Don’t use Miss Universe to impose beauty standards

Newly crowned Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi, from South Africa, poses during a press conference after the 2019 Miss Universe pageant at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 8, 2019. PHOTO | VALERIE MACON | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Having a singular standard of beauty as something women should aspire to is what has women jostling each other for skin-lightening creams in the first place and it should stop.

Old demons like the objectification of women and the commercialisation of beauty are often conjured up by beauty pageants, and Miss Universe is not any different.

The fact that this and similar pageants laugh in the face of gender equality by pitting women against each other to determine who the fairest of them all is nauseating and worth fighting about, but let’s put that aside for now and focus on something else.

A dark-skinned woman with short-cropped hair was crowned Miss Universe 2019 on December 8 this year in Atlanta, Georgia, United States.

For a continent like Africa where 40 per cent of women bleach their skin, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Zozibini Tunzi’s win meant more than just a shiny crown.

Ms Tunzi has been hyped for breaking beauty barriers and historical bias for straight-haired, fair-skinned women that such beauty pageants hold.


According to the Miss Universe website, she is a passionate activist who is engaged in the fight against gender-based violence.

She’s also an advocate for natural beauty and encourages women to love themselves the way they are.

And like Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o before her, who told us our dreams are valid, the South African beauty queen gave an equally memorable speech, which included these words: “May every little girl who witnessed this moment forever believe in the power of her dreams, and may they see their faces reflected in mine.” Tear-inducing, right?

Now, these are words that should make any of the 27 per cent of South African women who use skin-bleaching creams burn those jars in solidarity with the beauty queen, but that’s as far-fetched as it can get.

One can’t help but wish some of the self-love and contentment the 26-year-old Tunzi advocates for so passionately could be packaged and sold to the millions of women around the world for whom black means ugly.


But beneath all the praise for a barrier-breaking “black girl magic” win are undercurrents of cynicism and unfair comparison.

The chorus of reactions on social media by Kenyans have ranged from extreme praise to extreme judgment — and once in a while, judgment disguised as praise.

Two phrases that fall in the latter category specifically stood out: ‘African beauty’ and ‘Natural beauty’.

One can’t help but wonder if this is in comparison to ‘un-African’ and ‘unnatural beauty’. These notions need to be debunked.

In this beautiful continent of ours with 54 countries, there are women with ebony-coloured skin. Some skins are white, chocolate, almond, porcelain, ivory; ‘black’ women come in all the shades one can think of.

While 40 per cent may have purchased their skin colours over the counter, most of them are born that way and they are all beautiful, so there’s really no such thing as ‘African beauty’. It’s just beauty, period.


The idea of ‘natural beauty’ is also contestable. Supposing it means beauty without make-up, should a makeup-wearing woman then be deemed less beautiful?

As you may have seen already, the problem is not with the makeup. Besides, some make-up manufacturers claim to use all-natural products.

Having a break from the usual silky-haired, blue-eyed model take a top spot at a beauty pageant is all great progress but not everything should be a comparison.

As much as any given beauty pageant is a game of comparisons, having a singular standard of beauty as something women should aspire to is what has women jostling each other for skin-lightening creams in the first place and it should stop.

And to beauty queen Zozibini Tunzi, may the spark that you have started through the “black girl magic” phrase turn into a humongous, unstoppable fire than burns down every prejudice about beauty held by anyone around the world.

The author comments on social issues. Twitter: @FaithOneya; email: [email protected]