When former Miss Zimbabwe Brita Masalethulini emerged winner of the Miss Malaika beauty pageant, Zimbabweans were elated. She instantly became a household name. After all, she was winner of Africa’s most prestigious beauty contest. I began to closely follow each subsequent Miss Malaika edition. But Zimbabwe never won again. My interest in the competition therefore waned. That is until something unusual began to happen. I heard of a new kind of pageant, Miss Matofotofo. Soon afterwards, I also heard of another pageant called “Miss Curvy”. That is when I realized that a beauty pageant war was being waged in Zimbabwe.
I never thought much about Miss Malaika, or Miss Zimbabwe, or Miss Tourism Zimbabwe. Several girls walked onto stage, paraded themselves, answered test questions after which the judges selected a winner. Casual wear, evening wear, swim wear were the usual categories in which the girls competed. The swim wear category seemed strange to me, but I never thought much of it. It did become more uncomfortable over time. At the same time, many people also became increasingly uncomfortable, but for much deeper reasons than mine.
Miss Matofotofo was launched in 2005 in Zimbabwe. “Matofotofo” supposedly means “big and fluffy.” The name was later changed to Miss True African Queen (Miss TAQ), after “matofotofo” proved to be somewhat derogatory to larger women. The Matofotofo project began as a reactionary movement to conventional beauty pageants, where ideal candidates were always thin and tall. The Miss TAQ women wanted to be appreciated with their bigger bodies. Even more than that, they began to argue that their bodies were truer representations of African beauty. The idea soon caught on and spread to other regional countries, becoming especially popular in Malawi. Many African women were excited about this new development. But some were still unsatisfied.
Miss Curvy was therefore launched in 2011 in Zimbabwe. The founder, Mercy Mushaninga, said about the new pageant:
“Miss Curvy does not have strict guiding principles. Anyone who has curves and keeps a flat tummy is eligible depending on the age group that we will prescribe for the pageant. One does not have to have a serious modeling background to participate because we just look for physical beauty with emphasis on the curves.”
While Miss Curvy also does not have the thin-tall requirement, it does require “curves.” As such, it can be viewed as somewhat of a hybrid between Miss True African Queen and Miss Zimbabwe.
There are interesting similarities in all three pageants. They all have physical appearance standards. Tall and thin for Miss Zimbabwe, curvy for Miss Curvy Zimbabwe and “over size 40” for Miss TAQ (at least for some past editions). Zimbabwe has women for all categories. Some do qualify for both Miss Curvy and Miss True African Queen, but it is very unlikely that anyone from these two will qualify for Miss Zimbabwe. In fact, many contestants in the two pageants claim that they always wanted to compete, but couldn’t make it into Miss Zimbabwe because of body size/shape.
Historically, Miss Zimbabwe has been more prestigious and exclusive. It is the pageant that has stronger ties with the Tourism Ministry of Zimbabwe. It has therefore been a “Face of Zimbabwe” for the international scene, adhering to the international standard of beauty that also requires tall and thin. Potential models have therefore been more likely to change their weight for Miss Zimbabwe. Brita Masalethulini, who has spoken of her weight gain since her Miss Zimbabwe (1999) and Miss Malaika (2001) triumphs, recognizes this issue, and has said:
“There is different understanding attached to the industry. Young ladies should not be starving themselves. They should be disciplined and taking good care of themselves. At the moment the world needs healthy models that can be good role models.”
Founders of Miss Curvy and Miss TAQ – who are both women – took the critique a step further. They founded their pageants as push backs against Miss Zimbabwe standards, as havens for the women who had been excluded for their size.
However, the two still have their own physical requirements. Bigger women for one and more curvaceous women for the other. It is likely that many women who qualify for Miss Zimbabwe will not qualify for Miss Curvy or Miss TAQ. And if they do, they might be disappointed to learn that Miss Curvy and Miss TAQ do not have a bikini category. (Interestingly, Miss World 2013 will not have this category also, in respect of the culture of the host country – Indonesia).
Despite the differences, all three pageants agree on one thing: that beauty is more than physical. They all understand this non-physical aspect of beauty differently. Some of them test for intelligence, some for social awareness, some for character and a host of other things. This is all in recognition of the assertion that a true Zimbabwe woman should also be beautiful inside – in the heart/brain. Still, there is no agreement on how a true, beautiful Zimbabwean woman should look. Or if there is a single standard anyway.
The conversation continues. Miss Zimbabwe demands, among other things, tall and skinny. Miss Curvy demands curves and flat tummies. Miss TAQ is looking for bigger women. Each draws its own support, and each is an audible voice in the Zimbabwean discourse on beauty. All three are very much alive. Brita (Miss Zimbabwe and Miss Malaika) went to the US in 2002 to promote the Miss Malaika pageant, and Miss Zimbabwe continues to represent the country at Miss World competitions. Miss TAQ has gone regional and has become especially popular in Malawi. Miss Curvy is rebranding to “Diamond Queen of Africa,” and holds Africa’s inaugural “Miss Curvy” in Harare, Zimbabwe next week. Zimbabwe is indeed a frontier of beauty (pageants).
What do you think of these pageants? Should we have them all? Should we have them at all?