Claudia Liebelt, Istanbul Appearances: Beauty and the Making of Middle-Class Femininities in Urban Turkey (Syracuse University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Claudia Liebelt (CL): Beauty is a long-standing keyword of feminist debate, but it is also a global, consistently growing multibillion market. I long wanted to study beauty norms and practices from a critical, ethnographic perspective. Istanbul, a city that I first visited in the late 1990s and developed a very close personal relationship with, proved the perfect place to do so: Turkey now ranks among the top countries worldwide with the highest number of cosmetic procedures, and Istanbul, its cultural and economic capital, has become the center of its beauty and fashion industries. In the past twenty years, numerous private beauty clinics and salons, fitness centers, nail spas, and tattoo and waxing studios have opened up all over the city. I wanted to know how this affected its residents, especially female residents from the lower social strata and in conservative neighborhoods.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CL: The book addresses the changing norms of middle-class femininity in an increasingly authoritarian, neoliberal, and neoconservative political climate in present-day Turkey. Female bodies have become a major site for the negotiation of gendered citizenship in Turkey and Istanbul Appearances attests to the unruliness, vitality, and resilience of female bodies in relation to various forms of surveillance of what is beautiful, but also proper, good, and respectable.
As an ethnographic work, the book gives voice to beauty service workers and their clients, as well as mostly female cosmetic surgery patients, investigating their everyday considerations, affective desires, and anxieties. The seven chapters of the book address themes like Istanbul’s urban “beautyscape” and the role of its large media and entertainment industry; everyday concerns and working conditions in beauty salons and clinics; meanings of feminine beauty and concepts of aging in different segments of the urban middle-class; and different cosmetic surgery treatments, such as anti-aging treatments or nose and female breast-reduction operations, both more frequent in Turkey than elsewhere.
Istanbul Appearances also addresses the local repercussions of the global beauty boom. It brings into conversation debates in Middle East studies, social anthropology, and women and gender studies with the emerging field of critical beauty studies. It is the first book-length publication in this field to draw on ethnographic material in a Muslim-majority country. On a more conceptual level, it complicates earlier feminist assumptions, which often focus on the oppressive, painful, and harmful aspects that beauty work involves for women in the global North. Experiences of beauty and beauty work, it shows, are subjective and may be contradictory: they include the pain under drying hood machines or after surgery, the despair of finding time for supposedly obligatory beauty within a highly competitive work environment, and the immense comfort, self-satisfaction, and overbearing joy derived from nail polish, lipstick, or even a new nose.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CL: I have come a long way, from writing about the Filipino labor diaspora in the Middle East to writing this book! But even if Istanbul Appearances, which is my second book, seems more like a departure from my earlier work, there are also many connections. An ongoing thread in my work is certainly the question of how gender norms and expectations impact the ways we live our everyday lives, as well as how to shed light on the transnational connections and global mobilities through detailed ethnography. In both my first book about Filipina care workers in Israel and Istanbul Appearances, a major concern is how gender norms and ideologies impact on the organization of social reproduction or care, including self-care, in contemporary global capitalism. Both works look at gender in the Middle East from hitherto marginalized and perhaps unexpected perspectives and locations.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CL: The book’s most immediate contributions are certainly in the fields of social and cultural anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, as well as Middle East and modern Turkey studies. In these disciplines, Istanbul Appearances will be useful for graduate and undergraduate teaching in the fields of gender politics in the modern Middle East and modern Turkey, the effects of the global beauty economy and its transnational images, and lived Islam and secularity. As an ethnographic work, it is highly readable and combines personal narratives with conceptual reflections.
Moreover, I hope that Istanbul Appearances will be read not only by scholars and students, but also by the wider public, in Turkey and beyond. After all, we are all affected by and must deal with the forceful images of beauty. These images and the normative regimes that give rise to them affect the ways we look and act and how we represent and feel about ourselves. To deal with them requires collective efforts and various ways of knowing. I hope that the book will contribute to an ethnographically informed ethical debate on gendered norms and feminine beauty, perhaps even a feminist pedagogy of beauty, which is conscious of what we define as beautiful, desirable, harmful, or healthy and what the implications are of doing so.
And finally, with the background of ongoing injustices and the violence of Turkish politics, and against far-reaching depression and frustration about the politics of the day, I hope that Istanbul Appearances may open up a space for thinking about the otherwise. Thus, Istanbulite middle-class women’s transforming and transformative desires for beauty may be considered generative acts of healing from social suffering and tedious everyday routines. They are often quite imaginative and relational in their world-making, “a corporeal reaching out to the stars,” as I write in my conclusion. I want beauty to be taken seriously in academia and in everyday life, not something that is superfluous and politically irrelevant, but something that is a cosmological concern, a widely shared desire, and a vital force in an increasingly virtual world. Beauty being, of course, multiple and much more than the stereotypical images of the global industry.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CL: Following up on the research for Istanbul Appearances, I started working on perfumes and fragrances. Beauty is manufactured in a social encounter that includes a vast array of sensorial experiences, among them vision, smell, and touch. Nevertheless, in scholarly studies of beauty, the olfactory aspect of beauty is often overlooked—even though concerns with odors are of the utmost practical importance in beauty salons and figure highly in conceptualizations of beauty, at least in Turkey. So, in my new project, which is part of the research cluster “Affective Societies” at the Freie Universität Berlin together with two PhD students from Turkey, I look at “Olfactory Belongings” and the role of scents in urban publics in Istanbul and Berlin.
J: Finally, who is the most impressive person or persons you met during your research?
CL: I met many impressive persons during my research, which stretched over a long period between 2011 and 2015. I conducted more than one hundred interviews, mostly with customers and patients of hair and beauty salons and clinics, but also with beauty salon owners and workers, aesthetic surgeons, and other physicians and experts such as tattoo artists, feminists, a fashion photographer, and an Islamic scholar who rules on the permissibility of beauty treatments.
However, I was impressed by one person in particular, namely a young woman named Saliha in the book. Saliha was an extremely skilled and well-articulated nail artist and beauty service worker, who dreamt of opening her own salon. She was only fifteen years old when she entered the beauty sector, helping out by working in a salon to make a living after her mother divorced and took her and her younger sister to live with relatives in Istanbul from Gaziantep, in the Turkish southeast. When we met, Saliha had worked herself up from this small neighborhood salon in a conservative neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, where she continued to live, to a fancy nail bar in the upmarket central district of Nişantaşı. Despite her busy routine at work, Saliha was supportive of my research from its very beginning, allowing me to watch her work and introducing me to several of her clients, and eventually to her extended family. Without Saliha’s unwavering support, and of course that of many other interlocutors, this book would not have been possible!
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, pp. 38-45)
As the city becomes more beautiful, its inhabitants also want to be more beautiful. This is why body aesthetics [estetik] in Turkey are becoming ever more widespread. (Interview with Dr. Ibrahim Oskui, Sept. 2011)
When in 2011, in one of my first interviews on the topic of femininity and aesthetic body modification in urban Turkey, the well-known cosmetic surgeon Dr Oskui responded to my question as to why cosmetic surgery and beauty services had recently become so popular in Istanbul, his answer, quoted above, came as a surprise. The longer I studied aesthetic body modifications in Istanbul, however, the more the link between the transformation of urban bodies and space started to make sense. It did so from Dr Oskui’s vantage point especially, as his office overlooked Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. [...]
For Dr Oskui, the link between the “beautification” of central Istanbul and urban bodies made sense not least because many of his patients were part of the endless stream of tourists populating Taksim Square and its surroundings, the site of many mid-range and luxury hotels. Born in Iran and trained in Turkey and the US, he was one of several highly mediatized Istanbul-based plastic-reconstructive and cosmetic surgeons who often performed surgery on so-called “cosmetic surgery tourists.” More than half of his up to four hundred patients per annum arrived from abroad, notably from Iran, northern Iraq, Azerbaidjan, and the Turkish labour migration diaspora in Western Europe. While we conducted our interview in his stylishly furnished office, complete with a large white leather sofa, extravagant porcellain statues, orchids, and oil paintings of Paris, he received three phone calls from patients calling from Tehran and Dubai whose surgeries were scheduled for the next few days, inquiring about details of their respective journeys to Istanbul and surgery. From where we sat, hundreds of visitors could be seen walking in Taksim Square and taking pictures of the Republican Monument against the setting sun. They in turn could see the large illuminated panel on the top of the building we sat in, inviting them to get in touch with Dr Oskui, an “internationally acclaimed” cosmetic surgeon. [...] Medical tourism has become big business and is a source of national pride for Turkey, with statistics indicating that it ranks high in the number of medical tourists globally. According to Turkey’s largest health tourism agency, 662,087 medical tourists visited Turkey in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic affected global travelling, and earned the country US$1.06 billion in revenue, approximately 60 percent from plastic surgery. [...]
[In Istanbul,] plastic reconstructive and cosmetic surgeons and their agents often self-consciously describe themselves as “healers,” “artists” or, including Dr Oskui during our first interview, as the more effective “psychologists.” Within Turkey, private TV channel shows provide cosmetic surgeons with an excellent platform to mediate and indirectly advertise themselves as such. Thus, Oskui and other Istanbul-based cosmetic surgeons have become TV personalities by selling “spectacular” surgeries on private TV shows such as Seda Sayan’s talk show, or Yeniden Başlasın (“Fresh Beginnings”), a so-called “makeover” reality show similar to Extreme Makeover or The Swan in the US and named after a famous song by Turkish popstar and cosmetic surgery aficionada Ajda Pekkan.
Mass-mediated surgery typically combines several types of surgery with the effect of dramatically changing a patient’s look in the sense of a bodily “makeover.” During one of my meetings with Dr Oskui in early 2014, he presented me with the pictures of some of his recently performed “combined” surgeries on his smart phone, including pictures from abdominoplasty, liposuction, and other kinds of fat-removal surgery on a middle-aged female patient, from whose body he had removed 35 kilograms of fat, all performed during the same general anaesthetic. Intending to “sell” this case and its accompanying images to a private TV channel, in one picture he had arranged the tissue removed from his patient’s body in a kind of art installation, surrounded by more than a dozen glass bottles filled with the body fat removed during surgery.
Because medical practitioners in Turkey are prohibited from openly advertising themselves, Oskui and several other cosmetic surgeons relied on such shows heavily to reach prospective patients. They subsequently uploaded video recordings of these shows to their personal websites and distributed them via social media. To reach patients abroad more directly, Oskui and others also used advertisements on Turkish-language satellite TV channels in Western Europe and the US (which were excempt from the prohibition), as well as in magazines and TV channels across the wider Mediterranean, Middle East or Central Asia. Competition for cosmetic surgery patients from abroad was indeed fierce in Istanbul, illustrated by the story of another interviewee also working in the cosmetic surgery sector, who one day recounted how in the morning, two of his prospective hair transplant patients from the Gulf had been snatched away from his chauffeur at the airport by an agent, who promised to take them somewhere where they could have the same type of treatment for “half the price.”
The beautyscape of Istanbul as it unfolded itself from Dr Oskui’s office overlooking the modern city centre was one of globalized travel and commerce, of the capitalization of mediatized fantasies, of beauty and glamour tied to a particular urban geography that was itself in the process of undergoing often painful operations of “beautification.” During an era of violent urban restructuring and the privatization of public services, including health and the media, cosmetic surgery has become an increasingly normalized form of beautification in Istanbul. Within the brief history of the cosmetic surgery sector, its centre has now moved from Turkey’s capital, Ankara, where it was rooted in state and university hospitals, to an ever-growing private sector in Istanbul. For another Istanbul-based cosmetic surgeon, Prof. Dr Gürhan Özcan, this formed part of a wider pattern of urban commercialization:
The cost of cosmetic surgery is not covered by state insurance, so they [i.e. his patients] have to pay cash, or by credit card, or whatever. This [i.e. Istanbul] is the centre of the industry, of the economy of Turkey. So most of the money is here, in Istanbul. So most of the people, who will pay for surgery, they are also in Istanbul. This attracts people who do plastic surgery, for the money it brings. ... It’s a business. [At times I ask myself:] ‘Are you a medical doctor or a businessman?’ Many plastic surgeons in this financial service city, they are business people! I am not happy to say this, but that’s the way it is. So it is not just the centre of Turkish plastic surgery science, but of business! (Interview with Prof. Dr. Gürhan Özcan, March 11, 2014)
The amalgam of money, commerce, urban space, and estetik (cosmetic surgery) described here becomes especially obvious when looking at the urban entertainment industry and its relation to mediated beauty. With its stories of fame and ever-lasting beauty, the urban entertainment industry did much to popularize aesthetic body modification in Turkey and to create a particular kind of urban beautyscape.