Sitting in a beauty salon in one of the elite areas in Beirut, I heard the continuous, terrified screams of a young girl. I looked around at the other patrons and could see that they heard it as well. The terrible screaming and desperate pleading continued, and soon everyone sitting there had risen to their feet in concern, asking about the source of these screams. It sounded like the girl was being raped, or horribly abused. She was begging an unknown person to please stop what was being done to her. We all felt very alarmed.
After a period of furious inquiry, the manicurists at the salon informed everyone that a fourteen-year-old girl had been brought by her mother to have her body hair removed, including the sensitive parts. The staff of the salon said that they had advised the mother against this act and that it was inappropriate for the age of her child. Still, the mother had insisted, saying that she wanted her daughter to look beautiful in her bikini, especially since it was summertime and they regularly go to the beach.
As an activist and a professional in the field of women’s rights, the trembling and terrified voice of the girl reminded me of the violence that young women in the Arab region and throughout the world systematically experience. The image of a ten-year-old girl in upper Egypt, Yemen, or Sudan who is dragged across the floor by her mother to be circumcised, or who is forced to marry despite her young age, were the thoughts that crossed my mind. As I learned what was happening in this upscale salon, I couldn’t help but reflect that those other practices, as well, were carried out under the name of beauty and honor.
The idea of beautifying young girls is pervasive in the Arab region, although it varies by social class and family education. Many girls are senselessly mutilated, circumcised and cut because it is thought to make them more appealing for marriage. Others are subjected to oppressive beauty practices because the labor market requires “good looking women” for certain jobs. Even in the wealthier areas of a country like Lebanon, there are such tremendous expectations of what a young woman should look like, which makes girls as young as 15 undergo plastic surgery. These cheek augmentations or nose jobs can destroy a young woman’s natural body and they often end up leading to medical complications and bleak facial expressions and most importantly serious emotional and physical damage are irreversible.
Stereotypes about girls’ and women’s appearance are strongly perpetuated by media representations that endlessly promote a narrow concept of beauty, often to make women feel insecure and to sell unnecessary products or services. Young girls are observing and learning that if they do not force themselves into these limited ideas of attractiveness then they will not be able to find good relationship partners or comfortable jobs.
Women in the Arab region are frequently beset by conflicting gender expectations. Often, they are expected to be covered in public, while in other specific contexts such as the workplace they are expected to present their bodies and to meet enforced beauty standards. One recent example of this is when the Broumana municipality in Lebanon admitted to recruiting female police officers who would look appealing in tight shorts. The beauty standard was the main selection criteria because the city wanted to present a sexy and liberal appearance to attract tourists.
There is an urgent need to change the way feminine beauty is perceived and to reject the practices that inflict torment on women in the name of beauty. Particularly for young girls, the notion of beauty standards is one of the most common underlying justification for many forms of violence and abuse. We should learn to be more appreciative of a wider range of natural beauty, and to understand how personality traits such as internal strength, poise, determination, and knowledge can produce much greater attractiveness than the shallow look of cosmetic surgery.
What can be done in countries such as Lebanon to ensure that girls and women will no longer go through such humiliation and abuse in the name of beauty? Civil society organizations, in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, can create campaigns that challenge some of these beauty stereotypes and oppose harmful practices. They should increase awareness on the harm that is done to women and girls in the name of beauty and take efforts to prevent the worst abuses. Also, the media has an important role to play, as its messages reach deeply into every household. An emphasis should be placed on helping mothers to become more educated about the way beauty expectations can harm their daughters, so that mothers can help resist these pressures and so that they will certainly not subject the young girls to terrifying and painful experiences against their will.
Fully changing the social stereotypes and narrow expectations about women’s beauty will take time. However, there is no reason why we cannot immediately start to oppose harmful beauty practices and to protect the women and girls we care for.
*Mehrinaz El Awady (Ph. D.) is the Director of the Centre for Women at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ESCWA.
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