Mirror Mirror on the Wall…

Mirrors, such a shallow reflection…

When you live in Lebanon, where physical beauty following particular standards has become your ticket to ‘success’ (fine marriage, fine job, good connections, more money,….) or at least your guarantee to be ‘accepted’ by others, the pressure can be often unbearable, leading to:  Insecurities, Depression, Anxiety, Extreme Eating disorders, Narcissism, Paranoia, Addiction, Mutilation, Obsessive Compulsion Disorders, etc.  Most Lebanese girls and women wish they were thinner, when only few of them are in fact medically overweight!

You may ask yourself: is our idea of beauty as Lebanese  through nature or nurture? Are we born knowing what is considered beautiful or are we nurtured to see beauty? Even if the latest findings in genetics prove the existence of a ‘collective memory gene’, ideas of beauty are mostly socially constructed, and the Lebanese ones, i.e. mainstream ideas, have become so powerful, that teaching university students about the beauty of general culture, philosophy, … well, ‘the beauty of the mind’, and that self-identity goes far beyond appearances, has become a challenge! Even trying to teach about the importance of building knowledge has turned into an ‘insane initiative’ led by geek dinosaurs!

Recently, many of my students started their presentations on dating by saying: ‘We are women, so we have to be thin – size 0 -, have long dark hair, big lips, and if there is a need for plastic surgery, we will definitely use it, and that will help us find our Adam’ or ‘As men, we would like our girlfriends to be as described by our colleagues, meaning the Haifa or Maya Diab – famous plastic bomb Lebanese entertainers – type’. This was quite telling, not merely about the images created and sold by Music, Cosmetic and Media companies, but also about how such images have become ingrained in our day-to-day lives.

The real problem lies in the social construction of beauty as a uniform standard, leading to disempowerment! As Naomi Wolf argues in her book The Beauty Myth, the objectification of women’s bodies to satisfy an objective and universal standard of beauty is inherently problematic and disempowering for women. A look at the adverts at any TV station provides many examples of a woman’s body presented as a product which can (and should) be perfected. “Body sculpting” is promoted as if women’s bodies were a piece of art.

“If ageing and wrinkles are natural and irreversible, diversity in body shapes and sizes is evidence that humans are not produced in factories. Different stages of life and the uniqueness of physical attributes should be socially acceptable. Nevertheless, many women still feel tempted or compelled to spend money on slowing down or reversing these attributes. What for? To meet a beauty standard set by “others” – usually men. The whole exercise becomes a trap. Women strive to achieve the impossible and the resulting failure lowers their self-esteem and confidence. Even if they achieve a goal, there is always another target to aim for. That’s to say nothing of peer pressure or the desire to stand out from the crowd. Women are told to believe in and enjoy the empowerment that flows from attracting the attention of men. There is nothing wrong with this basic human instinct. The problem lies in the fact that the tools to draw the attention are selected by men. Historically, men exercised control over women by confining them to the private sphere and covering up their bodies. In the modern day, both are difficult to justify, even in the Arab world. So control is now exerted by uncovering a woman’s body or by imposing on women unrealistic expectations of physical “perfection”. What may seem liberating superficially may actually be a recipe for enslavement”.

Each and every woman should ask whether it is worth chasing an illusory ideal of beauty that dehumanizes women by seeking to convert them into stereotyped dolls.The concept of beauty does not need to be only physical, nor invasive, harmful, objective, universal, externally dictated and competitive.

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Image source: https://www.facebook.com/onemillionvjj?ref=stream

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  1. Je suis de l’avis de ‘anonymous’. Vous êtes courageuse Dr. Chrabieh, vous une figure de plus en plus connue dans le monde académique libanais, militez pour les droits des femmes et vous vous attaquez aux sujets tabous… Un défi en soi! La question des apparences et de la beauté physique est des plus importantes car elle empêche l’avancement de notre société. Lorsqu’on s’arrête à un seul aspect de ce qui nous constitue ou constitue notre identité et qu’on en fait la seule priorité, on néglige de ce fait les autres aspects, dont notamment la créativité, l’intelligence, la sagesse, la culture de la paix,…

  2. Love it! It surely gives me a positive boost on a Sunday morning!
    am sick of draconian diets!
    Love your holistic approach to life!
    You are indeed a beautiful woman, inside-out!

  3. Dr Chrabieh, i don’t find it to be a problem to have uniform standards to follow for physical beauty. Those are guidelines… what is the problem with using botox, plastic surgery and diets to look good and find a good husband?

  4. Sorry Aisha but I have to answer…
    Slimness and beauty are so much identified with one another that it seems almost natural to think this way. Historically speaking, it is not. In fact, today’s beauty ideals are relatively new.
    Prior to the 20th century, attractive women were quite curvy. A classical Renaissance painting, titled “Three Graces” by Raffael (1505), reflects the beauty ideal of that time. By our standards, those ladies look rather overweight. The same goes for the so-called “Rubens figures,” named after the famous Dutch artist’s many paintings of nude, fleshy women.
    Historians have pointed out that for our ancestors being well fed was a sign of wealth and status because only the well-off could afford an abundance of food, while the poor had little to eat and looked thin and haggard. Today, the situation is reversed: Weight problems mostly affect the lower class, while the upper crust spends millions on diets and fitness programs to stay slim and look youthful.
    It is quite fascinating to see how the perception of attractiveness has changed over time. One common denominator, however, seems that beauty ideals were never attainable for most people because they were so unrealistic. Especially women have nearly always faced the impossible: Whether the fashion of the day called for a classical “hourglass” figure (equal size of hip and bust, narrow waist), an athletic look (muscular, tight pelvis, big bust) or “Barbie” type body (slim, big bust, tight pelvis, long legs), the vast majority of women was never able to measure up.
    Today’s demands seem higher than ever.
    The current media ideal of thinness for women is achievable by less than 5 percent of the female population.Because TV ads, billboards, magazines, etc. bombard us with images of beautiful people all the time, they make exceptional good looks seem real, normal and attainable. But that’s an illusion and it makes people terribly insecure about their appearance.
    And even attractive folks can be insecure about their looks and feel pressed to maintain or enhance what nature has given them. Studies have shown that beauty and self-esteem don’t always correlate.
    Statistically, women tend to be more critical of their appearance than men. Most females don’t seem to be satisfied with what they see in the mirror, at least not without makeup. Men have a better self-image and even tend to over-estimate their attractiveness. Gay men are more concerned about how they look than straight men, but lesbians seem to be less worried than heterosexual women.
    What’s considered beautiful may differ from country to country and culture to culture, but increasingly there is a global trend to follow the Western standards. In one study that involved young women from around the world, almost all participants named celebrities from Hollywood as their role models for attractiveness. Being skinny, tall, with long hair and perfect teeth and elegantly dressed in Western-style clothing ranked highest on the list of beauty ideals. “The ideals of the ‘beauty culture’ in the industrialized world are rapidly spreading through the remotest areas, affecting the way of life and the sensibility of all, regardless of skin, religious beliefs, or cultural heritage,” says Julian Robinson, fashion designer and author of “The Quest for Human Beauty” (W. W. Norton & Co Inc., 1998).
    The downside is that people who don’t live up to these standards (the vast majority) are judged – and often judge themselves – as a failure. For example, prejudices against overweight people can cause especially women to develop very low self-esteem, which can leave them socially isolated and emotionally depressed. These problems are not generated by the weight problems themselves but by the widely accepted association of beauty and thinness. Struggling with weight issues from a health perspective can be hard enough. Having a social stigma attached to it makes it much worse.

  5. “While we cannot ignore the cultural standards around us, we can decide for ourselves how we respond to them. The attraction to physical beauty will always be part of our socio-cultural landscape with implications on status, acceptance and suitability as a mate. But that doesn’t mean we have to surrender to it like an oppressive force that prevents us from accepting ourselves as we are in every shape or form”.

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