Miss SA always had non-inclusive beauty standards
This year Miss South Africa aimed to to be inclusive and diverse in its representation of women and beauty in the country by including queer women, women with natural hair and ‘plus sized’ women. While the idea of of plus-sized women was scoffed at by tweeps because it included all women who were not size 0’s, people still tuned into watch the show. Despite the winner, Zozibini Tunzi, being every bit of beautiful, trolls went on to criticize the winner for her natural hairdo and her beauty. Even Metro FM got into a little bit of trouble for creating a poll that asked their audience whether they thought Tunzi was “stunning”, “just ok” or the “wrong choice”.
Miss SA has a history of being extremely exclusive, racially biased towards white people and non-inclusive towards othered individuals, such as people with disabilities. The ideal Miss SA has often been white or an aspiration to whiteness, thinness and able-bodiedness. We take a look at the Miss SA pageant and some of its most historical moments.
The first official Miss SA contest/beauty pageant began in 1972, with Stephanie Reneicke, pictured on the right, as the crowned winner. The pageant, however, really began in 1925, after a nationwide call to look for the most beautiful woman in the country. The winner, at the time, was a woman named Mavis Alexander.
In 1956, a newspaper called Die Landstem had women send in their photos and people could vote for their favorites, but there was no official crowning ceremony at that stage. In 1958 the winner of Miss SA was Penelope Rey Coelen, who would later end up winning Miss World. The beauty queen reported that, even though she would not trade that experience for the world, she would never compete again because the pageant was extremely “nerve-wracking”. After travelling the world and socialising with elite, Penelope struggled while living on an isolated farm without electricity or hot water. She burned her diaries during Miss World to avoid living in the past.
While Stephanie Reneicke might’ve taken the tiara in 1972, a pageant called Miss Africa South [Miss AS] ran alongside Miss South Africa to highlight and include women of color. The two winners would end up competing at Miss World. Although Stephanie was the winner of that year, she competed side by side with Miss AS Cynthia Shange at the Miss World Pageant. Echoing the sentiments of the 1956 winner, Evelyn William of Miss AS, told Sowetan Live that attending Miss World was very stressful, particularly with the added issue of being the second South Africa contestant of the competition.
“Everyone wanted to know why two girls were representing one country […] The feeling was that it was unfair that one country had two chances of succeeding. We were fine in the competition but kept separate during photograph sessions, there was always another contestant put in between us. We were harassed by the paparazzi the minute we arrived in London [where the contest was staged] until we came back home.”
The segregated pageants found themselves excluded from Miss World in the late 1970s, when the global pageant banned South Africa from competing most likely due to the sanctions and boycotts against the Apartheid system (although reports do not specify). However, business continued as usual in South Africa.
Jacqui Mofokeng, was the first black woman to win the Miss South Africa pageant in 1993. Jacqui was a 21 year-old BCom student at the University of the Witwatersrand at the time. She was followed by popular beauty queens such as Basetsana Makgalamele (Kumalo), Bernelee Daniell, Peggy-Sue Khumalo and Kerishnie Naiker.
From 2000 to 2019, eleven out of twenty participants have been women of color (including Zozibini), but no radical changes in beauty standards have been made that have included women with disabilities or women that do not fit into the typical body types or standards of beauty. [images of women between 2000 and 2019].
In 2018, Miss SA got into some controversy when they celebrated 60 years of Miss SA and excluded the winners that were marginalized by Apartheid.
“We cannot celebrate the success of other pageants during that time, as it was not our success. To do so would be disingenuous,” said former winner and managing executive at sponsor Cell C Suzette van der Merwe.
Pageant winners like Basetsana and Evelyn criticized the organisation, and Cynthia told the Times Live that she was used to being ignored by Miss SA.
“What Miss SA is saying is that they are happy and endorse Apartheid,” said Advocate and iconic 1980s model Nakedi Rabeni. While Evelyn had since requested an apology, Miss SA had since remained silent. The common belief among people who are anti-pageants is that they are archaic and that they should be done away with. In essence, pageants are based on white supremacist values that already value white femininity and the constructs surrounding ideal femininity. Black women’s entrance into the official Miss SA pageant required women to assimilate into whiteness in the same way public society did. Even though social media has allowed for a lot of different body types to be normalised, thinness, which was promoted in white media through white femininity, is still often the standard of beauty.
The Miss SA beauty pageant requirements align with international standards and demand that entries should have a fit body that is “in proportion”, but that (and this is key) applicants must “see international pageant winners for guidelines”. Additionally, scars, gold teeth, cellulite, skin problems, stretch marks and piercings are essentially banned, even though the only thing that is said about the above is “You need to ask yourself do the international pageant winners have any of these? This competition is a beauty pageant and all entrants will be judged according to international standards.”
Although pro-pageant people will argue that these competitions empower women and that they’re all about beauty with a purpose, the requirements listed for it speak otherwise. Instead, it begs the question of whether or not Miss SA and other pageants similar to it operate as playgrounds for patriarchy, where women compete with their beauty to gain the upper-hand in society.