Editor's note: This article was first published in 2010.
A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting next to Nancy Ajram at a beach/restaurant in Batroun - a lazy town in the north of Lebanon. No, not the Nancy Ajram, star of the stage, Melody TV, and many teenage boy's fantasy. I was sitting next to an attempt at Nancy, an approximation of her or rather, a mold of her made of plasticised flesh.
My friends and I had gone to a restaurant that is situated inside a hollowed out rock cove in the sea. There are caves lining the cove that you can swim into and explore. And the food is quite delicious, even if exquisitely overpriced. We arrived first, claimed our plastic table in the shallow water, and promptly went for a swim. When I swam back to the table, a mirage of surgical perfection was surrounding me.
At both tables bordering ours, women and men were also enjoying their afternoon. I immediately noticed a trend; most of the women had been under "the knife", as they say. Their noses, eyes, chins, stomachs and breasts had obviously been reduced, lifted, sculpted, and enlarged. But still, in this sea of heightened and tightened reality, one woman stood out. She had blue contact lens eyes, chestnut brown hair, fair skin, an upturned nose, inviting lips, and a perfectly feminine chin.
She looked like Nancy Ajram, and even more so, she looked like she was trying to look like Nancy Ajram.
The men sitting at the tables were middle aged, puffed on cigars, and had bands of gold hanging from their chests. There wasn't a hint of gym about any one of them. The men and women seemed to be intimately acquainted, and were clearly a large intersecting group of friends, lovers, and married couples. When the check came, the men argued between themselves over who would pay it while the women continued their conversation without pause.
A cut above the rest
Lebanon has one of the highest rates per capita of plastic surgery in the world. Yes, the world. Wherever you look, women of all ages and religious backgrounds, some with hijabs, some in miniskirts, and some with big crosses, proudly wear the bandages of rhinoplasty, the bruised fullness of enhanced lips, and clothes that exhibit their gravity-defying breasts. On Hamra Street, in Achrafieh, in Dahieh and in Aley, the aftereffects of female plastic surgery are on display.
While in much of the world the mark of good plastic surgery is that it looks "natural", in Lebanon it seems the point is to look like you've had work done. Plastic surgery is becoming a mark of status along with BMWs, gelled hair, cigars, tight jeans, suicidal heels and manicured extremities. An entry card into a particular scene that revolves around being seen, attracting money and being a "feminine" woman and/or "having" a beautiful woman.
Furthermore, there is a plastic surgeon to fit (almost) every budget in Lebanon. And if you do not have the money, a bank will give you a loan with the promise that "beauty is no longer a luxury". Instead, beauty is just a scalpel away. Plastic surgery is so "affordable" in Lebanon that a company based out of Dubai, in partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, offers "plastic surgery packages" to their clients.
1.5 million plastic surgeries are performed in Lebanon each year (an estimated 20 percent of them on men), according to the Lebanese Society of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery. Unfortunately, I could not find more detailed statistics as to the rates of elective vs reconstructive plastic surgery, though reconstructuve surgery is never mentioned in the press coverage of this phenomenon in Lebanon.
Furthermore, I could find no clear statistics as how many of the 1.5 million surgeries are performed on Lebanese citizens. Regardless, in a country of four million citizens, where 28 percent of the citizenry are classified as "poor" by economists, such a high number is striking and almost frightening.
Most of the women and men I know feel pressure to look, dress, and act a certain way. They either feel that they are conforming to or rebelling against the requirements of performing their gender within particular beauty regimes. By and large, the women I know feel the pressure to perform a particular physical appearance more intensely than the men do.
Personally, I have struggled with body image issues my entire life. It has taken me years to build a healthier relationship with myself, and it is still a daily struggle. Since moving to Beirut from New York City (itself often cited as a beauty obsessed city) this struggle has become more pronounced. I cannot enter a pharmacy to buy medicine without being assaulted by ads and displays that urge me to take a pill to dissolve cellulite, use a cream that will shrink my waist or whiten my skin, use a lip gloss that contains a mild poison that will sting my lips into seductive plumpness, buy a dye that will make my hair blonder, and take simple tests that will measure my BMI and tell me how overweight I am.
In fact, the pharmacy across the street from my house has just employed a woman whose sole job it is to "push" a new diet pill called "Starve-Ex". I cannot drive through a highway without being told that I need to be thinner, prettier, and less demanding by a cavalcade of mounted female human flesh that is selling things, things, and more things. Tell me, what does a semi-naked woman wearing a "f*#k me" look have to do with selling flat screen TVs, coffee machines, pizza, or my personal favourite, the services of a veterinarian?
There is a widely held assumption that Lebanese women are the most "liberated" of Arab women. No doubt, this assumption partly stems from the fact that Lebanon is considered to be the "liberal", "westernised" exception in the Arab world by both international players and Lebanese hyper-nationalists. For the most part, the story goes, Lebanese women wear what we want (and what we are told we should want), are a large part of the professional workforce, many of us date and yes, many of us have premarital sex.
Lebanon is a country where one of the highest performed surgeries is hymen reconstruction and where a woman can be divorced for not being a virgin. Our pop stars are the most glamorous, our press is more free, and many women drive, drink, and dance with as much vengeance as many men do. Lebanon is a country where banks will give women monetary loans for plastic surgery but where up until last year women could not open bank accounts for their children .
Lebanese women vote in greater numbers than men but Lebanon is a country with four female parliamentarians out of a total 128, of which 0 incorporate feminist causes into their platforms. There are more Lebanese women living in Lebanon than there are men, a statistic that lends itself to the re-entrenchment of beauty and youth as important currencies in the search, or fight, for a mate. Lebanon is a country where women, who form a majority of the population, cannot pass citizenship on to their children or spouses. Lebanon is, as the wise women of the 90s film (itself almost a pornography of consumption) Clueless said, a Monet. It looks good from far away, but when you get close, it's a big mess.
If the measure of freedom is capitalist consumption, then of course Lebanese women are liberated. If the measure of freedom is the rights and duties afforded to citizens, then Lebanese women are still the legal appendages of a patriarchal kinship structure. As a leading Lebanese plastic surgeon opined to Al Arabiya, "It is a national duty for [Lebanese] women to look the best they can."
If the mark of a liberated woman is her ability to circulate as an out and proud consumer and as a producer whose most important commodity is her body, then can you please take back your liberation, your miniskirts, your two piece bathing suits, your shopping malls, your botox and your liposuction, and give me, for example, the right to give Lebanese citizenship to my spouse and to my children or the right to be protected from marital rape? Can we sheathe the scalpels and unleash some transformative change?
We were swimming in the sea when the large group of men and women left the restaurant. One of us, eager to feel the salty water on her skin, had taken her swimsuit off. A rumble of engine approached and there they were, being ferried to their yacht on the restaurant's tourist boat. Then, with the gasp of the anchor leaving the water and the smell of fuel spitting into the sea, they were gone. Like a mirage.
Maya Mikdashi is a a co-founder of Jadaliyya Ezine, and a PhD candidate at Columbia University's Deparment of Anthropology.
A version of this article was originally published on Jadaliyya.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.