Flesh Burqa?

July 13 2019 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I have just turned 21 and I am really looking forward to life, especially now that I have found a job as a receptionist at a 4 star hotel. My attractive looks and knowledge of foreign languages will certainly have played a role in getting this prestigious position. My looks, however, are not perfect and, in part for my own personal pleasure, in part to increase my chances of promotion even further, I am thinking of getting a little plastic surgery performed on my slightly crooked nose. I would like to have the so-called Greek nose, which is also called the ‘straight nose’. However, my boyfriend, as well as my parents, are against it. My boyfriend says that he loves me just as I am. Even my confessor tried to talk me out of it. I would, however, feel much more confident in myself if I had this more imposing type of nose. What do you think?


Your question is becoming more and more common. Cosmetic surgery is more affordable and accessible than ever. More women, and men, are turning to it to address concerns about their physical appearance. Especially in our Instagram-able culture, everyone wants to look and feel their very best.

While both Sts Paul VI and John Paul II are on record for praising cosmetic surgeons’ ability to help people live normal lives after accidents, disfiguring surgeries, or birth defects, the Church does not have a cut-and-dried teaching on the use of plastic surgery for cosmetic, non-therapeutic procedures. That said, this is not the same thing as saying that the Christian is free to do whatever he or she wants. All forms of surgery, especially those involving general anesthesia are serious and potentially life-threatening, and should not be entered into lightly. Making a good decision on this ideally involves a good deal of prayerful reflection and consultation with one’s pastor or spiritual director.

The Catechism states, “If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection” (2289).

In short, when cosmetic surgery is employed for medical, therapeutic ends, if can be laudable, but the more it is used to tweak one’s body to get it more and more in line with a particular, personal vision of a physical ideal, the less legitimate it becomes and the more it can lapse into the sin of vanity. To be clear, vanity isn’t the alleged sin of wanting to look good. It is the attempt to use the pursuit of physical beauty to cover up for psychological or spiritual flaws; the belief that if I can just look good enough on the outside, I can get by without working in the things that aren’t so great about me on the inside.

It is not unusual for people to turn to cosmetic surgery in an attempt to address issues that are more emotional and spiritual than physical. Their physical appearance doesn’t make their life more difficult or impair their ability to function. They just “want to feel good” about themselves, and they believe a little nip here and a little tuck there will do the trick. The problem is that there is a good deal of research suggesting that when people pursue cosmetic surgery for emotional reasons rather than pragmatic, if not medical, ones, they often don’t feel any better about themselves. In fact, within a few months of their surgery, most people in this situation find some other reason to feel bad about themselves.

In fact, in 2015, an unofficial document issued by the Pontifical Council for Culture suggested that cosmetic surgery of the type you are seeking could be thought of as a kind of “burqa made of flesh.” That is to say, it may represent an outward, oppressive ideal of beauty enforced upon women who are made to feel self-conscious for failing to conform to an unrealistic physical standard.

Since the Church does not offer a definitive answer to your question, I cannot tell you what you should do. But I would ask you to consider why you are pushing so hard to make this change, especially when both your pastor and your boyfriend are counseling you against it. What are you really hoping to fix about yourself?

Updated on July 13 2019