is not changed by our size, our beauty or the stylishness of our clothing. Our prosperity allows us to obsess over the important.
    I am at peace with my body. I had 8 miscarriages which was grueling and have also been lucky enough to given birth to 3 darling boys- that experience made me treasure my body for what it has given me and the fact I am healthy.
    Traveling around the world providing free surgeries for children various condiditons- I see the good of plastic surgery over a thousand times, but I come home so troubled byour cultural obsessions with beauty. I can’t imagine spending 10K to increase my breast size, when I have watched a 17 yr old cry tears of relief because he said “now someone will marry me” because he recieved a $200 surgery to correct a very disfiguring bilateral cleft lip.
    The women I strive to be most like wouldn’t win beauty pageants but, they have learned who they are and what they do in this world has very little to do with their outer packaging.

  27. Red

    June 22, 2008

    There’s an interesting article interviewing a plastic surgeon here:
    http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/18/your-plastic-surgery-questions-answered/#more-2734

  28. Alison Moore Smith

    June 25, 2008

    The problem with living in Utah is that we’re “the vainest women on the planet” if we do something, and we’re “lazy breeders who marry and let ourselves go” if we don’t.

  29. Alison Moore Smith

    June 25, 2008

    One last thing, I’m just speculating here, but do ya’ll really thing President Monson still has dark brown hair?

  30. Wendy

    June 25, 2008

    Alison, your question cracks me up!

  31. LDS Art Collector

    June 25, 2008

    Great Post

  32. sciencegeek

    June 25, 2008

    Plastic surgery isn’t always “vain”. What about burn victims? My son was born with a cleft lip and palate and I am extremely grateful to the very talented plastic surgeon who fixed his lip. He’s already had two surgeries and will likely have at least three more.
    I realize the post was referring to the plastic surgeries that are considered elective, I am just trying to stick up for Salt Lake and their seeming plethora of plastic surgeons!

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