In May 2007, the First National Bank of Lebanon embarked on a unique media campaign. Some 900 billboards in Arabic and English sprouted up offering loans, not to buy a home or to pay tuition, but to “get the makeover of your dreams.” The corresponding magazine advertisement featured a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman beckoning readers to “have the life you’ve always wanted.” Why would the bank think it would find takers? Answers marketing director George Nasr, “Plastic surgery is a cultural issue. We have been raised on always looking our best.”
Whether Lebanon as a nation is preoccupied with physical appearance is disputable, but the dramatic surge in cosmetic surgery is not. A country with fewer than ten plastic surgeons in 1970 now boasts more than 80, each committed to the business of making women (and, in increasing numbers, men) more beautiful. According to leading doctors, the demand for image-enhancing procedures among Lebanese nationals has risen by 10 to 20 percent since the 2006 war, with many surgeons claiming to see 50 percent more patients today than they did in the 1990s. While official statistics are unavailable, ‘Imad Qaddoura, head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the American University of Beirut’s Medical Center, estimates that demand is on a par with rates in the United States, where 11.8 million operations were performed in 2007. The resulting price competition attracts foreign nationals as well, leading Beirut to be hailed as the “cosmetic enhancement capital” of the Arab world.
What motivates a woman to go under the knife? There are doubtless as many specific reasons as there are patients, but the explosion of cosmetic surgery in Lebanon is a deeply social phenomenon. In various ways, subtle and overt, women who have undergone surgery impel other women to follow suit. The Lebanese media — in particular, glossy women’s magazines — craft an image of the ideal female form that would put Aphrodite to shame. Together, these pressures make up what one might call the beauty regime in Lebanon.
Same Nose, Same Lips, Same Breasts
In a survey administered for this article of Lebanese women who have gone under the knife, 97 percent of the 59 respondents “strongly agreed” or “agreed” with the statement: The media in Lebanon promotes cosmetic surgery procedures. So did magazines and advertisements make them do it? Sixty-one percent said no, while 16 percent ranked the media’s influence at “somewhat,” 14 percent at “a little” and 10 percent at “a lot.”
The wielders of the knife certainly think the media matters. Veteran plastic surgeon Ziad Halabi attributes much of his increased business to “these picture magazines” — society magazines like the glossy Mondanité, over half of which is devoted to photographs of weddings and other gatherings in Beirut. “People like to be seen,” says Halabi.
Skimming through the montages in Mondanité, the reader is indeed inundated with images of women with look-alike fat-injected cheeks, collagen-pumped lips, doll-like noses, wrinkle-free faces (courtesy of botox and restylane) and voluptuous, perky breasts. Because the women pictured are so similar in appearance, the photos work to create an overarching beauty aesthetic for Lebanese women of certain social strata. Says a 25-year old urban planner, “There seems to be a ‘natural’ tendency for constant social comparison among people, especially those of the middle to high income backgrounds.”
Mondanité, which also published 13 articles related to cosmetic surgery from 2005-2008, is only one of over a dozen women’s magazines with a collective monthly circulation of 50,000. The typical format of the magazines is a combination of articles related to beauty, fashion, family and the home; photo layouts from Parisian fashion shows and local events; and an array of advertisements touting everything from Swiss watches to French cosmetics and Italian shoes — most of which are displayed on the lithe, post-pubescent bodies of fair-haired, fair-skinned models.
In Lebanon, perhaps more than elsewhere in the Middle East, a willowy Euro-American female form — fair and straight hair, blue, green or hazel eyes, fair skin, petite nose — is presented as the ideal on billboards and in the media. When the Lebanese woman viewing these images, over and over, reflects back on her own physical appearance, she may receive the message that her body is “unacceptable: too fat, too wrinkled, too old and too ethnic.” Internalizing this message can lead women to embark on a rigorous course of self-surveillance, which may include going under the knife. Once these women are lauded for their newfound youth and beauty, their self-surveillance may become a policing of other women as pressure mounts to conform to a socially sanctioned aesthetic norm. Zahiyya, a 33-year old housewife whose abdominoplasty, circumferential liposuction, abdominal liposuction, teeth whitening and rhinoplasty were the subject of the January 2008 episodes of the Lebanese reality TV show “Beauty Clinic,” comments:
When I was 104 kilograms [229 lbs.], I had very strong self-confidence. I was feeling fine with myself. I was looking in the mirror, “Oh my God, I’m beautiful.”… My biggest problem was with society, with my friends, with my relatives, with all the people around me. Five minutes after meeting me someone would begin, “Why are you so fat? Why don’t you diet? Zahiyya, don’t leave yourself like this.”
The intense social pressure was corroborated by 99 percent of survey respondents who either “strongly agreed” or “agreed” with the statement, “Lebanese social values promote cosmetic surgery.”
The sameness of the images in Mondanité and other women’s magazines recalls the words of Valie Export to the effect that femininity is represented “as grammar of body parts — lips, breasts, legs — that are so interchangeable…that woman herself becomes interchangeable.” It has become common practice in Beirut to joke that, with the aid of scalpels and syringes, a majority of Lebanese women have the same nose, the same lips and the same breasts. The Lebanese apparel company, [In]Leb, has immortalized the quip in a line of tongue-in-cheek T-shirts. Australian-Lebanese artist Cherine Fahd was so frustrated by the prevalence of the nose job in Beirut that she traveled there in 1999 on a mission to celebrate the Lebanese nose as an “endangered species” that teeters on the “verge of extinction.”
Plastic Surgery Sweethearts
Despite the power of images of slender Euro-American women, a plurality of survey respondents named as the most beautiful woman in Lebanon a curvy brunette — the chanteuse Haifa Wehbe.
Since the advent of photography, entertainers and other celebrities have been lauded for their youth, beauty and sexiness — but today there is a catch. While classic beauties like Greta Garbo and Ava Gardner may or may not have undergone cosmetic surgery, it is exceedingly likely that the majority of contemporary A-listers have had their share of nips and tucks. Thanks to sleuths who make it their mission to search the Internet for the photographic evidence, websites abound offering the opportunity to see one’s favorite celebrities surgically unveiled. While a little voyeurism may seem harmless, Virginia Blum contends that these websites’ impact may be perverse: “The before-and-after pattern of the ugly duckling transformed into the gorgeous center of attention is a favorite Hollywood story that saturates female culture; in part, it teaches us that beauty is the inevitable ‘right end.’” As celebrities are exalted for their post-surgical physiques, the resulting media-imposed aesthetic norms have led women the world over to seek out the magic touch of a plastic surgeon to correct their own “flawed” bodies. Armed with images of celebrity noses, lips and breasts, many women are willing to risk life and limb in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection.
So it is in Lebanon, contends Halabi: “They get pictures of celebrities and say I want to look like so and so. And the first thing I tell them is that they don’t look like so and so, and I can’t make them like so and so, they had better tear up that piece of paper.”
Hitting newsstands just in time for Christmas, the January 2008 issue of the fashion magazine al-Hasna’ treated passersby to a provocative cover photograph of pop star Wehbe. Captured in profile, she poses with a plunging neckline and her signature come-hither glance, daring the viewer to peek inside. Opening the magazine, the reader finds a (possibly airbrushed) photo spread featuring Wehbe and another singer, the fresh-faced, perfectly sculpted Nancy Ajram. Wehbe is widely believed to have undergone numerous image-enhancing operations; anecdotes circulate that the number of 24-year old Ajram’s surgeries is equal to her age. While Ajram has never formally acknowledged going under the knife, once again (as with Wehbe) before-and-after photographs tell a different tale. They are Lebanon’s plastic surgery sweethearts.
Yet according to survey respondents, Wehbe, for one, is no less beautiful, because her post-operative image remains true to her surgically unmodified self. A 28-year old television producer posits, “Sure, Haifa’s had lots of procedures, but you can’t tell. They make her more beautiful; it’s the right fillings and the right measurements.” Huda, 31, a teacher and rhinoplasty and botox recipient, states her opinion quite simply, “She just did it right!” And if Wehbe’s look is inspiring a few too many imitators, that is all right, too. “I would rather we all look like Haifa than be ugly,” says Myrna, 25.
Not every woman is so smitten. Zahiyya, the former “Beauty Clinic” contestant, indicts the cult of celebrity: “Here in Lebanon, everybody is looking from outside. This is a disease…. They are not looking from inside, so everybody wants his wife and his girlfriend and his daughter, and all the women around him, to look like Nancy Ajram, like Haifa Wehbe, like blah blah.” As Zahiyya appeared on a makeover reality show, her commentary speaks to the tenuous relationship between self-perception and the hegemonic social norms that are perpetuated in the media and that incite feelings of bodily inadequacy. Women in Lebanon unabashedly evaluate the surgical enhancements of celebrities, pronouncing some surgeries “right” and others “wrong,” but, as per Blum, these appraisals cannot be completely divorced from the “very celebrity-paradigm” who shapes women’s responses to their own faces and bodies. Despite the critical comments, the fact remains that billboards, magazines, television and films teem with images of surgically modified celebrities “selling” a specific ideal of feminine beauty that many women are happy to “buy.”
Beauty Tip for the Busy
It is not just photo spreads that encourage going under the knife. Lebanese women’s magazines complement the visual celebration of aesthetic perfection with convenient “how-to” articles on the technological marvel that is cosmetic surgery. The articles present cosmetic surgery as a life-changing, convenient and affordable practice that offers a temporary reprieve from the evils of aging.
While life expectancy has risen significantly in the last few decades, the age at which one is considered “old” in the eyes of the media is rapidly declining. Take an article from the January 2005 issue of Mondanité with the title, “Feeling Good at 40,” and the subtitle, “In a few months, I will be 40 and I am not ready to grow old.” The piece profiles Lebanese-Argentinean plastic surgeon Elias Chaiben and details the 14 most popular “high-performance” technologies that he deems will “allow women to cross the famous frontier of 40 without shame.” Complete with before-and-after photographs of the buttocks, thighs, backs and faces of satisfied clients, the article proceeds to promote such procedures as the “shock facial,” “vibro-lipo” and “lipokill.” The shock facial delivers a topical protein jolt. The “vibro-lipo” is a “real state-of-the-art” surgery that extracts fat from one part of the body and reinserts it into another area in need of plumping. The “lipokill” technique “attacks and dissolves” fat through a series of micro-injections. The terms for the procedures lauded by Chaiben suggest that aging is an enemy to be fought by any means necessary. A number of women have heeded the call to arms, including Zahiyya, who comments on her “Beauty Clinic” experience, “It was just like going to war. Every time I went to the surgery, I was going, like, I don’t care if I die. OK, I want to live, but I want to live this life beautiful. I don’t want to live with a fat body.”
And cosmetic surgery is quick and easy, too, according to the women’s magazines. An article in the December 2005 edition of Sporteve lauds the fact that women can undergo multiple procedures simultaneously, as popularized by “Beauty Clinic.” The format of the article is question-and-answer, with the chief resident in plastic and reconstructive surgery at a Beirut hospital explaining the advantages of the extreme makeover:
Many women lead an unbalanced way of life, the effects of which can be seen on their face. As such, they don’t want to go through the hassle of fending off these effects through regular exercise and healthy living. Thus, they find that it is easier to undergo plastic surgery and experience a quick change, without compromising their lifestyle.
Plastic surgery as the beauty tip for the busy modern woman? Not only that. Ramzi Maamari, a Brazilian-trained plastic surgeon, spells out the logic in the August 2005 issue of Mondanité. The doctor, who sees “cosmetic surgery as the future of women,” notes: “Indeed, a diet or individualized exercise routine can help one to lose weight, but the harmonious curves of the silhouette are only found if one’s stubborn roundness is treated through liposuction.” As so often in these magazines, the natural body is described here as “stubborn,” a malcontent that just will not “get itself in order.” Susan Bordo argues that such representations of the body are evidence of a broader social reaction against those whose self-satisfaction is not tethered to socially sanctioned aesthetic norms. Obese people who are happily overweight pose a problem to “the rest of us [who] are struggling to be acceptable and ‘normal.’ We cannot allow them to get away with it; they must be put in their place.”
Finally, the genre of cosmetic surgery promotion trumpets the advent of such non-invasive procedures as lipomassage, laser therapy and chemical peels. Not as a replacement for traditional surgery, mind you — “there is no better alternative than a tummy tuck to rectify a sagging abdominal region” — but as an accessory. The surge in non-invasive procedures has opened up cosmetic surgery as a possibility for a host of Lebanese women who ten years ago would not have been able to afford the procedures available — all of which carried price tags in the thousands of dollars. Lebanese plastic surgeons comment that cosmetic surgery has become as ordinary as a visit to the hairdresser. As Ibrahim Maliki effuses on his website, “Plastic surgery is no longer exclusive to the rich and famous. It is not for the vain. It is for all people, it is affordable and, above all, it is safe.”
While women’s magazines echo entrepreneurial doctors in hailing plastic surgery as being “for all people,” Lebanese women are equally complicit in the democratization of the procedures. Ranya, a 25-year old executive assistant, speaks candidly about her own struggle to negotiate the social pressure to be thinner. She underwent liposuction at 18.
I guess my mother thinks I’m overweight? You know, I am a bit chubby and — whatever — I do have curves. My mother has a very strong ideal of what she would like me to be. I mean I don’t know if I’ll ever reach that point where she would be satisfied. I think sometimes I could be anorexic and she would still want me, you know…. Because I think it’s not so much the way I look as it is a certain control over me, and it becomes a control over my body and my physicality. And she uses the excuse, that I’m the one that tells you the truth and I’m the only one that cares about you to tell you the truth. So I think it’s more about a kind of mother-daughter relationship than it really is about the way I look or the way that I appear.
Ranya’s mother has herself undergone two semi-facial lifts, blepharoplasty (reshaping of the eyelids) and liposuction, which suggests that her claim to be telling her daughter “the truth” about her bodily deficiency may be veiling deep-seated feelings of her own. Likewise, Maya, who underwent rhinoplasty, remarks that her nose did not really bother her, but rather it was her mother who “hated it.” Whether it is a mother who encourages her daughter to have a nose job, a woman who chastises a friend for “letting herself go,” or another who belongs to a social circle in which everyone has “done everything,” Lebanese women play a decisive role as “token torturers” in disciplining their own bodies and the bodies of other women.
But the intense social pressure on Lebanese women to have cosmetic surgery does not come exclusively — or even mainly — from family and friends. The beauty regime in Lebanon could not exist without the omnipresent images of the media. The transnational advertising campaigns featuring the Euro-American female form purvey an ideal of womanly beauty that, as for most Western women, would require surgical intervention to approximate. Meanwhile, with the faces and bodies of Lebanese pop divas gracing magazine covers and billboards, with television airing their video clips and live performances, Lebanese women are constantly consuming, by choice or not, depictions of the Lebanese celebrity body as technologically modified, flawless and forever young.