Mama said, you’re a pretty girl, what’s in your head, it doesn’t matter. Brush your hair, fix your teeth. What you wear is all that matters,” croons Beyoncé in a song off her latest album.
The music video to Pretty Hurts strives to uncover the definition of pretty while making it clear (with unflinching visuals) that the road to pretty is often, well, pretty messed up.
There’s Beyoncé playing a beauty queen ingénue, doing dubious things (swallowing handfuls of diet pills, forcing herself to vomit) to attain a goal of perfection. Uncomfortable viewing yes, but not just celluloid exaggeration. These are the actions of millions of young girls and women every single day.
Are we surprised though? In our digital hyper-public age where every picture is an opportunity for a few ‘likes’, people go to extremes to look good. Selfies have exploded on social media, the word has found its way into the dictionary and its impact is felt on the operating table.
This year, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported an increase in requests for procedures due to patients being more self-aware of looks in social media. Also alarming is a rise in patients under the age of 30.
And for those who can’t afford plastic surgery, eating disorders and diet pills pick up the slack. On Pinterest, ‘thinspiration’ is one of the most pinned categories, with correlating pictures of women with jutting chest bones, bobbleheads and zero per cent body fat.
The hashtags are equally telling: #thinspo, #skinny, #perfect, #jealous, #want, #thighgap… all pretty pressure at work.
Studies offer depressing facts: attractive people earn more money, land better jobs and live more successful lives. Images on television and billboards show a world of long-legged skinny women. Women with blemish-free skin, thigh gaps, lustrous hair, shiny teeth and the perfect life to go along with their perfect bodies and faces. The implication being that those perfect lives come as a result of those perfect faces and bodies.
For those perpetuating these images, there’s money to be made. Last year the global cosmetic market raked in $170 billion, and analysts estimate that our ever-increasing obsession with looks means this figure will hit an excess of $260 billion by 2017.
With Hollywood, the media and marketeers setting the tone, the rest of the world picks up the cues: thin is in. There is power in being pretty. We too must attain the same.
It’s real, tangible and affecting, says Dubai clinical psychologist, Dr Saliha Afridi. This pressure has seeped into society. She cites the ever-increasing role of social media in our lives as a huge contributing factor.
But also not to be discounted are the early emotional cues that many are exposed to. “Whether a toy like a doll, or cartoons that kids watch – the standard of beauty is inadvertently communicated and it is usually an impossible and airbrushed standard to achieve,” explains Dr Afridi.
This initial foray into a world where those with pleasing looks are valued and» rewarded can set up an unhealthy mania. A culture of narcissism is prevalent where the emphasis is on the very literal: how you look, what you wear and how many people compliment you for it.
And it’s not just self-conscious teenagers who are susceptible to the pressure – it’s women like you and me. Amira* is a 29-year-old mother of two boys from Jumeirah and says that she has tried almost every crash diet on the market in pursuit of the thin beauty ideal. “I’ve been there,” she admits, “I’ve had the days when I almost fainted because I was starving – this was on the lemon cleanse diet, when I basically didn’t eat for four days. On another diet, I ate just grapes for three days, which ended with a horrible upset stomach.”
Amira name-checks fashion icon Victoria Beckham’s size-zero frame as her inspiration, which speaks to a definite shift in the perception of beauty in the region. Esther Watt, a Dubai-based development counsellor, notes that the Western influence is making its mark in the UAE. “What used to be valued as beautiful here previously – curves and ample girth to indicate prosperity – is now being shunned as women embrace the ideals of the Western world. Those messages are hitting home.”
How close to home? The UAE now has the highest concentration of plastic surgeons in the world – outpacing America and Brazil (home of the Brazilian butt lift among other outrageously popular operations). At the Emirates Plastic Surgery Society, membership has increased from 60 members eight years ago to 150 in 2013. Over 100 of the plastic surgeons now operate in Dubai.
In an interview with CNN, Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, Dr Jason Diamond, who also appears in the ubiquitous reality show, Dr 90210, revealed that Dubai is no slouch when it comes to nips and tucks. Since 2009 he’s returned to Dubai every two months to work. “Every time I’m here, I don’t even sit down. I’m running around from 7am until midnight. The demand is literally out the door,” he says.
Botox, liposuction, rhinoplasty, breast augmentation (or lift), facelift and stomach tucks are among the biggest money spinners. And because of the relative novelty of the options here, patients turn to it as a quick fix.
In the same report by CNN, Vasilica Baltateanu, founder of Vasilica Aesthetics, commented that while the industry was growing fast, more education was necessary. “In Europe, America and Australia, people try to adapt their lifestyle first. Liposuction, for instance, would be a last resort. Here, it’s more, ‘I’ve gained some weight, I’ll get some lipo,’ and they’ll get the treatment four or five times, which is when it becomes dangerous”.
Plastic surgery gone wrong is just one of those dangers – and inevitably, there’s a reality show devoted to the premise, aptly titled Botched. Addiction to plastic surgery is another threat. American socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein, known unkindly in the media as Catwoman, is a prime example.
Death on the operating table is not unheard of either.
A few years ago rapper Kanye West’s mother died the day after having cosmetic surgery – reportedly liposuction and a breast reduction. Author of The First Wives Club Olivia Goldsmith popped in to her surgeon for a chin tuck, fell into a coma and never emerged.
Then there’s the unsettling report of a British socialite who, a day after a facelift, still under the effects of anaesthesia, climbed to the roof of a building and jumped to her death.
With brain damage, airway obstruction, blood clots, heart attack and temporary paralysis just some of the complications, can the risks ever be worth the outcome?
Pretty, happy people
Unfortunately, the thirst for perfection has become so all-encompassing that we are willing to abandon reason and good sense. But extracting the physical pound of flesh is one thing – what about the emotional causalities?
A fixation with altering our looks can leave lasting damage, warns Dr Afridi. “This vanity has detrimental » effects on personality development, where the shift goes from knowing thyself to showing thyself.”
The knock-on effects leave little unscathed; self-esteem hinges on how good you look, dynamics within relationships shift, and “depression, disconnection and loneliness become pronounced because we start lacking in authenticity,” explains Dr Afridi.
The move away from this obsession, most experts believe, starts with accepting that there is a chasm between reality and what we are presented via popular culture.
Skinny, like sex, is catnip to the advertising industry, but it doesn’t have to be consumed as such. Thankfully, more of us are wising up to the manipulation. A 2013 study by the Warwick Business School in the UK found that female consumers are turned off by products that are placed next to large-scale images of female models and celebrities. This is heartening, says development counsellor Esther, explaining that we have to learn how to assess these images without bias. “Photographers know the camera angle, lighting and tricks to influence the overall message, whereas we just see the perfect finished product.” As consumers we must question the intention of the advertiser, and we then have more choice and ownership in how we respond.
There is more than a little sense to the theory. Media images and messaging have one goal: to sell a product. It becomes problematic, says Esther, because we start to mistake the presented images as inherently infused with power and sexuality, so we assume if we look like that, we too will be powerful and sexy.
“Well, who doesn’t want to look good all the time? I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with it,” says Yasmine* a 28-year-old business owner from Jumeirah. “I do spend a lot of money every month on make-up, skin products and getting my hair and nails done. It makes me feel good, and when I don’t have make-up on, I feel very depressed and not confident.”
Confidence linked to looking good isn’t novel and there’s certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest that when one feels good from the inside out, one radiates this confidence externally. Equally clear, however, is that a looks-based value system only holds worth if that’s all we have to validate our existence.
A global Dove beauty campaign, launched this year, aims to get women to see past the surface. The Mirrors campaign invites women to look into the mirror and smile – and really feel how big an impact this can have on emotional well-being. “Learning to like your own reflection,” says Jennifer Bremner, marketing director of Dove in America, “is the first step in raising self-esteem.
Which in turn, points out Esther, leads to a positive relationship with the idea of beauty. We need to start accepting ourselves for the sum total of our beings – rather than basing our worth on physical appearance. “Self-acceptance is simply not achievable by working on the surface,” says Esther. “When we learn to trust ourselves and live by our own values, the need to change our appearance gradually becomes less important.”