The ‘Barbie Complex’ in the Working World

Karima for


By Karima Hmimsa

Last weekend, my sixteen year old daughter glanced up from her laptop and announced that she had just ordered some green coloured contact lenses to emphasise her already beautiful green/brown eyes. I was really shocked. I referred back to my library of books around bringing up teenagers (essential reading, as most parents know!). The advice given was around allowing experimentation – if it isn’t too physically intrusive and is basically in line with your thinking as an adult. This got me thinking about what my opinion actually was. Essentially, I am not against cosmetic modifications. However, this of course doesn’t mean I understand why my beautiful child would want to cover her eyes with coloured pliable hydrophilic plastics. Does it make her more beautiful? I think not! So with that in mind I wanted to explore the concept of whether the increasingly manufactured woman’s outward appearance is indicative of how we measure personal  worth – particularly in terms of women in the workplace.

Women’s beauty is very important in the Arab world. Next to confidence, education and mannerisms, Arab women have a great incentive to meet an idealized image. Women are obsessed with physical appearance and are interested (one might even say obsessed) with the latest beauty buzz. They love heavy makeup and breath-taking amounts of perfume, but does trying to live up to this stylised ideal have repercussions in a working world that demands transparency and authenticity? (Ed comment: Of course the alternative is to adopt the hijab and other coverings be it for religious or other reasons, that then create freedom from this.) The vibrant social and political activism, born of recent Arab revolutions, has paved the way for a more robust female presence in society and government. This has resulted in more women working in these sectors and one in four women now working outside their homes. But Arabic countries are still incredibly conservative. Will these recent changes enhance the way beauty on the work floor is perceived in the future?

This fixation with how they look prompts many women to undergo cosmetic surgery such as face lifts, nose jobs and liposuction. Plastic surgery in Arabic countries is becoming more popular every day. According to plastic surgery statistics, Lebanon has now overtaken countries such as Brazil and Venezuela as the country with the highest rates of plastic surgery –  with one in three women going under the knife.  Venezuela’s position as the country with the most beauty titles won may yet be usurped! Particularly wealthy Arab women undergo cosmetic procedures increasingly and are not ashamed to admit this. Haifa Wehbe, a popular Lebanese singer, is listed as the most beautiful Arab woman in Peoples Magazine. At thirty eight she is still an icon for many women.

Arabs have always emphasised beauty and its maintenance. What is beauty according to the Arabic tradition? An answer to this question can be found in the Arabic poems of Imru Al Qais: a beautiful woman is curvy with a small waist, widely set eyes lined with kohl and long separated lashes, a thin nose, red lips and long jet-black hair. A woman was not only to be beautiful but also had to project good health and a prominent status.

Haifa Wehbe in nina-iraq

Haifa Wehbe

I believe in natural beauty and think Arab women are among the most beautiful on Earth. Arab women keep their beauty rituals so they remain beautiful to an old age. There needs to be a holistic approach to how they nurture their mind and body. Arabic cuisine is generally healthy and versatile. Moreover, people eat less red meat but more vegetables, grains, herbs, spices, fruits and nuts. One of the healthiest nuts is the almond. They are rich in vitamins and minerals and are good for the heart, brains and digestion. Dates are a household name in the Arab cuisine; dried dates contain many good nutrients, such as potassium, magnesium and vitamin B6. Dates also contain lots of fibre, vitamin C, iron, copper and calcium. The tannins in a date even reduce inflammation. Common spices like turmeric, coriander, ginger, saffron and cinnamon have medicinal properties.The use of legumes like chickpeas and lentils in Arabic cuisine are also very healthy. Low in fat and carbohydrates with a high level of protein, iron and vitamin B, an excellent meat substitute. Honey is perhaps the healthiest sweetener we know. It is much healthier than sugar and widely used in the Arab cuisine. In addition plenty of tea is drunk. Especially herbal tea which is known for its good properties for the body. Also Arab women do often frequent the spa/hammam to unwind and relax. The body is cleansed from the inside and the mind settles. The result is a clear head and beautiful, radiant skin.

And although trends come and go and I am sure the appeal of Haifa Wehbe will only last so long I think the more we engage with what the meaning of true beauty is, the less likely it is we will get involved in extremes. If we are able to physically express who we are at home or in the workplace in a way that is authentic to ourselves, this will surely make us more effective overall. Maintaining balance and working with what we have been given naturally is to my mind the most sensible way to go. My personal beauty heroines – Queen Rania, an Arabian traditional beauty and my own daughter of course!


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