There’s no easy way to say this. Lebanese women are exhibitionists. And I love them for it.
At a recent electoral law reform conference, a female panelist went out of her way to argue that the general public, or perhaps the male public, unfairly accuses Lebanese women of “exhibitionism” and “an obsession with appearances.” She then went on to stress that the attributes of “beauty” and “elegance” are not incompatible with “active social and political roles for women.” (True. But that statement opens the door for comment on aesthetics and society.)
I’m not especially ashamed to admit that I laughed, much to the dismay of a reserved policy analyst who had invited me to the event. I apologized to those around me, but it was just too much to handle.
First of all, there was enough Botox in that room to replicate the Millennium Dome. And, of course, the women were dressed in their best Mediterranean chic attire, consisting of tight jeans, fiercely sexy boots, and an assortment of silk, leather, and fur accessories. (For the record, let me congratulate the event’s organizers for their foresight. Handing out pamphlets and brochures was a smart move. I was distracted, to say the least. I’m now reading up on the merits and faults of proposed reforms.)
What’s more, in some ways augmenting and in other ways obscuring her natural beauty, the young lady had clearly nipped and tucked a few things herself (nose, lips, possibly the rear-end). She had probably spent about three hours meticulously applying eye-liner, mascara, lipstick, blush, hair extensions, and nail polish. With that time, she could have held eight meetings, appeared on a couple television shows, drafted a few policy briefs, had a business lunch, or done some valuable reading. Hell, she could have put together another, more accessible policy event across town. Or she could have taken me out for dinner. Just a thought.
Now, let’s get a few things out of the way. To one extent or another, and regardless of what they tell you, most people are concerned with appearances. That’s what “style,” or what in America passes for “style,” is about. In Lebanon, additionally, that concern explains regal dinners, flashy cars, garish watches and other such phenomena.
Anyways, aside from how commonplace the practices are, there’s nothing wrong with maintenance or enhancement per se. For instance, believe it or not, I brush my teeth, shave my head, and occasionally hit the gym. I shave my beard too. (That’s a losing battle if there ever was one. David Petraeus was tasked with devising a Counter-Permanent-Five-O’clock-Shadow strategy. He chose to tackle Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Central Intelligence Agency instead.) I pluck away my unibrow-in-waiting. I carefully select my suits. I do NOT wax my chest hair–damn prairie flowers – but the point is that the desire to modify one’s appearance is normal.
That said, and though people should have the right to do a great many things to their own bodies, it’s clear that many folks get carried away. The lady in the seat next to me, who I’ll later talk about more, was pushing sixty. Her skin was so tight you could play a drum on it and her nose looked like a coke addict had tried to fix a deviated septum with a Napoleonic Era bayonet. My friend pointed out another woman, also above fifty, who was rocking spandex pants, stilettos, and powdering her face.
I didn’t know what to think. Initially, the Catholic guilt, a remnant of early schooling, set in: I was angry at Lebanese men, including myself, for constantly seeking out shallow Mediterranean vixens and then being surprised at what our incentive structure hath wrought. Another part of me reminded the guilty part that “self-esteem” is, as one comedian put it, short-hand for “esteem of self.” And yet another part of me was happy to just gaze at the pretty ladies.
All things considered, there seems to be a difference between plucking a few hairs and employing a shady Eastern European plastic surgeon who’s previous work experiences include a stint with the Italian mafia and the Terrorist International. Is there a hard line or a looser demarcation zone between acceptable modifications and dehumanizing alterations? If so, where does it fall? Tucking away a few pounds, lifting away a few wrinkles, augmenting a few curves or muscles… And does any of that even matter?
I take the point that the lady was trying to make. It’s possible to look good, or think you look good, and raise a family, pursue a career, and/or contribute to your society. She can’t be faulted for her opinion; she’s a living example that it’s possible, indeed desirable, for women and men to excel in substance and in style.
Even so, facts often distort what’s true in theory. And what’s true for those with dedication is not necessarily true for paper revolutionaries.
As the lady explained the various mechanisms for increasing women’s representation in government, the two girls in the next row were checking each other’s make-up. (Never mind how I was privy to that information.) The older woman next to me, who was one of the sharpest people I’ve ever met, kept caressing the fur lining of her jacket and texting her friend “Clarissa” about another lady’s outfit, obviously not listening to the presentation. Most distressingly, a lady two rows from the front kept disturbing events by strutting around in 12-inch heels, tipping and tapping the speaker’s words into oblivion.
“That’s why I’ve stopped going to these events,” said one earnest friend, who edits a news website. “Civil society events have always been a little annoying here. And now [the events] are basically another social gathering for people to dress up and show-off.” She was overstating things, as I’m prone to do as well, but is definitely on to something.
Time and money. They reveal what matters to people. Time spent primping, shopping, partying, and chasing diaspora doctors is time not spent on thinking, reading, writing, or building. Money spent on plastic surgery, flashy trinkets, and gargantuan New Year’s Eve parties is money not spent on research, materials, coalition-building, and advocacy. Opportunity costs are a bitch, no pun intended.
For most people, these questions may not matter so much – nor must they. To do what one pleases is, in an important way, a rather natural understanding of liberty. But it’s also a luxury of private life. (For now, let’s set aside the question of balance. To each his own. To each her own?) Here, the very people seeking to shape public affairs are blissfully unaware that they’re part of the problem – or, at least, not contributing much to the solution.
Empty-nesters, elite socialites, divorcees, and younger ladies with time on their hands are a great reservoir for activism. That’s a fact. But they won’t be an effective spearhead, as they’re very capable of becoming, until they prioritize more effectively. If you’re in the business of public causes – such as correcting Lebanon’s deplorable human rights regime, including a deficient women’s rights framework – then spend more time actually doing something. (Just, please, don’t cut us off. That would be blatantly disproportionate.)
As the lady said, with your beauty, intelligence, and talents, the rest will fall into place.