The ugly side of beauty pageants

Image: 123RF/Dmitry Chapurin

 In a world where the definition of beauty is changing fast - beauty pageants are still not getting it right, writes Nokuthula Zwane.

Many young girls, and even boys who identify as feminine, grow up idolising the Miss World and other beauty contest winners around the world.

They sit glued to their TV screens, hoping to one day win the crown. But then life happens and they may not be the ideal size, have the model aesthetic or may be disabled.

Victors of these contests preach that all women are beautiful, yet the competitions don't allow for all women to enter, let alone to win the title.

All the Miss SA, Miss World and the countless Miss Universe pageants we've had were almost cut from the same cloth of "beauty", so to speak.

The contestants, who are chosen based on certain characteristics that define beauty on these streets, prance around in designer gowns and swimwear for all to marvel at.

Are aspirant girls who are considered plus-size or the acne-faced young women not worthy of being called beautiful?

This year, the Miss SA pageant has changed its tune and claims that its definition of beauty is not based on looks or size.

It also announced its first queer and two plus-size contestants. The top 16 includes Kgothi Dithebe, who sports a unique facial birthmark which most people mistake for vitiligo.

Dithebe gained fame through her influencer status on social media.

Stephanie Weil, CEO of the Miss South Africa Organisation, dismissed claims that the pageant was racist or lacks inclusivity. She says that under her watch, as the newly appointment director of the pageant, things are going to change.

Kgothi Dithebe, with a distinctive birthmark made it to the Miss SA finals.
Kgothi Dithebe, with a distinctive birthmark made it to the Miss SA finals.

"Our eligibility requirements are clear. Applicants must be between 20 and 27 years old, be South African in possession of a valid SA ID document or a passport. All women, whatever their size, sexual orientation, height, weight, religion or education, are welcome to enter," said Weil.

"I feel that this platform is about women empowerment and watching her life grow and leaving her legacy, as it speaks to women empowerment. For me it was incredibly important to keep the dreams of young women alive in this country. SA is an incredible country with much diversity and I believe that as a young person, I see myself in all of these girls."

But she failed to answer the question of whether transgender or disabled people are allowed to enter and stand a chance of winning.

However, creative director of Miss SA and partial owner Paul Leisegang says this year was just the beginning of the transformation of the pageant.

"It almost felt like the pageant was South African but not placed in SA when we took over. We need to make sure that every young girl across the country, no matter which area or township she comes from, should feel part and parcel of it. Even ladies that are full-figured should feel that they can equally enter. We felt that we needed to open up the space for all women in SA," he said.

Weil says unfortunately they will never be able to represent all women.

"Hopefully they [the current finalists] are all representing something that is part of all [SA] women. By showing that you don't have to be a certain way to represent the country, they are ambassadors for SA.

"It's not about being a size two or a girl of a certain height, it's about representing all these faces in the country, and all these women have incredible stories to tell," Weil said. 

'Inclusivity is a joke', charge plus-size models

The truly plus-size girls felt insulted and labelled the Miss SA competition's "inclusivity" a joke.

Khanyisa Mbutu says beauty pageants are a joke.
Khanyisa Mbutu says beauty pageants are a joke.
Image: Supplied

Plus-size singer and celebrity parody model Khanyisa Mbuthu says she once applied for the competition years ago but did not receive a response.

The professional plus-size model says that as 'woke' as the world has become, not much has changed with pageants over the years.

"It's a joke that they say they included a plus-size lady... But then again, maybe in their books she is. I no longer know what the term plus-size means...

"Every time modelling agencies showcase plus-size ladies it's people who are medium weight. Who is representing us, the big people? Which category do we fall in because we don't qualify as plus-size?

"When I say 'we' I'm referring to people my weight or bigger.

"Why can't we be featured on covers of magazines, present TV shows or enter pageants? I honestly feel like the media still doesn't accommodate the real plus-size ladies," Mbuthu says.

Miss SA contestant Beulah Babuza labelled a plus-size.
Miss SA contestant Beulah Babuza labelled a plus-size.

Mbuthu, who is also a member of popular Afro-soul duo Iziqhaza, adds that she hoped that the selection process was broader to showcase the authentic South African women.

"I still feel like the selection process is suitable for a certain group of people who have access to the internet. I wish they could head-hunt contestants, go to rural areas to discover raw talent to nurture. The notion that a contestant must be fluent in English is also disappointing," she says.

Miss UK beauty queen Zoiey Smale gave back her crown two years ago, refusing to be abused by pageant organisers who asked her to go on a diet to lose weight.

She was "too fat" for the international stage. "It saddens me that even still, there are pageant directors who believe you must be skinny to be beautiful," she tweeted, refusing to have her face associated with the pageant's ethos, which she didn't believe in.

Smale endured public scrutiny when she revealed that she suffered from an eating disorder at the age of 16. This alone shows the kind of pressure these beauty pageants put on women around the world and that the idea of inclusivity may be a fictitious one. 

The perfect formula which is truly inclusive 

A model they could look to could be that of Cape Town-born Candice Christians who hosted a truly inclusive fashion show under her You Are Phenomenal brand.

The show featured disabled, plus-size, the LGBTQI community and many other sorts of people earlier this year.

Christians says even she could never enter Miss SA because of tattoos and she was considered bigger than a size 34.

Her belief is that someone who will truly make a difference to the world is a person whose beauty shines from the heart and not their appearance alone.

"In my opinion, a beauty pageant is a competition. You are competing against someone else for your looks. You are there for the title and it's a race against whoever the judges thinks is best.

"The beauty industry has made it so hard for regular women to take part because of a set criteria when it comes to pageants. I feel that it should be open to anyone and that it should be based on one's intelligence and beauty from the inside rather than making it superficial and looking at the outside.

"Not everyone has that beauty queen body, look, face or straight and dolled up hair. But what most women have is intelligence and beauty from the inside. And that's what makes a good role model," Christians said.

Even big beauty companies such as Dove have become more 'woke'.

In March this year they released their #ShowUs project with more than 5,000 images - the world's largest stock photo library created by women and non-binary individuals - to shatter beauty stereotypes.

It's time beauty pageants did the same, Mzansi's women say.

- Additional reporting by Somaya Stockenstroom

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