The Politics of Beauty

by Nkatha Obungu

In the innocent space of childhood fantasy, I wanted to be a model when I grew up. This dream was so real and vivid to me that, for a while, I adopted a gait that must have seemed like a strange cross between a catwalk and limp. My idea of a model was definitive; long straight thick hair that reached to the shoulders without any effort, painted, manicured nails, garishly red lips and several shades of skin lighter than I actually was. Adult me would somehow manage to overcome these physical hurdles and I would conquer the leagues of modeling. And so, to improvise as I waited to grow into my model looks, I would wear a grey school pullover over my head and pretend that it was hair; long, silky, perfect hair that I would flick back over my shoulders just like in the movies. I put biro pen lids on my fingers, imagining that they gave the impression that the red tips were really long, painted nails and I was a glamorous Hollywood actress.

At the time, the Spanish telenovella Maria de Los Angeles was all the rage and the femme fatale antagonist, Orquidea Cordoba Escalante, made it look like the cigarette had been invented purely to be perched on her lips. As an ode to this siren that seemed to know what real beauty was about, I would place a biro in my mouth secretly and pretend that I was smoking while delivering languorous threats to imagined enemies.

I cringe every time I remember these escapades but, from a strictly structuralist point of view, how could I not? My perception of beauty from the time I could form opinions was shaped by a certain ideal being peddled by consumerism. My Barbie dolls were white, with curly blonde hair and liquid blue eyes. My favourite cartoons were white, with perfect hair and eyes the colour of candy (Power puff girls anyone?)   My literary and television heroines (Nancy Drew and Maria de Los Angeles respectively) were non-blacks with long, silky hair and eyes the colour of which, you could find on the rainbow.

I would watch Miss Universe with rapt attention; cheering on the current white or Latina bomb shell that best fit my mold of what was beautiful. I remember an Angolan making it to the top five and me sneering because in my opinion, she did not deserve to be there with her ebony skin and braided hair that never quite looked right.

None of these attitudes were deliberate. In the heat of my feverish rooting for nubile Miss Costa Rica, it never once occurred to me that I was rejecting what I actually was for a foreign idea of beauty. The self-loathing was not a conscious psychological choice that I was making. In fact, if you asked me, I would have told you that yes, I was pretty. It just felt like my brand of beauty belonged within a different space, time and continuum from what I was seeing on TV and that this latter brand was the real thing. Illusion took on reality and reality became inconsequential; a thing to be brushed aside and sacrificed at the altar of fantasy.

A few decades later watching the Miss World Kenya pageant on late-night TV I expected to be nostalgic but, as each of the girls strutted on the cat walk, I found that I had lost my reverence for the pageant institution.

In fact, instead of nostalgia, all I could find was anger. I got angry that I was living in a time when it was still okay for women to parade their bodies for approval and reward.  I got angry at the hypersexualization of the girls, the docile smiles; the pliant poses; the choreographed attempts at being “fierce” without being threatening. I got angry that they all had the same physical attributes; tall, skinny, high cheekbones; long legs.

It was akin to watching a machine churn out structurally similar toys, and then have them dressed in slight costume variations. Here we were, looking for our country’s representation of beauty yet we were basing it on standards that half the Kenyan female population could not meet. I got angry at the rehearsed steps; the plastic smiles; the faux confidence worn like armour to battle. It was the emotional equivalent of watching animals perform tricks for an easily impressed audience.

When the “beauty with a purpose” segment came on, I was sure the event would be delivered from its plasticity. I was wrong. Like everything else, it had a staged quality, like we were being treated to some sort of theatrical rehearsal. There was the tired cliché about “bettering the society” and “making life better”; a script that was religiously adhered to. I imagined that there had been a standard boilerplate form and they had all been told to fill in the blanks. My name is X. If I win Miss World Kenya, I will start a project on X and this will better the society and improve our country (sic). Full stop. Smile nervously. *The audience (hopefully) goes wild* Stop. Repeat.

As far as the history of beauty pageants go, the modern beauty pageant is stylized in such a way that it showcases other aspects of a woman’s beauty other than long legs and a perfect figure. I suppose the question and answer session is one of the products of this “modernity”. Besides, a woman’s intelligence is a big part of what we like to call inner beauty, right?

However, When Terry Mungai, the ever-ebullient Ashley’s CEO came on stage to announce the winner, the criteria she announced as having been used to judge the competition did not sound especially all-rounded. According to Miss Mungai, the judges were looking for that girl (sic) who not only had impressive facial features, but also had an excellent dental formula. Meaning it boiled down to having a certain face and teeth. The rest was just fluff, to fill the space.

The thing with beauty pageants is that they uphold a certain standard of beauty and we are encouraged to deify this standard. In an essay on “Further Materials towards a theory of the hot babe,” Hannah Black describes the vacousness that characterizes the hot babe. In my opinion, the beauty queen is the personification of the hot babe; she is characterized by contentlessness and her body is reconfigured into a medium of conveying eroticism. This is the idea that is sold to the wider population; the ideal to ascribe to.

Does this make beauty pageants misogynistic and sexist? Well, Tanya Gold seems to think so. Once you get past the part where she wants to turn beauty pageant contestants into tampons, she actually makes a good point. This point is supported by the radical feminism school of thought, which is of the view that beauty pageants enhance the fuckability mandate because they promote the idea that women are useful objects for the patriarchy; a vessel for sating desire; which vessel needs to be formed a specific way to fulfill its purpose.

In Chimamanda Adichie’s latest novel,“Americanah”, Ifemelu the main character says that before she left Nigeria she was not aware of her blackness. Theoretically, this should be true of Kenyan women like me, who have lived here all their lives. However, even within the solidarity of a people just healing from the scars of colonialism, colourism still haunts us and maligns us. We feel the paper cuts of the foreign standard of beauty that is thrust upon us. The perfect beautiful woman is light-skinned and skinny with just the right amount of understatedcurves; her makeup is natural; her hair a glowing halo of naturally wavy tresses that are perfectly coiffed. She pulls off this look without resorting to the aid of visible artificial aids and that is why human hair weaves will remain acceptable but synthetic ones will not. It’s not about the principle of rejecting artificial hair extensions; but the degree to which the latter offend society by holding up a mirror to its own self-rejection and self-loathing.

When the newly-crowned Miss World-Kenya was announced, she was ridiculed by a section of the Kenyan twitterati for having teeth that did not conform to a certain idea of how good teeth should look. Particularly disgraceful memes formulated and made viral by KOT can be found hereand here. Because good teeth are straight and even and brilliant white like in a Colgate ad. It doesn’t matter whether we are doctors or lawyers or journalists or engineers or business women or writers or artists; our worth is first and foremost measured against our looks and then we are sifted into categories of marriageability.

Any deviation from the prevailing beauty ideal is fodder for ridicule, because of course, our patriarchal misogynistic pop culture is against women who don’t conform to the version of the “hot babe” we are deluded into thinking represents beauty. The rest of us slip and fall into the cracks of this perfectly formed pavement; we are nobody and nothing; merely instruments of a malevolent turning of society against itself. We are, simultaneously, the weapons and targets of hatred and double-standards. We are the ugly ones who are fit to be used and abused because we do not conform to patriarchy’s criteria of worth.

It doesn’t matter how many memes and inspirational quotes we put out there about beauty; the real message being heard is in our values; our subtle everyday microagressions; the un-subtitled actions that pile up to form the bulk of our existence. We can’t put out messages that height and weight and skin colour do not need to be a certain way for a woman to be considered beautiful; and then go ahead and put a certain Barbie-like standard on the pedestal.

I’m deathly scared that my daughter will resent the nappy hair she may inherit from me; the dark skin; the genes capable of fleshing out. I am worried that my daughter will, at one point, be tempted to think that it’s even vaguely okay to bleach her skin; or that she is somehow sub-human because she is dark-skinned or has extra flab under her arms. I am worried for my daughter’s esteem in a world that will show her at every turn that she is not “beautiful” and because of it, she is worthless; subaltern. I wonder how many times I will have to affirm her and let her know that she need not destroy who she is to be more of a human being.

In a world that keeps trying to silence and dispose of the worth of women who look different from the picture-perfect beauty queen, we need to unlearn the lessons that patriarchy, colonialism and slavery have entrenched. Beauty, true beauty, is not a fixed concept; it’s abstract and fluid. Beauty can becourage and character and intellect and love et cetera; regardless of body size and/or dental structure. It goes beyond skin colour and hair texture. Markus Zusak said, “Sometimes people are beautiful. Not in looks. Not in what they say. Just in what they are.” Yes.

Nkatha Obungu is a closet idealist who speaks legalese by day and masquerades as a writer by night. She is currently worshipping at the feet of Audre Lorde and Paul Verlaine

21 Replies to “The Politics of Beauty”

  1. This is so true for the girl raised in the nineties and grew up in this age. I was almost moved to tears.

    And Maria de Los Angeles? Oh Nkatha! you made my morning. Good job.

  2. This line will stay with me.

    “that is why human hair weaves will remain acceptable but synthetic ones will not. It’s not about the principle of rejecting artificial hair extensions; but the degree to which the latter offend society by holding up a mirror to its own self-rejection and self-loathing.”

    Thank you for this brave, honest, necessary essay.

  3. What sucks is that for every woman who thinks like this, two thousand others just made their way to River Road for a jar of bleaching cream. keep writing, honey

  4. Nkatha, I love this. Thank you for taking the time to so eloquently speak. I enjoyed it immensely. On your daughter, this is what I have figured out. She will embark on her own journey in this world that says she is not, as it has said to you. She will stumble on the same things we all stumble on. You can have an impact, you can affirm her, but you cannot take her cross away, she and she alone must bare her own cross. I found this out as I watched my children go through the same struggles I went through. For some reason I had figured since I had conquered, these struggles, I had conquered for them. But no, this is life. There will be some positive things e.g. they have Barack Obama in their sights to help tell them, yes they can. But this is life.
    Here is a poem for you.

    Unknown History

    by Sitawa Namwalie

    Father why do you hide me from myself?
    You lost my fore-mothers,
    Interred them in untold stories,
    Mislaid their heroism,
    Their foibles have gone astray, as foibles will,
    You bequeathed me shamed silence, instead
    Was that your intention?

    Mother why do you hide me from myself?
    My life is a pulsing shadow
    When I encounter me in a mirror,
    I see what I am not,
    I am unknown history,
    Phantoms are the silent listeners in my every discourse,
    I do battle with legions of ghosts,
    Enraged with cunning secrets!

    No more,
    I must unearth concealed names,
    Tell me who I am!
    Tell ___me _____who___ I ____am.

    1. Sitawa, I couldn’t have said it better.

      Nkatha, Fear not, arm your girl and let her be on her way. My/your fears for our kids may lead us to closing paths that may have pulled out the greatness in them, greatness that comes from experiencing all facets in life…. I too went through the jersey hair, blue-eyed, fair-skinned stage as a little girl. It was a phase. I am a strong beautiful African woman. I still appreciate the Maria de Los Angeles es of this world, it’s just that she doesn’t ‘have’ me.

      Worse still… I played with Gollywogs brought to school by blonde long haired white kids and didn’t get the negro insult. It took me another 10 years. I wonder if this still goes on?

  5. Absolutely wonderful piece. I see traces of your worship for our Lorde 🙂 (Audre) ! I am feeling this. Being me,going against those set standards or normalizations and just being me, is a revolutionary act. awesome!

  6. I love how well thought out your essay is, reminds me of countless other voices that have said the same or something similar to this . Even more I love that this piece allows a Kenyan/local context on an issue that is not well addressed in mainstream media. Women who wear weaves and bleach are not looked at as victims of systematised oppression in mainstream media but are usually presented as vapid ‘blondes’ who don’t know what they are doing and need to be guided (by a man) towards what real beauty and self appreciation is. This is then followed by a description of what he and his friends consider is the ideal woman and backed by ‘an expert’ of sorts. So this is refreshing and a great direction by people such as yourselves to present their/our story. Kudos!

    1. Thank you Muthoni.That essay on Tiger Beatdown is powerful. This line got me: “That’s all I wanted. And to be pretty, to be “male gaze approved” pretty. To be seen as pretty.”

  7. A mind-boggling essay. Thank you Nkatha. I find that racial profiling is immensely cradled by both the beauty pageant and classic “barbie”.

  8. Recently, our former house-help, already very light skinned, bleached herself.
    We laughed, joking that she’d been influenced by the image of my mother who is extremely light skinned and prosperous (by her own standards). To me, she’d somehow seen a causal relationship between the two, she was being Nairobianised. Even as I laughed, I chided myself, I knew that was being too ‘superficial’, but arrogantly refused to distill my own thoughts.

    Your piece Nkatha, has acted as a catalyst and I cannot thank you enough.

  9. It’s makes me smile when I see people speak so passionately about something I believe in too. I’m an avid believer in the fact that everyone is beautiful and we need not conform to certain looks to be beautiful.Thanks you for this article .I’ll share it / feature it in my next blog post. It came at just the right time for me.

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