Hailstorms have been falling over social and mainstream media space in Uganda over a “new” development: the Miss Curvy Uganda beauty pageant.
In the wisdom of Tourism Minister Godfrey Kiwanda, adding “curvy and sexy” Ugandan women on the list of “tourism products” would do Uganda proud. After all, tourism is the country’s top forex earner. There are already similar competitions around the world – in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, France, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and India, among others. Who can blame the minister for feeling obnoxiously inspired?
Growing up in northern Uganda, there were songs of admiration about women with ample butts, and praise for “plus size” women whose footsteps could be heard from afar. But that was as much loudness as was tolerated of many women. A lot has changed of course.
That’s why reactions to Kiwanda’s “innovation” were swift: condemnations, demands for apology, calls for the minister’s resignation and threat of censure from Parliament. Kasambya County MP Gaffa Mbwatekamwa called it “sex tourism”; Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo said it itemises and demeans women. Even the church, always measured in their statements and cautious about the “fights” they pick, said something cutting; the pageant is “a disgusting display of exploitation” and “belittles women”.
However, it’s President Yoweri Museveni’s comment on the contest that highlighted the problematic nature of beauty pageants and the commodification of women generally. Last December, Museveni applauded and hosted Miss Uganda Quiin Abenakyo when she was crowned Miss World, Africa. On the Miss Curvy Uganda pageant, Museveni said the contestants could have gotten “excited” following Abenakyo’s success at Miss World. He didn’t like the idea that “we are marketing our women for tourism”; plus, it was not a cabinet decision.
The truth is, the state has long been engaged in voyeurism of women’s bodies, only that this time, it will make money while at it.
In November 2018, minister Kiwanda unveiled Ugandan socialite Zarinah Hassan (aka Zari) as a tourism ambassador to much body trolling and tongue wagging online. In February 2019, the same Kiwanda announced Anita Fabiola, a Ugandan socialite and media personality as the next tourism ambassador, to similar reception online. Both women, who fit Kiwanda’s “curvy and sexy” parameters, have for long been fodder for tabloids in Uganda and elsewhere. Both women had it rough when their nude photos were leaked online. They faced arrest under Uganda’s anti-pornography law that Ethics Minister Lokodo prides in upholding. In the eye of the state, Zari and Fabiola are not fit to step into the moral pulpit that the anti-pornography law upholds. To therefore see the country endorse these two women as tourism ambassadors, points to two things; hypocrisy by the state in advancing women’s causes, and in Kiwanda’s case, stoking public excitement about these women as symbols of sex and “indecency” to woo tourists.
But don’t be fooled. Even the ‘regular’ beauty pageants are not immune to criticism. When Ugandans were still brimming with pride over Abenakyo’s eloquence and beauty, Museveni castigated the “Indian” hair extensions she wore on her visit to State House (of course he couldn’t say it’s Chinese hair. China is the incumbent darling). He advised Abenakyo to wear her hair natural. I am #TeamNaturalHair but I also don’t lose sleep over anybody’s Indian or Sudanese hair.
Similarly, in 2014, Miss Uganda Leah Kalanguka became a subject of online trolls, including from some women, who said she was ugly. It wasn’t enough that she had ticked the boxes of slim body, height and “sexiness”. Even her “intelligence” that some had applauded didn’t matter because she wasn’t “beautiful” enough.
The flip-flop in beauty standards have characterized pageants for the past 160+ years. American ‘showman’ Phineas Taylor Barnum is considered the face behind modern-day beauty contests, but the practice can be traced farther back to 1839. While Barnum’s first pageant in 1854 was met with protests, he had planted a seed that grew into a tree – a tree that doesn’t show any sign of drying up.
It has been normalized. The normalization has become easier over the years, with glittering coatings such as ‘beauty with a purpose’, ‘beauty with brains’, etc. In Uganda, beauty queens have in the past been ferried to gardens with gloved hands and gum-booted feet to promote agriculture and show that they are more than bikinis, catwalks and make up. Beauty contestants today are also tested on their knowledge of culture, how well words and ideas flow out of their mouths, their talents, how easily they can start and hold a conversation and how much they know about current affairs and the world.
The further normalization of prescribed beauty also takes place in our homes. In any typical pre-marriage preparation in Uganda (and I believe elsewhere), there will be an “aunt” or Ssenga to coach the bride on her marriage life, something that is often dominated by one thing — always look beautiful, otherwise other “good looking” women will take away your man. Men are seldom told, look good dude, groom up, otherwise your wife will dump you. In today’s digital age, social media “aunties” tell women the “how to” of beauty, complete with video illustrations. Men are “physical” beings, women are often told. And while a popular saying here is that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the unwritten proverb is that the way to a man’s heart is how beautiful you [a woman] look.
And so, women have become, consciously or otherwise, both participants in and victims of objectification. For Uganda’s Miss Curvy Contest, a woman – Anne Mungoma – is the contest organizer; and no, she doesn’t see a problem with the body auction. You who is running your mouth that she is sexualizing fellow women has nothing upstairs but thoughts about sex [her rebuttal].
The media and society continues to reinforce these contradictions. Today, you’ll read about “bummy” women causing “scrotal eruptions”, how “juicy woman” A is causing problems in the marriage of a “juicy-less” woman B, etc. The next day, the same media will body shame a woman for putting on weight; they’ll praise the slim and “portable” woman. In school, the slim, tall, light skinned girl will become Prom Queen while the short and chubby one will be called ugly. But there are also cases of small bodied students nicknamed “stick” and taunted for their “feather” weight. In music videos, including those titled African Queen or African Beauty, the “queen” is always a tall, light-skinned woman – perfect set of teeth, smooth skin, long neck, full lips, round glittering eyes. Whenever a “curvy” woman is featured, it’s her butt that is the center of interest. The camera will zoom into her “curves” as she gyrates. The [male] musician will ogle or fondle. In the entertainment industry, you’ll read about celebs going under the knife to achieve the “perfect body” – enhancing the size of their butts or making their boobs smaller. It doesn’t matter that they later get attacked for it.
The battle is hard to win.
But for a start, we could start by recognizing that it doesn’t really matter whether a beauty pageant is for curvy or curvy-less women. It doesn’t matter the intension or what the organisers seek to counter (we can still promote any cause for and by women without subjecting them to body parades and contests). At the end of the day – the purpose for which beauty pageants were started always rules, i.e., using women to compete against each other through a contrived and narrow standard of beauty.
In selectively frowning upon the Miss Curvy Uganda contest (and remodeling of women as ‘products’) but cheering the other beauty pageants; we are cutting the tree trunk and leaving the roots intact. And these roots run deep. Get a bull dozer, somebody!
@ahpetite / email@example.com