Unpacking the concept of beauty

2009-09-11 00:00

WHAT if I said I honestly think Caster Semenya is beautiful? I’m not sure if this assertion would receive a unanimous jolt and rejection from South Africans and citizens of the world alike or if it would receive a nod from some.

The furore around Semenya aroused endless debates, ranging from accusations of racism by International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) to that of sexism and male chauvinism.

For me, the Semenya issue reminded me that there is a need to unpack and dissect the very concept of beauty. We need to answer the question of what constitutes a beautiful woman. Would a woman who is considered to be beautiful and attractive in Moratania be considered equally beautiful and attractive in Paris? These questions are significant because the underlying insinuation around the Semenya saga is that she looks so ugly that she needs to verify that she is indeed a female.

Much as there is a popular saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is also true that the concept of beauty is steeped in societies’ cultures, traditions, and customs. Different societies and races define beauty based on the culture and genetic makeup of that particular racial group.

In an African culture, for instance, it was never considered less attractive for a women to be fully figured. As a matter of historic fact, a full-figured woman was considered attractive, especially by Zulu men. This was a definition of beauty and what is attractive, as informed by cultural and sociological aspects of Africa’s indigenous people, especially in this part of the continent.

There is a Zulu saying: “intombi inyathela ngabantwana”. This saying means that one should appreciate a woman with big-boned legs. Prior to the cultural shift of what is and is not beautiful, big was considered attractive because most of our women are naturally endowed with big behinds and men considered big bums to be eye candy. A Zulu man would even compliment a woman by saying i dudule, meaning she has an attractive behind of sizeable proportion.

Along the way, media and the subliminal imposing of Western values redefined for the world and for us on the continent what a beautiful woman should look like. The emergence of glossy magazines with thin (slim) models on the cover pages, dictated and thoroughly defined what beauty is, to which we all fell prey.

Not so long ago, a modelling agency in New York decided to challenge this beauty concept by introducing a very dark (almost pitch black) young woman with full lips from Sudan called Alek Wek, as one of its top models. Today, that young woman from Sudan, with “unconventional looks”, has become a household name in New York, Paris, Milan and elsewhere. Needless to say, she has become very rich in the process. Before that, people who looked like her were considered to be hideous.

It is also worth noting that people like Tracy Chapman, Joane Amatrading, Serena Williams, and many others don’t look like magazine cover girls, but have never had their gender put under scrutiny as Semenya has.

Since different races and ethnic groups have different genetic make ups, why is everyone expected to look like Angelina Jolie? This mind-set would be preposterous if it was not downright diabolical.

For me, this is again a case of the West having succeeded in imposing its values on other societies of the world. This is done in the name of globalisation — where a world is a global village.

What if I approached the IAAF and submitted that where I come from, Semenya is the prettiest woman alive? What if I said in Mozambique, Maria Motola is the best thing since sliced bread (in as far as looks are concerned)? Would I be said to be lacking a sense of beauty if I mentioned that I find both Paris Hilton and Khanyi Mbau to be of very moderate looks?

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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