Rhinoplasty, nose job, tummy tuck, breast implant, Botox: in terms of how frequently these words and phrases are Googled, the UAE ranks in the top 20 globally for each of them. For the more general term, cosmetic surgery, the UAE ranks third behind the UK and Australia. Appearance enhancement is undoubtedly popular, but what lies behind the boom?
A few decades ago, psychologists coined the term “normative discontent”. This phrase reflected the observation that, in studies of appearance satisfaction, most women reported being dissatisfied. Research undertaken in the UAE echoes this idea, and being unhappy with one’s appearance seems to be the norm too. One study, published in Appetite journal, reported that among 228 Emirati college women, 75 per cent were dissatisfied with their appearance.
Perhaps another factor behind the cosmetic surgery boom is the spread of consumerism and materialistic values – less is definitely not more, and if you can afford a better nose or a flatter stomach, then why wouldn’t you buy them?
The surge in cosmetic surgery might also be discussed with reference to the related ideas of revenge and repair. A few years ago many plastic surgeons noticed – and began reporting – that an increasingly large percentage of their clients were newly divorced women. This gave rise to the concept of “revenge cosmetic surgery”.
In its most dramatic telling this urban myth involves a divorced wife who, with the help of cosmetic surgery, beautifies herself almost beyond the point of recognition. Upon beholding his radically revamped former spouse, the ex-husband is driven to despair, torn apart by the twin ills of regret and desire.
In recent decades, the UAE and neighbouring Gulf countries have seen an increase in divorce, especially among younger citizens.
A report by the United Nations, looking at divorce rates across all of the Gulf states between 1995 and 2007, documents a clear upwards shift. Is the relatively high rate of divorce feeding a boom in retaliatory cosmetic surgery?
Among the recently divorced women who have undergone cosmetic surgery, there are some who argue that it’s not about making their former partner feel bad, it’s all about making themselves feel good.
This is what psychologists call the mood repair hypothesis. This is the idea that new clothes, new shoes, new hair and a new face can make us feel more confident and improve our self-worth; a sense of self-worth that might have been damaged by a toxic relationship. But can new shoes or a new nose ever truly repair a broken heart?
In addition to divorce rates being higher than they once were, we also read reports about high rates of anousa (spinsterhood) in the UAE and the broader Gulf.
While the term spinster is poorly defined, most sources suggest that large numbers of Gulf women are finding it difficult to marry. This situation is often blamed on the frequency with which Gulf men now marry foreign wives (exogamy).
There is no debate that male exogamy across the Gulf nations is substantially higher than the rate of female exogamy (Gulf women marrying foreign husbands). In the absence of very high rates of polygamy or high rates of serial divorce, these marital patterns logically equate to elevated levels of spinsterhood.
Perhaps these social changes coalesce, with relatively high divorce rates, male exogamy and the spectre of spinsterhood all combining to place increased pressure on women to strive towards unrealistic and unsustainable beauty ideals. It is also conceivable that family members, keen to improve a female relative’s marriage prospects, might encourage behaviours aimed at realising these exacting appearance ideals. Cosmetic surgery is one means to achieve this end.
Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University
On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas