Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

African beauty is not in the hands of the beholder …

Submitted by Cynthia Ayeza

There was a time that I believed that the idea behind the Nokia Face of Africa was brilliant as it inspired young girls to get into modelling careers.

The show inevitably gave a limited variety of girls the opportunity to compete more on a physical level than on an intellectual level. Also, the Nokia Face of Africa provided a golden opportunity to the girl that won — a modelling contract with Elite worth $150 000, on the international scene. The aim of the competition was to promote a positive image of the continent. The extent to which this was achieved begs to be revisited with a level of scepticism.

Whereas I am not against beauty competitions, the likes of the Nokia Face of Africa event serve to promote a misguided view of a “positive face for Africa”. I am of the view that this particular competition, unless revisited and restructured in terms of its criteria (among other things) for selecting the eventual winner, serve to promote a shallow image of what African beauty is, and ultimately points to a narrow definition of what being African may entail.

Our role as Africans is to reject an identity prescribed by anyone other than Africans themselves. By this, I mean that Bush, Oprah and Elite Models can retain their “this is America” ideals and not try to decide for us who is or isn’t African. When a white South African, Stacey Maitland-Stuart, was selected as one of the final top 10 in the competition, uproar erupted in the country and on the continent. She was not black enough to be African; assuming, of course, that to be African then means being “black”. Would “black” refer to one’s skin pigmentation or a notion to which many of an almost similar “colour” composition can relate?

I found several articles that called for models with “real African looks”. I am not sure if Alec Wek (read as Alec “ape”) was what they meant, but I was raised to think wrongly that African looks entailed a wide hip, a visible bump behind and big boobs. As the creator would have it, a good majority fall short of this — Alec Wek inclusive, except for her skin colour, right?

A promotion of an African segregation, not only between whites and blacks, but also even between the dark, not-so-dark and somewhat caramel skin tones, as opposed to embracing a new ethnicity, is undesirable.

I’d like to imagine that one of the reasons why the Nokia Face of Africa competition is no longer running is because the creators and producers need to reconsider and restructure its very nature.

For starters, the title “Face of Africa” suggests a representation of the entire continent but candidates were really only taken from sub-Saharan Africa. While I understand that there are various theories regarding the notion of being African, I argue for a new ethnicity — one that recognises our forefathers, who varied in colour. The amount of melamine in one’s skin — or the absence of it — should not in any way determine the meaning of Africa or being African. My kinky hair or the lack of it should have little or nothing to do with my being African. If being Ethiopian means I do not represent Africa but rather qualify the idea of “ideally present-day white beauty” to a large extent, I should not be condemned to being un-African or less African.

If competitions like the Nokia Face of Africa promote a twisted view of what African beauty is, then in many ways they help promote a twisted view of what being African is really about. Who has the right to decide who is African and who isn’t? Why is my identity now being decided by Bush’s cousins?

The ultimate prize for the girl who becomes the so-called “Face of Africa” is the prestigious Elite modelling contract in the United States. Whereas that is admirable, I see this prize as determining what we shall then consider as African beauty. America gets to decide what beautiful is — and Western ideals are then qualified. The girls are gorgeous, apart from being exceptionally dark, skinny, hipless, boob-less — this is what is called African beauty. I’d call it the West’s interpretation of “African beauty”. And in so doing, the African identity is being shaped and defined by the Western world. Is there a new ethnicity to embrace — that our generation (and those to come) belong to Africa, and that we are African without dark skin pigmentation having anything to do with it?

Cynthia Ayeza hails from Uganda and is currently reading towards her master’s in media studies at the University of Pretoria