Many of us woke up this morning (09/12/2019) to the breaking news that Zozibini Tunzi is the new Miss Universe. She is a 26-year-old black model from Tsolo (a small town in the Eastern Cape), South Africa. This is not the first time that a black woman of African descent won the prestigious pageant. Leila Lopes of Angola most recently wore the crown in 2011. However, there is something about this particular contestant that is perhaps finally heralding the dawn of a new definition of “beauty” – one that truly includes Africans. Zozibini Tunzi is the first contestant that has been allowed to put the Miss Universe crown on her natural [kinky 😳] African hair!
Why Miss Universe?
In the 21st century, where the feminism movement has justifiably and successfully challenged patriarchal systems and mindsets, Lord only knows why the Miss Universe pageant continues to exist. Its very tagline – “Confidently Beautiful” – is pregnant with irony. In other words, “we want you to be confident in your beauty, but only if you look like this”… The contestants, in their appearance, represent a tiny fraction of the global female population. But that is, I suppose, another discussion for another day. The focus of this particular article, however, is the erroneous notion that “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”.
In fact, it seems that the west has for many years defined the notion of beauty. It (the west’s definition of beauty) has, like many other European constructs, undermined the mother continent. It is somewhat telling that it wasn’t until 1940 that the rules were changed to allow women of colour to enter the Miss America pageant (which has the same roots as Miss Universe). Before that, the official rules stated that contestants had to be “of good health and of the white race.”
Colonialism and “beauty”
It is therefore clear that beneath the traditional definition of beauty lies a deeper and more sinister issue that has plagued our continent for centuries: The age-old fallacy that “white” is more beautiful than “black”. In fact, it is the driver behind many of ills in Africa such as the skin-lightening and the hair industry.
The lighter the brighter…
On the African continent, skin-lightening continues to be common practice in many places. Statistics compiled by the World Health Organisation in 2011 showed that 40% of African women bleach their skin. In some countries the figure is higher. A staggering 77% of women in Nigeria, 59% in Togo, 35% in South Africa, 27% in Senegal and 25% in Mali use skin-lightening products. Shingi Mtero, who teaches a course on the politics of skin bleaching at Rhodes University, South Africa, in an interview with Africa Renewal stated that “whiteness has been elevated and presented as a universal standard of progress. When people say it’s about whiteness, it’s not necessary to physically be white, it’s about wanting to access things white people have easy access to—privileges, economic and social status.”
“Light skin”, Mtero said further, “is what men want; it makes sense for women to assimilate to the standard that men want in order to increase the chances of getting married. And marriage serves as a form of social capital—being someone’s wife, a child bearer and an esteemed member of society. It will elevate a woman”. This logic seems to lie behind many a marketing campaign, including the 2017 Dove clip that landed the Unilever company in some hot water. In an advertisement for their skin cream, a black woman apparently becomes white after using Dove.
Another beauty “no-no” has always been African hair in its natural state. As a result, the amount of money spent on relaxers weaves, and wigs in Africa is staggering. All in order to panel beat our natural black hair until it conforms to the white barbie doll that was thrust into our black daughters’ hands when they were children.
According to Reuters, Market research firm Euromonitor International estimates the sale of shampoos, relaxers and hair lotions at $1.1 billion in South Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon alone last year. The dry hair industry which includes weaves, extensions and wigs accounts for an estimated at $6 billion a year. For a while now documentaries like “Good Hair” by Chris Rock (2009) have sought to expose who gains from ensuring that the current definition of “beauty” remains what it is. A lot of the things we consider beautiful are actually just proxies for wealth. Think of how much it costs to get cosmetic surgery, or braces, or even a facial. I suppose that as more women with greater melanin levels, like Meghan Markle and now Zozibini Tunzi, achieve prominence over time, there will hopefully signal the natural attrition of the west’s strangle-hold over the definition for “beauty”.
Admittedly, there has been a growing challenge to the conventional definition of what is aesthetically pleasing. Examples include Halima Aden, a Somali-American model who made the Hijab and Burka acceptable accessories amongst others. But the dominant image still remains (a search of the words “beautiful woman” on Google will prove the point).
Perhaps this individual milestone will herald the advent of a new perception of what is beautiful and encourage our African sisters to be more comfortable in their own skin [and hair].