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Changing Faces

Nowadays, the fountain of youth wields a scalpel, a bottle of Botox, and collagen injections. Years can be shaved off your life, literally, with a few procedures and surgeries. But have we taken the quest for beauty too far?

faces

A few years ago, I watched the U.S. premiere of "The Swan." In case you missed this rare moment in Reality TV, the show advertised for "ugly ducklings" and "average" women to enter a beauty pageant. Contestants underwent rigorous plastic surgery, liposuction and a new fitness regime over three months — during which time they didn’t see themselves in a mirror until "revealed" to the panel of doctors who had chiseled, tucked and straightened. Two girls competed against each other each week — the winning one advanced to compete with other girls who had gone through similar treatment. Producers called it "the ultimate beauty pageant."

I called it way over the top.

"Believing in Jesus didn’t give me a perfect face or body. It gave me something far more precious — his perfect love."

More than 20 years ago, I watched another show on plastic surgery — only this program focused on a teenage girl with a cleft lip. I don’t know where she was from — I seem to recall some country too distant in my juvenile comprehension to be real. My eyes must have been bulging at seeing the girl’s three lips, though, because I do remember my mother explaining to me that if my cleft palate had been worse, I might have been born with a birth defect like that.

I silently thanked God that I only had two lips.

Since then, I have seen far more split lips, tumors, cleft palates and facial deformities than most people in the nonmedical profession, while working in Communications onboard a Mercy Ship, a floating hospital along the coast of West Africa. Seeing thousands of people who desperately needed surgeries to save their lives put these so-called ugly ducklings into perspective. And it made me want to scream at those doctors on television that they were wasting their time fixing average "imperfections."

I wished the contestants had seen Elizabeth, a girl in her 20s. I met her in Togo, in a tiny country most of us have never heard of, located in a sweltering sliver of West Africa. Elizabeth had hopes and dreams like many of us — only she had a hideous grapefruit-sized tumor growing from the side of her face.

Her tumor was malignant; nothing could be done except to help Elizabeth live her remaining days in dignity. My former roommate Dorothy used to make hospice care visits to patients we couldn’t treat medically, including Elizabeth.

I often went through my small closet onboard the ship and gave Dorothy clothes that I hadn’t worn in a while, or various other amenities like perfume to give to her "patients." Someone had left me a bag of clothes to go through for myself one day — there was a cute strappy checkered dress that I couldn’t fit into, and white sandals I wouldn’t have been caught dead in.

Dorothy gave them both to Elizabeth, so she pranced around declaring how beautiful she looked, while someone took her photo. Someone else from her village sneered that she would be dead soon anyway — who was she kidding?

But Elizabeth kept smiling. She knew she didn’t look normal. She knew she would someday die from the disease raging through her body. She also knew Jesus, and she radiated it from the inside.

Elizabeth, even with a ghastly tumor, knew that physical appearances can be deceiving — they’re not always a measure of what’s inside a person’s heart.

In the end, the "ugly ducklings" shown on "The Swan" didn’t need plastic surgery. They needed heart surgery. Without that operation to change the inside, the other surgeries were just a waste of time.

Back in America, I still find myself thinking about Elizabeth every so often. Her face comes to mind when I see the covers of Glamour, Cosmopolitan and Vogue and I realize society has marketed physical "perfection" as important.

Thousands of people receive surgeries through Mercy Ships that save their lives. And I wouldn’t have been able to eat or speak properly if I still had that hole in the roof of my mouth. But as far as radically altering our appearance because we want to be physically "perfect"… I think I’ll pass.

At the end of the day, I see my 31-year-old face and I notice crow’s feet, post-adolescent acne, and that strip of grey that reappears soon after I dye my hair. But my eyes also reveal to others a belief in something bigger than my appearance. Believing in Jesus didn’t give me a perfect face or body. It gave me something far more precious — his perfect love.

Brenda Plonis is an average-looking freelance writer with big feet, according to society’s standards. She’d rather be known for her feet that bring good news as referred to in Isaiah 52:7 than for her looks.

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