Beastly beauty

Sarah John

I’ve always felt the pressure and admit to cringing under society’s critical eye. In fashion-conscious Beirut, women are expected to look, well, almost perfect. And I – in my jeans, shirt and comfortable shoes – just didn’t fit in.

‘How do you expect to get married?’ asked a cousin of mine years ago. ‘A young woman must always wear skirts and high heels.’ (A few years later, when I got engaged, I was the first to inform him.)

A friend’s mother insisted she wear heavy make-up to go outdoors when she turned 18. My friend hated it. ‘Why can’t I just be me?’ she’d moan.

The truth is, few women here can be themselves. An unkempt appearance draws looks, a little protruding fat brings smirks and unfashionable clothes become a source of gossip.

The importance placed on perfect looks has spurred dozens of beauty contests in the tiny city. Hardly a weekend in the summer goes by without a televised contest.

Beauty salons are profiting. Few slots are available, should you call. They are taken up by friends like Maya who rushes every day to the hairdresser before work.

I dared to suggest that she skip a day and meet me for coffee. She gave me a cold look. ‘I wouldn’t look the same,’ she said. ‘People would stare.’

My mother, who runs vocational schools, recently reported to me that she had to close down two sewing classes and replace them with hairdressing lessons. ‘It used to be that girls couldn’t wait to become seamstresses,’ she complained. ‘Now, all they want to do is to open beauty salons.’

Gyms have sprouted up in almost every area – charging high prices. With an average salary of $700 per month, many people think nothing of putting a quarter of their income into gym fees.

‘I can’t deal with all this pressure,’ complained Lamisse after giving birth to her third child. I sympathized. We were both struggling to lose our post-pregnancy weight – to no avail. We would both seethe inwardly as acquaintances kept pointing out the obvious. ‘You haven’t lost the weight yet, have you?’ they kept saying with a hint of a snicker.

So we avoided mingling much in public areas. I didn’t see Lamisse for a few months and then she suddenly reappeared at a social event. Her slim figure was the obvious envy of many women, including myself.

‘Liposuction and tummy tuck,’ she whispered to me. ‘I highly recommend it.’

Plastic surgery has become the Lebanese woman’s dream solution. Women, and to a lesser extent, men are flocking to the surgeons. Nose surgery seems to be most in demand followed by lip botox injections, breast jobs, liposuction, cheek implants, chin implants and facelifts. In 1965, there were just 6 plastic surgeons in Lebanon; today, over 50 plastic surgeons struggle to meet the high demand.

‘There’s no doubt that there’s a higher tendency for people to have plastic surgery in Lebanon than other countries,’ one doctor was quoted as saying in a newspaper a few days ago. Low medical costs – as little as $1,000 for a nose job – has made plastic surgery available to much of society.

Poor or rich, veiled or unveiled, plastic surgery seems to have infiltrated the lives of many women. Some have taken out loans to pay for surgery. Others have formed groups where each member has to pay a certain amount of money into a kitty. The collected amount is presented to each woman in turn.

‘My cousin has decided to use the money for surgery,’ said Ali, a taxi driver. ‘She went and had her cheeks and lips puffed or whatever you call it.’ Ali shook his head in disapproval. Another passenger in the taxi chipped in.

‘I feel with these women,’ she said. ‘I’m tired of thinking about my looks all the time. I’m tired of friends telling me how my hair or dress should be. I’m even tired of all this makeup. And most of all I’m tired of continuously wearing heels.’ Neither plastic surgery nor a gym were options for her. The costs of both were too daunting. So she jogs every evening for an hour and half.

‘I have to keep my figure,’ she said. ‘I’ll never hear the end of it if I gain a little weight.’

I understand her. People have little mercy when criticizing each others’ looks. Without meaning to, you find yourself living for the moment – when someone says about you, ‘Doesn’t she look grand!’ Only then does one make it in Beirut society.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

New Internationalist issue 369 magazine cover This article is from the July 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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