I was delighted when two young ladies, separately, took me head-on regarding the provocative questions I recently raised about beauty.
I was wondering aloud if beauty is something we are, something we have or something we do. I also asked if there is anything useful that we can do with beauty.
The first respondent to my questions did not say even a word to me. Indeed, I am yet to meet her. But she was actually the subject around whom I phrased my questions.
Quiin Abenakyo, the reigning Ms Africa, graduated with a degree in Business Studies from Makerere University last week.
Apparently she had been pursuing her university course at the prestigious MUBS (Makerere University Business School), even as she competed for the Miss Uganda and Miss World titles, eventually earning the Miss Africa beauty crown.
I had only noticed her visits to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on her triumphant return from China.
But now I would not argue too loudly if someone told me that there is more than a pretty face to being a Miss Africa.
Here apparently is a person who is so well-organised that she could successfully juggle the demands of a degree course and the considerable social commitments of her beauty path.
I have just heard that the Ugandan Parliament has unanimously agreed to honour Ms Abenakyo for her contribution to promoting and publicising her country through her beauty adventures.
She might even be considered for a stipend, and official roles like being an Ambassador for Uganda’s tourism. She seems to be in good business, and my intended questions to her may be already half-answered by her performance.
But Rosemary Nyambura, my new friend at MMUST (the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology) in Kakamega County, responded systematically and analytically to each of my queries.
Her lucid exposé gave me stimulating insights into the matter, and I thought I would, with her permission, share some of these with you. I take the liberty not only to paraphrase but also to summarise the main points of our “conversation”.
Apparently, beauty is as much what you are and have as what you do. Those of us used to working in triads, or three-sided structures, could thus say that beauty is a compound of body, character and action.
Nyambura seems to agree with me in faulting beauty contests, and the whole “beauty” industry, for concentrating almost exclusively on body or physical impressions.
I am on record as saying that there is nothing wrong with being good-looking, elegant and striking. But overconcentration on appearances tends to turn people into mere objects for our prurient voyeurism. This is an aspect of what we call “objectification” in feminist studies, the loathsome reduction of women to mere “things”.
Another shortcoming of the body beauty approach in the industry is that it arbitrarily defines beauty by the criteria of a narrow cultural clique that cannot justifiably claim any universality.
Have you, for example, heard of the “36-26-36” definition of a woman’s perfect figure? Those are supposed to be the bust, waist and hip measurements of a “beautiful” body.
The fact that they are stated in inches is a pointer to their Anglo-Saxon origins.
But an even more pernicious problem with these artificial and imposed standards of beauty is that they brainwash a lot of young people and end up making them thoroughly miserable, even suicidal in extreme cases.
As Nyambura observes, this kind of beauty is associated with tension and stress, since it is sought for the purpose of being accepted and fitting into certain prescribed patterns.
But someone born with a particular bone structure and other genetic features is not going to be able to hammer them into a 36-26-36 figure.
Yet the desperate struggles rage on all around us, with punishing exercises, starvation diets, creams, lotions and supposedly flattering clothes and other accessories.
Eating disorders, like bulimia and anorexia nervosa, arise from anxiety about eating properly in order to attain or maintain a desirable figure. The pathos here is only comparable to those who scorch their skins and even damage their internal organs with toxic substances in search of attractive skin tones or colours.
Speaking of colour, did you hear of the demented insults to which Ms Algeria, Nihed Markria, who competed in Beijing with our own Ms Africa, was subjected by some of her compatriots simply because her skin was “too dark” for their liking? Lupita Nyong’o once told to us that there was a time when she did not feel quite comfortable with her skin colour.
Yet Lupita is today regarded as one of the “most beautiful women” in the world, not because she changed her colour, but because she changed her attitude to it, liberating herself from imposed brainwashing and feeling comfortable with her natural endowments. My friend Nyambura’s apt and compact advice to her generation is that each of us should confidently say to herself or himself: “I love and accept myself completely.”
This actually brings us to the second, and higher, aspect of beauty, the beauty of character. This, I think, is what you are, as distinct from what you have. My discussant clarified this for me by pointing out that this is “the good that flows from within a person. This could be a virtue of calmness, patience, joy.” Nyambura adds a spiritual dimension to it by suggesting that beauty of character is “the godly gift that the environment around you enjoys”. One strong word that sums up this is “charm”.
But what particularly delighted me was the way Nyambura figuratively described the beauty of action. She suggests that this the “Mother Theresa beauty”. Need I say more? The courage, patience, selflessness and love that dares pick up dead, dying and ailing strangers off the streets and struggling to restore to them some human dignity is, indeed, beautiful.
Nyambura is a communication sciences student. Should I consider handing over the column to her, soon?
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]