Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Demand for plastic surgery rises despite political tensions, economic downturn

Demand for plastic surgery rises despite political tensions, economic downturn
By Lysandra Ohrstrom
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Last week a Lebanese bank put up hundreds of billboards across the country advertising loans for plastic surgery. Though the language of the advertisement differs according to location - for the most part it appears in French and English in Christian areas and Arabic in Muslim communities - the same blond-haired, blue-eyed, fine-featured woman can now be seen from Haret al-Hreik and Hazmieh to Sidon and Beit Mery. It might not seem like the ideal time to launch a campaign geared exclusively to superficial concerns. But the postwar climate of prolonged political and economic decline has done little to dilute the infamous quest for physical perfection in Lebanon. This year local demand for cosmetic surgery has increased by between 10 and 20 percent from 2006, according to four of the country's leading aesthetic surgeons. By most accounts the mushrooming local market has sufficiently compensated for a sharp decline in Gulf patients following last summer's hostilities. Lebanon's cosmetic surgery market has been steadily expanding over the past decade, with demand for procedures like rhinoplasty, liposuction, collagen implants and injections of Botox - a toxin that paralyzes facial muscles to remove wrinkles - trickling down from the wealthy few to middle-class professionals across the socio-economic and religious spectrum. But some doctors say the latest boom is an unexpected consequence of the prevailing political uncertainty.

"People are not going out anymore so they are staying home looking in the mirror," said Dr. Nabih Sader, the president of the 62-member Lebanese Association of Cosmetic Surgeons. "Since they're not spending their money at night they come to get work done, but Lebanese women have always been concerned with their appearance, and plastic surgery here is competitively priced and meets the highest standards." Sader estimates that local demand has risen by 20 percent since October, when surgeries began to pick up following the war. Now he caters almost entirely to the local market, though Gulf clients and Lebanese citizens from abroad have slowly started to book procedures this summer, shrugging off fears of an unexpected airport closure or an outbreak of violence. Like all of the doctors interviewed by The Daily Star, Sader cites rhinoplasty - nose jobs - as the most popular procedure, due to the "oriental noses we have in Lebanon." Liposuction comes in a close second, followed by Botox and filling - injecting a patient's own fat into wrinkles - which have become increasingly common among 35-to-50 year-old-women. Breast augmentation always booms in the spring when women prepare for the swimsuit season, and 2007 has proven no exception, doctors say. About half of Sader's patients are non-working housewives. The remainder are female professionals making between $800 to $1000 per month, self-employed women who "own their own stores or restaurants" and students accompanied by their mothers. "A lot of 18- to 22-year-old women come now asking for liposuction in the hips because they wear low-rise jeans, but most of the time I tell them to go buy different pants," Sader said.

The profile of local cosmetic surgery consumers has remained relatively stable over the past decade, though the volume of procedures has increased, Dr. Paul Audi of St. Georges Hospital told The Daily Star. "The local market is constant, and all along class has never been a factor. Rhinoplasties have always been number one, and liposuction number two. But we have developed new techniques that get people back to their jobs quicker," he said. One new trend Audi identified in the local market is the rising number of young male clients getting nose jobs and liposuction - love handles are also a prime target. He reckons the number of male patients increased by 10 percent from 2006 and that males will account for 30 percent of the total surgeries this year. "Men are my most gratifying patients," said Dr. Imad Kaddoura, the president of the Faculty of Aesthetic and Cosmetic Surgery at AUB who performs multiple breast reduction, rhinoplasty and hair operations on young men each year. "They follow instructions. If I tell them not to smoke, they don't smoke and they don't sit in Cafe Najjar bragging about their surgeries."

Though no statistics are available, Kaddoura estimates that per-capita demand for cosmetic enhancement in Lebanon is roughly equal to levels in America and Canada, which together recorded over 11 million procedures in 2006 - though only 1.1 million were actually surgeries, with the remainder filling and Botox. As in Western markets, plastic surgery for Lebanese appears to be evolving from a luxury service to a matter of "maintenance." Audi said professionals who do not have time to go to the gym are getting liposuction instead, which at $500 per "area" is a financial commitment roughly equivalent to annual membership fees at Beirut's more expensive health clubs. "It's not vital, but people feel a need to correct their bodies and are too busy to exercise so they go get liposuction or breast augmentation," he explained.

Surgical procedures in Lebanon are also an average of four times less expensive than in America. According to a surgeon who declined to be named "for ethical reasons," the cost of rhinoplasty performed by a local surgeon has not increased in 17 years, remaining between $1,500 and $2,000 compared to between $5,000 and $12,000 in the US. "I don't think people in Lebanon could afford to pay more than $2, 000," he said. Kaddoura agreed that a Lebanese consumer would "go into a coma" if asked to pay the minimum $25,000 fee charged for a facelift in America. But competitive prices cannot account for women's desire to look like Haifa Wehbe and Nancy Ajram. Every doctor interviewed said he received at least one and up to five requests weekly from women hoping to resemble the stars. "Thirty years ago color TVs were luxuries, perfumes were taxed as luxury items, and salmon was considered gourmet food. Is this true today? Plastic surgery is becoming part of routine maintenance, that's why prices have not increased," the anonymous surgeon said.

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