Beauty and the East: Surgeons define 'perfect' Arab woman

Experts analyse the facial features many women in the Middle East aspire to

Beauty Icons: A bust of Nefertiti, the 1300 BC Egyptian Queen, Angelina Jolie, the American actress, Leila Hatami, the Iranian actress and film director and Queen Rania of Jordan. Bottom row: Ameera Al Taweel, the Saudi princess, Nadine Njeim, the Lebanese actress, Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actress and Princess Fawzia of Egypt. All are said to have influenced perceptions of beauty in the Mena region.
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Striking eyes, well-defined cheekbones and full lips have been identified as the most sought-after facial features among Middle Eastern women.

The findings form part of new research by a team of cosmetic surgeons who set out to establish what is considered attractive in the region.

By canvassing opinion from a variety of medical specialists, experts were able to discern how perceptions of beauty varied, with views formed by social status, race and cultural factors.

They found oval or round faces were often preferred by Middle Eastern women, alongside pronounced, elevated eyebrows and large almond-shaped eyes.

Well-defined, full cheeks, a small, straight nose, full lips, a well-defined jawline and prominent chin were also seen as sought after by those contemplating surgery.

“Whenever any doctor wants to treat Middle Eastern women, he should respect her own perceptions," said Mohamed Khater, global medical director for Galderma Uppsala, a Swedish skin products company, and lead author of the research paper.

Cosmetic surgeons carried out research into what is considered attractive in the Middle East. Roy Cooper / The National
Cosmetic surgeons carried out research into what is considered attractive in the Middle East. Roy Cooper / The National

“Each region has got its own beautification standards. You can’t just implement what is [popular] in the US, Brazil or Germany in a Middle Eastern woman.

“The problem was we had very little data for the Middle East that you could depend on."

The research was carried out by convening 17 dermatologists and plastic surgeons from across the Middle East, each with an average of more than 13 years of experience.

The team was asked to provide detailed accounts of their work via a series of surveys and meetings in an effort to reach a consensus.

The project lasted more than a year with the findings now published in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Journal.

It is hoped the results will prove to be useful guide to those performing cosmetic procedures, particularly injections such as fillers and botox, and for clinicians moving to the region for work.

The paper noted that cosmetic surgery is becoming increasingly popular and culturally acceptable among Middle Eastern women. Dubai now has a higher concentration of cosmetic clinics than Hollywood, by some estimates.

Aspirational differences were noted between the Middle East and the West, but also within the Middle East, with Arabian (UAE and Saudi), Levantine (Lebanon and Jordan), Iranian and Egyptian the sub-categories analysed in the study.

Among those aged under 40, social media and friends were the most influential factors cited by patients considering cosmetic interventions, according to the group of clinicians.

Among over 40s, the patient's own opinions and those of her husband and friends were seen as most important.

Interestingly, the Egyptian queen Nefertiti - who died more than 3,300 years before the advent of Instagram but - is still considered to have left a lasting legacy on perceptions of Middle Eastern beauty, the new research paper claims.

Meanwhile, contemporary beauty icons who have also had an impact include the Saudi princess Ameera Al Taweel, Queen Rania of Jordan and Nadine Njeim, the Lebanese actress, according to the specialists.

And in a sign of how Western ideals can influence Middle East views, Angelina Jolie, the American actress, was also cited by several clinicians as a celebrity their Middle Eastern patients regularly ask to look like.

In the UAE, a rounder face was seen as more desirable than in other parts of the Mena region, while having “large, wide, striking, almond-shaped eyes” was seen as particularly important to those who wear a niqab.

Even sub-regions have their own specific characteristics when it comes to beauty
Mohamed Khater

Across the region, eyes, followed by the lips and cheeks, were seen as the most important facial features and it was universally viewed as desirable to have “lighter than the natural skin colour” across all ethnic groups.

A “sagging” face was also seen as a particular concern to Middle Eastern women. A “large or misshapen nose” was another common complaint, although it was warned that rhinoplasty (nose surgery) rather than injections was often required to remedy an issue.

A range of factors, including genetics, cultural history and modern influences contributed to differences in perceptions of beauty, according to Dr Khater.

Influential 20th Century figures in the Middle East included Soad Hosny, the Egyptian actress who was nicknamed the Cinderella of Arab cinema in the 1960s and 1970s and Princess Soraya Esfandiari-Bakhtiari, the second wife of the former shah of Iran.

“Even sub-regions have their own specific characteristics when it comes to beauty,” Dr Khater, a dermatologist, added. “It is because of different facial anthropometry and genetics.”

He said influences like social media and popular culture could shift perceptions, particularly among young people, but only to a degree with most choosing aesthetic role models to fit with their own profile.

“Angelina Jolie was a common model put forward,” Dr Khater said. “But that beautification standard can mimic Middle Eastern women, with the same forehead, cheeks, high temple, so it hasn’t changed the historic rule.

“People will follow their nature and respect their roots. That’s why we find people in the Middle East saying they want to look like Angelina Jolie, but not Nicole Kidman."