- When the Miss South Africa pageant announced their 2019 Top 16 finalists, we applauded the fact that it was their most inclusive selection of crown hopefuls yet.
- The 2019 Face of Free State competition added to this positive narrative, as we cheered for Esihle Mhluzi - a 22-year-old Law student and physically impaired model - for being awarded the runner-up title.
- Esihle is now a finalist in the Miss Free State SA 2020 pageant set to take place later in the year due Covid-19.
- We talk to her about her passions, inclusivity, and her trajectory towards trailblazer status.
For years, many of us questioned the relevance, role and integrity of beauty pageants in a post-ladylike social era that no longer panders to respectability politics, the male gaze, and conventional beauty standards. We critiqued the selection process which often times saw young women parade in swimwear before they could even state their cause, begging the assumption that their body types take precedence over their intelligence.
Of course, all this criticism fed into the discussion of how exclusionary the world of pageantry has always been, where peripheral pageants had to be created to celebrate the 'other' - Miss Wheelchair World, Miss Plus Size is Me South Africa, and Miss International Queen, which is the world's biggest beauty pageant for transgender women.
It's great that these competitions exist, but to repeat a question I've asked before; "If pageants are really all about inner beauty as they purport to be, would there be a need to create the above-mentioned peripheral contests? Would a curvy woman, a physically impaired woman, an openly queer woman, and a transgender woman all not be able to enter the same competition then?"
At the time this question was posed, it was also noted that we're hopefully slowly approaching this kind of an all-inclusive pageant format as we've seen from the faces fronting various campaigns in the fashion and beauty industries. And Zozibini Tunzi's two-time victory as Miss SA and later, Miss Universe - as well as Sasha-Lee Olivier taking over the Miss SA reign as a fuller-figured woman - proved that that time is perhaps finally upon us.
The body positivity conversation is not only limited to weight, but the inclusion of all types of bodies not deemed as conventionally "acceptable".
Bloemfontein-based Esihle Mhluzi, is therefore subverting the pageant norm in this regard. She is a Law student at the University of the Free State, a business-minded woman with a strong passion and desire to advocate for the marginalised. With a strong background in writing, public speaking and student leadership, the 22-year-old says her position as an impaired woman in society compels her to be an advocate for other young girls who aspire to disrupt the status quo. So far, Esihle has achieved this through her work as a member on the board of directors of an NGO in her hometown (King Williams Town) in the Eastern Cape, as a NTOMBAM ambassador, and as the Chairperson for the Universal Access Council at the University of the Free State.
Image supplied by Esihle Mhluzi
W24 was introduced to Esihle when she became the Face of Free State Fashion Week 1st runner up and the very first physically impaired model to grace the runway at this fashion week in 2019.
This was the same year in which she decided to venture into modelling as an extension of her "passion for the art of photography and all things aesthetics," which is evident on her 10 000 followers-strong Instagram account.
"It was a passion that I downplayed for many years because I believed that there was no space for bodies such as mine. In hindsight, I silenced the noise and chose to tap into the unfathomable life I believed God was preparing me for," she shares as she explains that her impairment is spinal cord related and has therefore rendered her dependent on the use of crutches.
Now, as a finalist in the Miss Free State SA 2020 pageant, the Law student says that what this moment means is that "my advocacy is no longer going unheard and that the many girls that I stand on behalf of, can finally envisage themselves on platforms that were otherwise designed to stifle and dilute our brilliance."
As a result, Miss Mhluzi expresses that her mandate is to infiltrate spaces that were not necessarily designed for girls who look like her. "The narrative I want to put forward is that girls like me can still access glory — so as soon as the Miss SA organisation is ready to disrupt existing [ideals] of what beauty is assumed to be, and allow for a wider array of bodies to be celebrated, as a pioneer in challenging the perceptions of beauty in the modeling industry; pursuing Miss SA would definitely be something I’d be keen on doing," she says.
Creating access from the ramp to the runway
This pageant finalist's long list of involvement also includes chairing the UFS Universal Access Council - a campus initiative aimed at the seamless integration of differently-abled students in university culture and experiences.
"I believe that we would not have to have such councils if society was conditioned to be accommodating of differently-abled bodies," Esihle says, adding that winning Miss Free Sate SA would therefore create a platform that would allow for her to "continue trying to instil such notions and change how our bodies are perceived.
For Esihle, creating access is not only about ramps for physically impaired persons, but unseating the runway too. As a model who walked for various local fashion labels at Free Sate Fashion Week, she notes that designers are "accustomed to creating garments for the conventional kind of model, although I do believe that it is something that can be unlearned and can evolve over time."
Esihle Mhluzi (L) walks at the 2019 Free State Fashion Week
Speaking on what she's learnt about mental health during this time, Esihle Mhluzi says the following;
"The importance of pouring into yourself during this time is paramount. Find ways to affirm your being consistently, even on those days that you don’t feel like it. Tap into the truth that you are the peace that your situation needs and you lack nothing."
With regards to future aspirations, she says she will continue to "inculcate a society where bodies such as ours don’t have to jump through hoops to finally have our existence deemed worthy of being validated."
All images supplied