“Swallow this!”- Exposing the taboos around women’s bodies
“One must suffer to be beautiful.” A saying my mother has been repeating ever since I was a little girl to justify any painful practice that would make me beautiful. A saying that comes immediately to mind as I wander around Dubai’s photography centre Gulf Photo Plus (GPP).
With a mixture of photography, digital media and video installation, the exhibition “Swallow this!” shows how far women will go to submit to societal beauty ideals. Pushing the boundaries even further, it depicts the simple act of waxing, to drastic plastic surgery and hymen reconstruction, and explores the rampant pathologisation of women’s bodies, and opens up conversations around taboo topics in the Middle East.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about body politics, and how we have really limited conversations,” Rama Ghanem, curator of the exhibition, tells me. “These are conversations that we’re having in private and domestic spaces, ‘safe spaces’ that women create between themselves. Why is there such a stigma around women’s bodies? When I look at the work of Lara Chahine and Reem Falaknaz, I really see that we’re having a more sophisticated conversation about the topic. I thought it was about time that we had space for this kind of show.”
In her first major photo series “Bless Your Beauty”, Lebanon-based photographer Lara Chahine delves into the pressure to attain “sacred” beauty ideals at any cost – physical, emotional, and financial.
On one wall we see a photo of a woman’s legs, splashed with sugaring hair removal. “Sugar is not sweet” reads the caption. On the floor, Chahine becomes the subject of a photo montage showing her flattened face, distorting her features and blowing her lips out of proportion.
“I picked something I really, really hate: the beauty standards that exist in Lebanon. It’s difficult enough to be an Arab woman and having the insane pressures of sexuality and marriage, but on top of that we have to worry about our appearance when we can’t even walk in the streets alone,” she tells us.
She took her inspiration from the conversations she had with women while growing up. “A lot of our discussions revolved around our appearance and what we had to do next: what needed to be fixed, what diet we should be on, whether or not we should get a nose job.”
In one of her works, two photos featuring several headshots of Arab women, including of herself, stand next to each other. A zipper runs across their eyes.
“One day, I was interviewing my friend’s mum, and she was going off about everything she thinks is wrong with beauty and sexuality in Lebanon,” Chahine explains. “At one point, she was so aggravated, and said she couldn’t believe that ‘amaleyet sihab’, or ‘zipper surgery’, is the term used for hymen reconstructive surgery. As soon as she said that, I thought it was so absurd that this insane operation is reduced to the word ‘zipper’. I wanted to express that visually, playing on the absurdity. Tell doctors that with this term they’re reducing women to their hymen, which isn’t an indicator of worth or value.”
Hymen reconstructive surgery is the main focus of Reem Falaknaz’s work. “If a hymen breaks and no one hears it” is a digital media project that appropriates internet culture, print media, literature and oral history to shed light on the covert ways that women must navigate social and religious practices, sorcery and medical malpractice.
Based in Oman, the photographer presents her research on hymen repair remedies, documenting conversations with muftis (Islamic jurists), herbalists, doctors, and occultists who offer solutions promising full restoration.
One of her works includes email exchanges with a medical adviser based in London who offers her a discount on the surgery if she brings a friend who wants to do it too. Another piece shows online special offers on artificial hymens that can be delivered for free.
“Falaknaz’s work is all about the internet space women are turning to because it can seem like a safe space as it offers the possibility to do things anonymously”, says Ghanem. “But these industries feed off of the insecurities women have, and exploit them for profit. It’s quite frustrating.”
“You realise that healthcare is not an entity that is floating around in a vacuum. There are all these things that affect it: cultural norms, religious practices, gendered research, and commercial imperatives,” she says.
With “Swallow this!” Ghanem is questioning the legitimacy of choice when talking about women’s bodies, particularly about beauty and purity.
“Choice is part of the conversation when we talk about feminism,” Ghanem adds. “But it’s an illusion, because there is this imposed form of social and economic repression about beauty and purity practices that we are constantly fed. It’s not really a choice when you think about it. For a lot of women it’s choosing between family and honour, or fulfilling your own desires and needs. How do you make that choice for yourself? We are funnelled into a tight space. And it’s very suffocating.”
“Swallow this!” is on at Gulf Photo Plus, Alserkal Avenue, in Dubai until June 18, 2022