On Saturday afternoon, I decided to head out to a café alone to enjoy a bit of sunshine. I ordered a lemonade with crushed ice, since it’s still quite warm in Beirut, and settled in for a spot of people watching. The fact that I was sitting alone, not waiting for anyone and didn’t have a laptop with me, seemed to puzzle my waiter. He kept asking if anyone was joining me, and I kept saying no. I was tempted to tell him he needn’t feel too much pity, that I’ve got plenty of friends but occasionally enjoy a bit of time alone with my thoughts. But I decided against it for fear of blowing his mind and straining his seemingly limited IQ.
A quick glance at the café’s patrons revealed every Beirut cliché. From the bored housewives ignoring their kids whilst armies of Filipino maids struggled to contain the nascent wrath of the bevy of spoilt little brats to the wannabe Golden Boys, wearing hand-me-down suits on a Saturday, smoking a fat cigars jacked from daddy’s cabinet. It was fascinating to just sit there, ignoring the contents of every conversation and just watching the social interactions. Listening in on the conversations wouldn’t have added much to my understanding of this herd anyway, since their focus seems to be primarily on appearance.
Now, anyone who says they don’t care about appearances is a consummate liar. We all care, and it’s probably a good thing. As evolved social beings, we are programmed to infer a certain amount of information just by looking at our surroundings, which include the people around us. Over time, we make decisions over who is approachable, less so, threatening and so on. A lot of these assumptions will probably turn out to be erroneous, but it’s a practical social construct.
Most of us don’t head out into the world every morning looking quite the way we woke up. We wash our face; put on some form of clothing that we think reflects our mood or our obligations. I personally tend to lather a non-negligible amount of gel into my hair on a daily basis to live up to the visual stereotype of a sleazy Mediterranean. So, we all know that our appearance matters. For some it matters more than others, and for some it becomes a sickness.
Beyond the things we can manage through a new haircut or a funky pair of jeans, there are deeper changes to our appearance that require a bit more work. And just as I was thinking this, and explaining to my waiter’s colleague that I really truly wasn’t waiting for an imaginary friend, it hit me. About 50% of the people around me had had some form of plastic surgery.
It’s no secret that Lebanon has a love affair with the scalpel and Botox. We were the first country in the world to offer a bank loan to get a boob job. What a source of pride. We’re the number one country for plastic surgery operations in the world per capita, ahead of stalwarts such as Brazil and Venezuela. Again, my heart is swells with exultation. Newspaper articles and television shows around the world have expounded upon the phenomenon, trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with us.
Not that we consider anything is wrong with us. Women seem to visit their plastic surgeon with the ease that I visit my barber. I mean, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with surgery. I, for example, have been shortsighted since I was 8 years old. My glasses function perfectly well and I don’t walk into any walls (when I’m sober at least), yet I’m very tempted to have an elective surgery to correct my eyesight. I guess a nose job is the same.
But it’s the addiction to surgery that is a fundamental problem. Having a nose job is one thing. Have a nose job, breast enlargement, a tummy tuck, Botox and whoknowswhatelse is available these days is bordering on the grotesque. Actually scrap that, it’s smack bang in the middle of grotesque. It is the definition of grotesque. Distorted and unnatural; abnormal and hideous.
We’re not an ugly people. Mediterraneans have been reputed for their charm and looks for centuries. Anytime I mention that I’m Lebanese anywhere in the world, I get two reactions in quick succession. “ah Lebanon! I love hummus. And the women are gorgeous!” I agree. I love hummus too. And the women might have been gorgeous at some point in time. But now they insist on looking like some form of transvestite hybrid of Haifa Wehbe and Micheal Jackson. A nation of proud bimbos.
I am, of course, making huge and unfair generalizations. Many women continue to be shining beacons of beauty and intelligence. But a substantial amount of our female compatriots are afflicted with a sad illness. According to the Mayo Clinic Women’s Health Source, body image dissatisfaction is often associated with decreased self-esteem, self-confidence and psychological well-being. These emotional and psychological issues are what cause many women to turn to cosmetic surgery. But when you hammer away at your face and amplify and diminish, do you really address those issues?
I read somewhere once that Lebanon owed its surplus of plastic surgeons to the sad legacy of the civil war. People initially trained to repair the damage done by the inhumanity of sentient beings defacing each other, had to find a peacetime application to their skills. And there have been many takers. These surgeons are often at fault too. Why are they allowed to eschew all notions of ethics? If a woman has been in for 5 operations in the last year, it’s probably time you sat her down and had a chat with her, not spliced her open and padded your bank account. The problem isn’t limited to women, but discussing the himbos and steroid-freaks that populate Beirut merits another post on its own.
What does all this surgery mean? We’ve turned into a country full to the brim with people who don’t want to look like themselves. But who do we end up looking like? No one really. We look like bastardized versions of ourselves melded awkwardly with an idealized Other. Vacuous shells that tick all the boxes of what beauty should be, yet are entirely and profoundly ugly in every way. We’ve become walking versions of the post-war shiny yet soulless architecture we’ve chosen for this city. Amnesia on legs, a grotesque carnival freak-show.