Sleiman Kalach works at both the Verdun and Achrafieh branches of the well-known Canelle bakery. He describes his female clientele as always sporting high heels, being perfectly manicured with obviously blown out hair. “If she’s wearing flats, it’s because she is going to the gym,” he told NOW Lebanon. “And when she leaves the gym, she’s the same as when she walked in, in full-make up.”

According to the 28-year-old, “Lebanese women have lost their simplicity, and they all look the same.” Not only that, but they have no shame in flaunting it. In Western countries, most teenagers who get a nose job shy away from going out in public immediately after the procedure, but bandaged noses abound Beirut’s most elite campuses. Whether pinned up to the nines or reconfigured to fit an idealized prototype, Lebanese women seem willing, if not desperate, to nip, tuck and doll-up.

To Lara Tarakjian, the executive director of Silkor, one of the region’s largest laser medical centers, cosmetic surgery is on the rise. “Today, it’s a trend,” she told NOW Lebanon, adding that what is particular in Lebanon is that it is often overly done. “I know people in the US who have had plastic surgery, Botox and fillers, but they do it in a more discrete and subtle manner.”  It is worth noting that plastic surgery is not properly regulated in Lebanon, she added.

Beirut has become a world capital for medical tourism and pioneered the concept of loans specifically for plastic surgery in 2007. Yet people in the country are still struggling to pay for their most basic daily needs. A 2011 World Bank analysis found a whopping 20 percent of Lebanese live under $2,500 annually.

While many defend the idea of using plastic surgery services and technology if available, others grapple to understand the origin of Lebanese society’s obsession, and subsequent time and monetary investment, with “looking good.”

Although statistics are not 100 percent reliable, Lebanon ranks among the top five for most surgeries per capita alongside the US, Brazil and Venezuela, said Bahaa Arbid, a plastic surgeon from Trad and Saint Georges hospitals.

In 2010, a documentary by French TV M6 reported that one out of three Lebanese woman had undergone some form of cosmetic work, with such figures likely to increase.

According to the report, the country’s conflict-stricken history could be used to justify the rising phenomenon. Lebanese surgeons honed their plastic surgery skills during the civil war, helping reconstruct those with injuries and misconfigurations. Today, the business focuses on beautifying the body according to standards that appeal to the masses, frequently set by celebrities like Angelina Jolie or Haifa Wehbe.

In order to understand the wider fixation with appearances, “Lebanon has a unique cause-and-effect timeline that is symptomatic of a post-war society, which has suffered from trauma,” said Sarah Mallat, a sociologist and researcher at the American University of Beirut who wrote her thesis on plastic surgery. “[There is a] huge brain drain, poor economic situation, uncertainty of the future, political instability [from which the image obsession] stems,” she said.

In addition, Lebanon is often perceived as a “country of comfort,” and women from a certain class are not necessarily in the work force, have help at home and have more time to polish their appearance.

Another particularity of Lebanese society, said Mallat, is that mothers are frequently encouraging their daughters to get some work done, an endorsement that can have dire effects on the child’s self-confidence, already threatened by pressure from the media and its standards of beauty.

Ironically today, many argue that surgery helps with a child’s confidence level. One Lebanese woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that at the age of 16, she had a nose job to boost her self-esteem, and so did her sister. “I feel that if it affects her confidence, a girl should get [surgery] done,” she told NOW Lebanon. “But it’s dangerous too. I have friends who started with their nose and ended up doing their breasts, lips and more. It’s a slippery slope.”

But putting the confidence factor aside, it seems Lebanese woman are terrified of aging, and thus, are failing to do so gracefully. One physician reported a trend by which daughters encourage their mothers to rejuvenate.

When asked whether or not Lebanese males play a role in pressuring women into looking a certain way, Kalach admitted that several of his friends set high standards for their girlfriend, wife or potential partner.

This might explain why “[plastic surgery] is coming to the point where it is as common as going to the gym to be fit,” said Mallat. She stressed that marriage remains Lebanese women’s number one priority, a particularly challenging endeavor given the lopsided sex ratio. According to a UNDP report, the ratio between 30 to 34-year-old single males and 25 to 29-year-old single females is seven to ten.

Granted, things are slowly changing with more women getting higher degrees and joining the work force. But Mallat said that even for young women with a career, looking good is high on the list of qualifications. “A surgeon even told me looking good has become part of a woman’s CV,” she stated.

And so the obsession spills into the professional realm in a form of superwoman complex. “It’s not education or the other,” Mallat told NOW Lebanon. “You have to do it all. There is no excuse to be a career woman without beauty.”

 

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