I have often heard it said that Zimbabweans have no distinct features that make us stand out as a people among other Africans. No characteristic complexion, body shape or texture of hair. A pretty bland people, some people even opine.
So you’d think that without a normative standard of beauty, our beauty pageantry would offer up an opportunity for different women’s appearances to be celebrated and lauded (I don’t say this to mean that the same is not also true of countries with more distinctive traits used as markers of beauty).
But from the backlash (via social media) the newly crowned Miss Zimbabwe, Emily Kachote, received most of last week – this is evidently not the case.
The 25-year-old has been the unfortunate recipient of derogatory commentary in which many have called her “ugly” and not good enough to represent Zimbabwe at the global Miss World pageant.
Some of the critique has arisen from the fact of her entering the pageant for a second time (this was her second attempt at the crown), with those opposed to her win saying that her loss the first time around should have been her gauge that she just wasn’t cut out for pageantry.
What has been more concerning to me, however, is the tacit reference to her dark skin as one of the chief reasons she should never have won. From the attacks that I have read, I haven’t been able to decipher what precise flaws she is accused of possessing. So it’s been less about her nose, eyes, lips, hair, body shape (not that that would make the backlash any more acceptable) and as such, has come across as a more general disdain for the way she looks.
I think that’s just a veiled attempt to pretend that colourism – discriminatory treatment among black people based on tone’s tone of skin – is not at play here.
Memes emerged last week placing Kachote’s image next to that of newly crowned Miss South Africa, Liesl Laurie, as an indication of how “unattractive” she is when positioned next to a more ‘conventional’ standard of beauty.
Laurie is of mixed race heritage. And what this all seems to point to is that the lighter your skin, the more beautiful you are automatically deemed to be.
Until someone can clearly point out what it is about Kachote that is distinctly “ugly”, I will hold fast to this personal analysis, especially given that as Africans, we have increasingly become obsessed with skin bleaching and lightening products that affirm that “light is right”.
This line of thinking takes away from the many positives that the emergence of Lupita Nyong’o and other African women who are dismantling popular Hollywood notions of beauty have created for women of this continent.
If our looks aren’t good enough for ourselves, then who will they ever be good enough for?
I know that pageantry is fraught with many standards that are exclusionary to many women. And indeed, that is the nature of the game. But adding unscripted extras to the range of standards to be adhered to – like the complexion of one’s skin – just make it harder for African women. As a result, we sadly become the policers of our own beauty; our own oppressors.
The real issue we should be discussing is why anyone that doesn’t look like the ‘conventional’ standard of an internationalised version of beautiful is deemed ugly. Who creates these standards and why can we not challenge them and redefine them?
Kachote has received messages of support from former beauty queens including Oslie Muringai-Matsikenyeri. And as former Miss Bulawayo, Sibusisiwe Dube, challenged;
“What yardstick is being used to measure beauty in Zimbabwe. It’s unknown. Every year it’s the same song… she’s not beautiful etc.”
Indeed, that question begs a deeper interrogation, for maybe once we are able to answer it, we will be able to put this debate to rest.