The ethics of body modifications

One of the points Matt raises in Earthen Vessels is that evangelicals should probably be a bit more careful about our recent embrace of body modifications. Citing the common line, “it’s my body, so why can’t I get a tattoo if I want?” Matt quotes his wife who once in a moment of frustrations asked, “If someone told you they’re going to chop off their arm because they like their body better with one arm than two, are you really going to say, ‘well, it’s your body’?” Obviously that’s an extreme example, but it makes the point effectively enough: Is simply insisting on the ownership of one’s body a good argument for body modifications? And if it isn’t, then what’s a better way to think about the issue?

To frame it another way, if we can tell a person, “No, you should not chop off your arm, it is wrong,” then how do we distinguish between that kind of extreme body modification and the more common types of body modification, like piercing and tattooing? I think we can draw distinctions between those different types (I’m not opposed to pierced ears, after all), but how we do so is vital.

These considerations are background for thinking about this recent story from Britain which raises uncomfortable questions about the ethics of body modification: A 23-year-old woman is eating 5000 calories a day (including having her boyfriend force feed her with a funnel) in order to reach her weight goal of 420 pounds. (Before beginning this “project,” she weighed 112 pounds.) Her reason for wanting to gain that much weight? There are people online at “big, beautiful women,” sites who will pay to watch a livestream of her eating. I 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?

  • JBM

    Well for starters a Tattoo doesn’t damange the body, it just alters it slightly. My wife and I have matching tatoos, 1 Peter 4:8 on our rib cages. A thoughtful response to the woman eating 5,000 calories would of course be 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Our bodies are temples and are not our own. We were purchased for a price….
    I think it’s pretty clear this woman is not treating her body like a temple. I doubt that she would argue otherwise. The other analogy…Lopping your arm off..also is clearly damaging to the body. Whereas, resonable people can disagree whether a tattoo or piercing is damaging to our “temples” or not, no one would argue that the other examples above are damaging. The question for Christians who want a tattoo or piercing is..”Why do you want it?” I think usually the motives behind the alterations may be the sin, and not the act of tatooing etc itself.

  • Christopher

    I think the appropriate Christian response begins with a rebuttal of the “It’s my body” logic. No, in fact, it isn’t my body. It belongs to God, and I am only a steward. What I do with it should honor its rightful owner.

    That doesn’t answer the question of whether body modification is acceptable, but it does provide a framework within which to discuss it.

  • jamesfarnold

    The other responses (at the moment, two of them, from Christopher and JBM) are solid ways to approach this, if we are talking to a Christian crowd (evangelical or otherwise).

    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.

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  • jamesfarnold

    I actually wrote about this (and included my comment below) over at Evangelical Outpost: