Beauty! It is every woman’s lifelong wish. Feminine beauty is a charm. It is used by some women to empower themselves while others use it to dispossess brainless men of their prized acquisitions. Some women regard physical beauty as the essence of womanhood, thesymbol of their humanity, the passport to the hearts of men and the arsenal for accessing secret or classified information.
The art of looking beautiful is a lifetime preoccupation to many women. Some young women aspire and dream about the day they will win global beauty contests. They believe that victory in a beauty competition will ennoble them. It will transform them into superstars.
Ever since Agbani Darego emerged to win the “Miss World” competition in November 2001, participation in beauty contests has become a whole new industry in Nigeria. Many young women have been signing up. The triumph of Darego was not just a re-affirmation of the phrase “Black is beautiful”, it was also a confirmation that every society, every race, every community, every state, every country, every continent, every region of the world, can produce a beautiful woman. After all, no nation holds a patent over the production of beautiful women. What Darego’s victory helped to convey to the rest of the world was that, beyond the horrible association of Nigeria’s name with criminal elements that engage in “419” advance fee fraud that tarnishes the nation’s image, our women can match the West in beauty contests.
Darego’s achievement transformed a nation. It reassured everyone that Nigeria has the capacity to produce young, intelligent and beautiful women. Someone needed to rouse the nation from its mournful mood, following bloody religious and ethnic-inspired riots in Kano, Jos and Benue at that time. By winning the “Miss World” contest, Darego brought honour to Nigeria, a nation whose reputation and international profile have been shredded by the reprehensible activities of her citizens at home and abroad.
Winning the “Miss World” contest is widely perceived and largely understood as the ultimate goal in participating in beauty contests but it is also about testing the intelligence of young women who are thrust into the spotlight in many ways. The organisers of the “Miss World” contest must be aware that beauty without brain is stupidity in its most sparkling form.
Beauty contests are not without controversies. They are not for the faint-hearted. They are not for the less privileged. They are not for women from poor educational background. Contestants must overcome a lot of personal shortcomings. They must demonstrate in-depth knowledge and understanding of current affairs and world history, just as they must demonstrate that they possess the physical attributes or the right statistics to captivate the judges. Like all competitions in which points are awarded to contestants by fallible men and women, it is often difficult to understand why and how judges picked a winner. Controversy is the stuff with which beauty contests are made.
Part of the reason why the “Miss World” competition has been troubled by disputes over the years is that Caucasian women tend to win most of the time. For this reason, the organisers and judges are often labelled, rightly or wrongly, as racists. It could also be because most of the losers cannot accept their character flaws. For clarity, Darego was not the first dark-skinned woman to win the “Miss World” competition.
For all its glamour, the “Miss World” contest has also been stuck in controversies and adverse publicity because of the low moral profile of the previous winners and in particular the rationale for staging beauty contests. The history of some previous winners is tainted with sex scandals and disgusting behaviour. This suggests that physical beautiful is different from moral purity. On this basis, some critics have argued that beauty contests are deeply flawed because a woman’s beauty comprises much more than her physical appearance. Perhaps they are right.
Deep-seated critics of the “Miss World” competition argue, for example, that the contest demeans women, that it consigns women to minor roles in society and, above all, that it portrays women as consumer products to be acquired and devoured by men. Additionally, some women have contended that beauty contests tend to assess a woman’s elegance solely on the basis of her outward appearance rather than her innate qualities. For this particular reason, some people insist that beauty must be seen in relative terms.
I am not a fan of beauty contests because there are many ways we can empower young women in our society. They need to be educated. They need economic independence. There are too many young girls who are educationally and economically disadvantaged in Nigeria. There are too many young girls who are engaged in prostitution, who line the streets of major cities at dusk looking for male patrons. There are too many young girls who have taken to street hawking as a trade. Education is a veritable tool with which we can liberate and empower them. Without exposure to good and quality education, these victims of our society will never live meaningful lives. We will never free them from socioeconomic bondage in which they find themselves.
The concept of beauty is problematic in itself. There are different forms of beauty. For example, there is natural beauty and there is artificial, self-induced beauty. The commonest and most frequently mentioned type is physical beauty. When people talk about a woman’s beauty, they often imply her physical elegance, how she is constructed, the size of her tummy, the shape of her face, how she carries herself in private and in public, the smoothness and colour of her skin, her hair style, the design of her clothes, the length of her finger and toe nails, as well as the shape and quality of her shoes.
It must come as a surprise that when people assess the attractive qualities of a woman, few references are made to her intrinsic beauty, that unseen but highly appreciated innermost qualities of a woman that often shape her amiability, her conduct, her temperament and her ability to interact with her peers and the public.
Beauty is defined across cultures in different ways. The barometer for measuring the quality of a woman’s beauty is highly contested in different societies. For this reason, feminine beauty lacks a universal definition. A beautiful woman in one culture may be regarded as an ugly woman in another society. This explains why some people subscribe to the notion that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”.
One of the reasons why some men and women pay little attention to public discussion about beauty is that the concept is simply transitory. Today’s beautiful woman can become tomorrow’s unsightly woman. This underlines the impermanent nature of beauty. Among women, the art of keeping beautiful is the art of suppressing the onset of old age. Many people who work hard to remain young and beautiful dread old age because it is the antithesis of beauty. Beauty abhors old age. Old age diminishes our physical appeal because it comes with wrinkles. Wrinkles symbolise ugliness, the disfigurement of our appearance. Beauty depreciates with age but it dies when death calls. Death is nature’s own way of confirming that beauty is transient.
Nowhere is age considered a key indicator of a man’s or woman’s worth than in sports. In sports, the younger you are, the more you are valued, depending, of course, on your performance record. There are good and bad sides to this. The more sportsmen and women age, the less money they attract and the less appealing they are to marketing agents, trainers and managers. The same philosophy informs the hiring and firing of female television newscasters in many western societies. The more female TV news readers age, the more they lose their beauty and the more likely it is they would be dumped by their employers.
With all these controversies, prejudices and misunderstandings about feminine beauty, it is perhaps appropriate for parents, guardians, counsellors and those who have a responsibility for the upbringing of young girls to endeavour to motivate the young ones so they can see the value in education, self-reliance and self-determination. They must be taught and assisted to overcome hardships in their early years.