BEIRUT: Lining the edge of every highway in Lebanon is billboard after billboard advertising a huge array of products from clothing to food, cars and jewelry. But what often unites these myriad ads is the image of a woman, in various states of undress. Sex sells.
But experts are warning that this constant bombardment of homogeneous and sexualized images, found throughout every form of mass media – not just advertising – poses a huge danger to Lebanese women and young girls.
At a screening last week at the American University of Beirut of the 2011 U.S. film “Miss Representation,” a documentary which explores this topic, experts discussed the issue in Lebanon-specific terms, often arguing that the situation is even worse here, and the consequences more acute.
The film argues that as media firms, such as TV channels and Hollywood production studios, have sought to increase revenue, they have used increasingly sexual imagery of women.
At the same time, advertising companies chasing profits have used similar images of women of one, virtually unobtainable, body type. And with a reciprocal relationship, the industries have simultaneously supported this same standard.
“You have to sell your products ... And the only way to sell products is by making people feel inferior,” said Sarah Mallat, of the department of sociology, anthropology and media studies at AUB, and who runs a Digital Media Literacy course.
The effects of this objectification of women are numerous, experts agreed.
Nadine Moawad, of feminist collective Nasawiya, said that issues surrounding body image and self-esteem were among the first that the group had to tackle when it was founded. “There is a crisis when it comes to the self-esteem of our women,” she said.
“Girls of 12 or 13 are going to salons and getting their hair done, getting waxed. Everyone wants to be blonder, or have lighter skin.”
Lebanese girls are taught to think, “I’m too fat, my hair is too curly, my eyes are too small.” Big industries, she said, are preying on these fears to increase profit margins – whether directly, by selling beauty products which promise to firm thighs or lighten skin, or indirectly, through advertising or photo shoots which reinforce the “ideal” body type.
In Lebanon specifically these fears of imperfection are also played upon by the plastic surgery industry, she added.
“We have become a culture which sells the image of women,” she said, in reference to the popularity of plastic surgery and its use to lure tourists in MEA in-flight entertainment. Such objectification of women is directly linked to rampant sexual harassment, she said.
Dr. Nabil Hokayem, head of the Lebanese Society of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery, admitted that the industry has become primarily geared toward money-making at the cost of ethical standards.
“The matter of plastic surgery is becoming a matter of marketing in Lebanon,” he said.
While the 80 members of his society (including three women) are the only legitimate plastic surgeons in the country, around another 300 are operating illegally, Hokayem said.
The industry, he said, “has good regulations, but they are not enforced.” There are too many “influences and wasta (connections)” at play for them to be applied properly.
Members of the society conduct psychological assessments ahead of any cosmetic surgery and often make a diagnosis of body dysmorphic disorder, when a person has a skewed perception of their body and their looks. In such cases, the society’s surgeons should refrain from operating, Hokayem said.
He urges all member surgeons to be as “ethical” as possible in their work. “I say, ‘When you have a patient in front of you, see your mother, your sister, your daughter. Imagine you’re doing this to one of your relatives. If you don’t do this you will make a mistake.’”
Not only does the objectification of women in the media leave many feeling insecure about their looks, but it can also limit how a woman views her life chances.
The tagline from “Miss Representation” is “You can’t be what you can’t see,” a quote from one of the documentary contributors. The film highlighted that in Hollywood, only 16 percent of protagonists are female, and then often in roles whose character’s sole purpose is the pursuit of a man.
This depiction of a woman’s role is especially true in Lebanon, Mallat argued. “We have this idea that the ultimate goal is to become a wife and a mother, and that is a cultural thing which we need to challenge.”
Myra Saad, an art therapist who has worked in mental health counseling, is running a series of workshops this summer – “metel ma ana” or “the way I am” – geared toward helping women improve their self-esteem.
Saad, who is Lebanese, spent the last six years in the U.S., and traveled back to Lebanon every summer. This peripatetic lifestyle allowed her to see the growing preoccupation with image in her home country, and the increased reliance on plastic surgery among the nation’s young women.
“I started to question why has this happened, from a psychological point of view,” Saad said.
“I don’t know if it’s because we just came out of war. And maybe because people are not very self-fulfilled, but women are just expected to get married,” Saad said.
Her classes this summer will aim at helping women to view themselves and their opportunities in new ways. “In regular life we talk about things, but in art therapy we can express ourselves in a different way, think about things in a different way and try to solve problems in different ways.”
Women in Lebanon, she said, often feel they don’t have opportunities, so “they do what is expected of them.” Becoming self-confident involves creating one’s own opportunities, and self-empowerment, which Saad hopes her classes will encourage.
In terms of what can be done to tackle these issues, Mallat and Saad agreed that media literacy should be taught at a wider level, to help young girls and boys better understand the images and ideals which are thrown at them from TV sets and billboards.
For Moawad, “It’s a very simple act of resistance to actually just love your body every day and just like yourself how you are.” She urged people to “Challenge your friends to think differently. Express yourself in a different way. And boycott products which use women’s bodies to sell them.”
For information on “the way I am” art therapy workshops, which begin July 2, email firstname.lastname@example.org.