Lebanon: Where beauty never grows old

You can learn a lot about a country by whether beauty pageants play a significant role within its cultural landscape. Women with nervous smiles, lathered in foundation, all donning barely-there bikinis amidst a backdrop of economic or social unrest, somehow seem to go hand in hand. The more a country may struggle, the more the desire appears to grow to elevate beautiful and youthful women. One country where the expectation of women to aspire to the highest levels of pulchritude possible is Lebanon. In this tiny country of seven million, with its smorgasbord of sectarian and political struggles, plenty of room is set aside to suffer the agony of nipping, pulling and tucking, as well as endless hours of sweat expunged in gyms to achieve the victory of good looks and thus social acceptance. What makes Lebanon remarkable is that even in difficult periods, the popularity of surgical procedures and cosmetic enhancements has never abated.

Incredibly, it is estimated that at least 1.5 million cosmetic procedures are carried out each year, with many women coming from neighbouring countries and beyond. The trend started in the mid-1990s and the Lebanese diaspora forms a significant proportion of the clientele who frequent Beirut’s clinics. In an article featured in al-Monitor, one in three Lebanese women is estimated to have had some form of plastic surgery. “After the civil war, the Lebanese notion of beauty became distorted – at times, it was the only mechanism available to feel in control of one’s self”, says Lebanese- Canadian designer Celine Semaan. Although the pressure to stay young and beautiful is a perennial concern of women everywhere, for Lebanese women, it often induces near-chronic anxiety. Being beautiful improves one’s chance of finding a good husband and leading a comfortable life, which virtually makes it an obligation. According to the World Bank, only 26% of Lebanese women are economically active, although the numbers are improving, it is rare for a single woman to live alone.

Photographer Mary Morgan once completed a unique photo collage contrasting images of plastic waste and garbage, with the post-operative detritus found in Lebanese cosmetic clinics. In her view, the country’s, “post-war mentality of living like there’s no tomorrow has created an atmosphere where plastic surgery thrives, but the environment dies”. Numerous news outlets in 2007 reported on Lebanon’s First National Bank’s decision to offer cosmetic surgery loans, making it possible for anyone to go under the knife. The bank’s marketing director at the time noted, “Plastic surgery is a cultural issue. We have been raised on always looking our best”.

During the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, nothing seemed to capture Lebanon’s unique character better than Spencer Platt’s award-winning image of a convertible filled with young Lebanese lovelies, surveying the aftermath of an Israeli bombing raid. The photo aroused controversy, as some accused the individuals of engaging in disaster tourism. However, the subjects were quick to point out that this was not the case. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that it reflected a country turned upside down, but somehow its youth show resilience to look their best, even if hell is raining down. In war zones and places addled my conflict, the sense of escapism that a beautiful woman can arouse in a man is perhaps why it takes on much greater significance. Yet in the last two years, Lebanon’s social problems have reached a tipping point, and in 2019, for the first time, the Miss Lebanon pageant was cancelled, due to the general preoccupation with mass demonstrations. I suppose pain does come before beauty.

While undertaking my post-graduate studies, I shared a student residence with a young Lebanese nursing student, who told me how it is not a wise decision for a Lebanese woman to walk in the street wearing a tracksuit and no makeup, as “everyone will judge you”, and not in a good way. As one foreign aid worker living in Beirut told a journalist from the Times, “It’s kind of impolite to look as if you haven’t made an effort”. The fixation to align one’s appearance to a certain standard is the cause of intense frustration in certain circles. According to Farah Hesdin, Lebanon’s media plays a significant role in shaping attitudes towards appearance, “By polishing women TV presenters to perfection, media [sic] is creating a very concrete image of what women in society should look like”.  It is one of the reasons that some are saying, enough is enough! Graphic designer Christina Atik believes that little girls grow up hearing from their mothers what is expected in how to look and behave, and this affects the culture. The standards of beauty are rigid and in response Atik illustrated six prints, including one featuring commonly heard phrases such as, “It’s not nice for a girl to have body hair” while underneath small green shrubs are depicted growing across a pair of bosoms and in another picture, a Toucan rests upon a girl’s shoulders with its beak aligned with her nose, above it reads, “This nose isn’t nice for a girl”.  

Nevertheless, social pressure to conform is much more intense in the era of Instagram and many more women, (and men) are falling prey to the allure of heavily filtered images. TV shows such as “The Sisters”, on LBC encourage the trend. The show is Lebanon’s own version of “Keeping up with the Kardashians”, and follows the exploits of three pampered Beiruti beauties as they preen excessively; obsess over calories and never leave the house in anything but designer clobber. All of them have clearly undergone cosmetic procedures. Many observers in the region point to the fact that the women who are most idolised for their beauty are veterans of enhancement clinics. They include singers Haifa Wehbe and Nancy Ajram who sell Lebanese beauty to the world. The aesthetic of creamy skin, dark hair, full lips, and a straight nose is ubiquitous within the pages of local magazines such as Mondanité. As you amble your way through this uncanny valley, the homogeneity of the faces staring back at you only makes you wonder what all these ladies used to look like. The more widespread the practice, the more it trickles down to every nook and cranny of society. A beautiful face is regarded as a sculpted face, and bucking this trend is only the preserve of a few, especially when in a 2019 article in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Global Open, a number of Middle Eastern-based plastic surgeons concluded that, “Aesthetic improvements are strongly connected to self-esteem”.

When you live in a country with a growing list of intractable problems such as: unemployment, corruption and service disruptions, a woman’s efforts to beautify herself can still pay off handsomely. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, Lebanon’s beauty parlours and cosmetic surgeries can expect a roaring trade.

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