Body Modification and Ethics: A Helpful Framework

If you aren’t reading Mere-O Notes, you really ought to be. Perhaps it is presumptuous to use an ‘ought’ so early in a discussion of ethics, but so be it. Really, go check it out. It is some of the best content curating on the web from an evangelical perspective.

How do we evaluate body modification in certain extreme cases? One woman has decided that she wants to gain weight for the express purpose of livestreaming herself on the web, either eating or otherwise. Her purpose for gaining weight is simple: there’s a market for “big, beautiful women,” and she can make more money by increasing her size. Jake ends his brief article on the subject with a question:

hope that Christian readers will be disturbed by this story and agree that this isn’t an ethical way to modify the body. But the counter-argument for good moderns will be, “It’s her body, she’s not hurting anyone but herself, and she’s finding a way to actually make a living from it… so what’s the problem?” What’s the appropriate response for thoughtful evangelicals?

The comments are helpful. Two readers ran with the same argument: the body isn’t ultimately ours. We are stewards of the body, and the body is a temple. The above example makes it pretty clear that stewardship has gone out the door, and any reverence due a temple seems missing. I added my own thoughts, which I’ll quote here:

I think the issue gets a little trickier when we start to discuss the issues in the public sphere. Arguments like “the body belongs to God” doesn’t hold much weight with people who either don’t believe in God or don’t think God has any pull in our day-to-day lives, or even from people who hold to other religious beliefs, potentially.

I don’t think that means we can’t make the arguments, though.

On the one hand, I might be tempted to just say we shouldn’t worry about making the arguments. We can’t morally police everyone who isn’t within the fold, so to speak, so why try?

But if we were to make a run at it, I might start by arguing that our bodies are actually more public than we often recognize; if they are indeed our extension into space, it follows that our presence is shifted by the shape and state of our bodies. Perhaps people think they are only harming themselves, but (at least in the above example), there’s certainly the issue of encouraging others (how many people might see this method as a way to make money, and then damage their own bodies in desperation to pay their bills?). There might even be something worth arguing about the strangeness of finding unhealthiness intrinsically attractive (rather than finding someone attractive who is unhealthy, it seems these people are attracted to the act of making oneself less healthy, which strikes me as pretty problematic).

The other arguments we’d have to combat (happiness is the leading/best reason that people should be allowed to do things; ownership is reason enough to justify any action; we are our own greatest authorities, and are sovereigns of our own bodies) are trickier to work through, sans Christianity or some other religious appeal, but I’m not sure they’re impossible.

I won’t repeat myself, but I did want to take some time to advance one of these arguments a bit further. If there’s interest, perhaps I’ll work through some of the others.

That second-to-last paragraph is what I want to hone in on; in particular, I want to talk about the intrinsic public nature of bodies. I’ll admit right off the bat that a lot of my thoughts on bodies, especially theological thoughts, have been influenced by Earthen Vessels, written by Matthew Anderson.

In one sense, our bodies are private: we cover them, and only reveal them in intimate moments (most of us, anyway). But for the most part, our bodies are absolutely public: people look at us and see us, we smell and touch others, we live in the world as embodied beings. So when we make decisions about our bodies–from the food we eat to the people we see to the places we go–we’re acting in a way that, by definition, doesn’t stay with the self.

And so it gets tricky when we start to look at something like intentionally making ourselves unhealthy. While the story cited above may give us all a similar reaction (perhaps it doesn’t; I’d like to hear from you, if that’s the case!), what about when we go and eat fast food, or skip exercising, or avoid vegetables? These are moments when we act against the body, in a way. The counter argument, and the one most of us will probably quickly jump to, is to say something like “Well, pleasure is an important part of life as well. If we don’t all like vegetables, we should sometimes enjoy stuff that isn’t so good for us, because we enjoy it.”

If we push that further, however, we get to the point where we gorge ourselves for the sake of enjoyment, rather than practicing stewardship.

So what do we do to evaluate our own actions in regards to our bodies? What framework should we use; what questions should we ask?

I think the stewardship line is a helpful one to explore. We should take care of the temples we have been given. While it feels like this will immediately lead us all to rigorous diet and exercise schedules, I think we should stretch the analogy a bit more. A temple that is crafted and decorated and chiseled until it looks absolutely perfect may be beautiful, and it may even be functional, but it will also be cold. A place of worship–a church–that discourages people from experiencing emotion or from opening up their very souls is a poor place of worship.

The analogy gets muddled there (I was tempted to say that lots of people frequent the church building, but I’m certain I don’t want to push that line), but the point is this: sometimes we should spend our time attending to things other than temple maintenance. Sometimes it is appropriate to eat something for the pleasure of it, even if it isn’t the healthiest thing we can find. Enjoyment is valuable, as are exercise and vegetables.

But the question should always be one of stewardship.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).