Camille is a French-Lebanese twenty-something who emigrated to France at the age of 18. Wearing fringe and thin, round glasses, she does not immediately strike as Lebanese, yet she gesticulates excitedly like the women of Beirut, Tripoli and Saida. At the time of our online meeting, she is in her apartment in Paris, using her lunch break to answer questions about her traumatic encounter with medical malpractice in one of Beirut’s top hospitals.
On January 27, Camille posted a response to a video circulating on TikTok asking women to share their personal experiences of misogyny. Her response told about a surgeon who did not reduce her breasts to the size agreed upon prior to the operation, because they needed to satisfy “the hands of honest man.”
The video went viral, reaching a million views and raking in thousands of comments from around the world letting her know she was not alone. Many users encouraged her to file a lawsuit against the surgeon, with some even suggesting to launch a fundraiser page to cover the costs.
[Camille] “My intention was to answer the question, but the comments made me feel like I should have done something about it sooner, as though I was the one who had done something wrong. I felt like the victim, so naturally I interpreted everything through the [lens] of confirmation bias.”
Without mentioning where the surgery had taken place in her initial video, the golden cedar tree dangling from Camille’s neck indicates what many in the comments section had already suspected.
“It happened in Beirut, 2015. I was 19 and I felt like [the surgeon] really understood that the surgery was not only something I wanted, but something I needed. I could not continue looking and feeling this way; it was a [literal] weight on my back and a social weight as well.”
For legal purposes, Camille refrains from mentioning the name of her surgeon and the name of the hospital where the surgery had been performed. Instead, she focuses on how desperate she was to undergo the surgery, recounting how many people had mistaken her 14-year-old body for a 20-year-old’s. By the time she went for surgery, Camille’s bra cup was a size K.
She notes that anybody living in Lebanon knows that the fashion retail industry does not cater to women who do not fit the three traditional sizes: small, medium, or large. The global fashion industry has only recently begun providing comfortable and appropriate choices for women who do not resemble the tall and slim models gracing the season’s catalogues on websites or in magazines. She jokes that she had to ask male relatives to bring back bras from abroad.
“You’re Lebanese, too. You know what it’s like.”
Both men and women in her life also shared their input on her final decision. While women expressed sadness, or perhaps a disguised pity, men jokingly labelled the decision a crime.
“There was one occasion where a friend asked my boyfriend at the time if he minded about me having the breast reduction. It’s the male gaze, it’s in Lebanese society and in the diaspora as well: same mentality, different contexts.”
Camille emphasizes that she clearly remembers the conversation with the surgical assistant, male, of course, and her insistence that, should something unexpected occur during the operation, she preferred the outcome to be a smaller cup size than she had asked for, which was settled at a D cup. She casually slips in that her surgeon and his assistant persistently factored in the “harmonious look” of her breasts post-op, without giving much detail about what that harmony entailed for the desired outcome or her discomfort.
After her operation, Camille experienced horrible pain offset only by heavy medication.
“I couldn’t even open the fridge due to suction.”
Earlier in the interview, she defended her decision to have her operation and recovery in Beirut, evidently accustomed to the stranger’s assumption that the fate of her surgery must have been the inevitable result of a cheap expense. In fact, she organized to spend time post-op in Lebanon, where her family could help with the errands she no longer had the strength for. In the meantime, she was instructed to rest and attend regular check-ups for three months.
“I wasn’t even given a compression bra, which I know now was necessary to wear for weeks. Instead, the surgeon only recommended a non-wired bra.”
“He put one of his hands on my breast and said: “Look, it’s the perfect size: it fits in the hands of an honest man.””
In Camille’s penultimate check-up appointment, she removed the gauze wrapped around her chest and found two six-centimetre scars staring back at her. The surgeon reassured her that they would fade away. And then, she recalls nervously, he put one of his hands on my breast and said: “Look, it’s the perfect size: it fits in the hands of an honest man.”
A silence follows, which Camille interrupts with a sheepish smile. Shock clouds the moment before she begins to speak again. It was immediately clear to her that the scars were not the only issue. Her breasts hardly fit into a DD cup. She adds that her nipples were now much higher than they were prior to the surgery, leaving her at the whims of nip-slips in all sorts of situations. She had not gotten what she paid for, but the surgeon justified his decision, again, with the “harmonious look” of her breasts.
“No, you did a bad job.”
The surgeon’s only plea was to offer her a second surgery at a discount from her first operation’s price of $6,000.
“You’re never touching me again.” That was Camille’s last contact with her surgeon.
The only other person in the room that day was her mother, who by law cannot stand as a witness in trial. Camille takes a few moments to think through what she wants to say next.
There is a visible dissonance between the story, the narrator, and the body. It is clear that the cost of the surgeon’s negligence has been her relationship with her body and her truth.
“I dissociated from my breasts, erased their existence. I saw them as a form. No more sexy bras, just full coverage. Somehow, I left the body of somebody oversexualized to be in the body of somebody even more so.”
Her hands move angrily on the screen. It is evident that Camille blames herself for not ensuring there was enough documentation and recorded communication that could have supported her in court. Regardless of Camille’s personal initiative, there is also a gap in evidence-based performance reports in Lebanon.
According to an investigation by the Lebanese Transparency Association in 2014, 82% of hospitals will not report medical errors solely out of fear of having their licenses revoked or their reputations tarnished. Given that 30% of medical malpractice cases reported to Lebanon’s Order of Physicians were the result of error, such as negligence or disfigurement, it is unsurprising that most patients undergoing cosmetic surgery would shy away from pressing charges given that they have no legal standing to do so.
Camille, fortunately, is now in full-time employment, which can contribute towards her second operation. However, after seeing a well-known surgeon in Paris, who explicitly told her that her breasts do not look like breasts, she was told that her case would be deemed inoperable by most cosmetic surgeons. With nearly 70% sensation loss from her initial operation, she was warned that a second procedure rectifying the errors of the first would result in complete nerve damage.
Camille clarifies that she had kept this incident from most of her friends. It was only this year that Camille acknowledged that she was a victim of a botched surgery by a negligent, medical professional who had violated her. TikTok fortified her experience through the validation of strangers who listened to her – and believed her.
With her father’s support, she started contacted lawyers in Lebanon only to be met with speculation about the lawsuit’s reach and outcome.
Meanwhile, the country’s hyperinflation has devalued the Lebanese Pound (LBP) by 80% against the dollar, although the state’s institutions and courts are still operating at the official bank rate of 1,500 LBP to a dollar.
Were it possible for Camille to file a complaint against her surgeon, and were the courts to rule in her favor, her legal costs would outweigh the settlement. In addition, Lebanon’s statute of limitation requires that medical negligence be filed within four years’ time with all necessary consent forms, proof of communication, and an immediate third-party assessment of the surgery.
“After all of this, I just wanted to be heard and listened to.”
Encircling the Victim
Finances aside, the backlash that follows a woman for daring to speak about her perpetrator or her personal experience raises doubts for those seeking justice. Families are targeted, intent is questioned, and a distorted version of events is passed around until the victim can no longer distinguish her truth from the public’s.
Camille smiles as she acknowledges that breast reduction is anathema to the patriarchy. Rejecting the internalized male gaze for personal benefit is a form of liberation unfathomable to those who perceive the female body as a possession.
The normalization of cosmetic surgeries in Lebanon has turned the country into the beauty enhancement capital of the Arab World. Whilst practitioners – most of them men profiting off ageist and orientalist insecurities – and clients increase in numbers annually, the national accreditation system lags behind without regular renewal statuses or certified auditors to ensure that the patient is protected against negligence and disfigurement that may lead to grave future complications. The dynamic of the looker and the looked-at is exceptionally prevalent in Lebanon, where men have come to expect a manicured woman waxed raw head-to-toe. Ironically, in the age of the Instagram face, which coincides with an inclusive, and often abrasive, feminist wave, women have had to convince themselves and others that their beauty enhancements are intrinsically empowering and rooted in free choice.
In a country where the “Euro-American female form” or the hyper-sexualized pouts and crease-cut cheekbones of Haifa Wehbe or Kylie Jenner are pushed onto Lebanese women as an ideal portrait of beauty, regulated, monitored and insured practitioners must be obligatory.
In most countries, doctors are insured as 70% of healthcare professionals are bound to face a medical malpractice charge at least once in their careers. The absence of clinical documentation, assessments of performances and inadequate training neglects and abandons women, who are the dominant consumers of the cosmetic industry in Lebanon – and consequently its most vulnerable victims.
Camille has accepted defeat. She finds peace in welcoming the experience as a lesson in what the world can look like for young women and sharing her story with others. She worries about the surgeon’s other patients, who may find themselves in a position similar to hers, without the tools and resources needed to know about legal procedures in the case of medical malpractice.
This is her Camille’s first interview with a Middle Eastern publication, which she agreed to do solely for the purpose of spreading awareness about the medical negligence rife inside the cosmetic industry and informing women about their legal rights.
“Women in Lebanon do not have a voice. We think we’re empowered in the Middle East, but do we really have power?”
As for the surgeon’s harrowing words, which play on a silent loop throughout the interview, Camille credits her strength to come forward to the distance between her and her homeland. She admits that she would not have posted the video to TikTok had she lived in Lebanon, because it would have never occurred to her that what she experienced was a repercussion of the country’s culture of misogyny and self-surveillance.
Despite the mental and physical trauma due to the surgeon’s negligence, and subsequent disfigurement, Camille is coping with reality. Since her first video, she has uploaded follow-up answers to several questions TikTok users had about her experience and the outcome. She publicly acknowledges her role as the victim and the difficulty in accepting a reality different from the outcome she had hoped and paid for.
“After all of this, I just wanted to be heard and listened to.”