For decades, the media has communicated a constructed image of beauty to its audiences. The result is that popular culture demands a standardised view of what constitutes human beauty.
The female body has been the biggest casualty of this media-driven construct. It has given rise to an image-obsessed society that tries to remake or unmake the existence of many women around the world.
This media machine essentially dictates the metrics of womanly beauty and, as a by-product, millions of women have watched helplessly as their own appearance is depicted as being deviant from idealised beauty.
But resistance to this ideal of beauty has been growing. Activists, thought leaders and self-possessed individuals are seeking to democratise the image of beauty. A revolution is emerging.
I witnessed this when I was a part of the Beauty Revolution Festival 2019, held at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg last month. “We’re redefining beauty,” the festival communications proclaimed, “And our kind of beautiful looks a lot like you.” The event was dedicated to breaking down beauty standards and reshaping them to include a much broader definition, beyond superficial and traditional concepts.
At the event, I facilitated the Power Talks Progressed by Audi. The panel discussions provided an important public platform where young women could discuss topics such as empowerment, diversity, entrepreneurship and inclusiveness.
In a space where a whirlwind of colour, vibrancy and expression brought life to the festival, the dominant aspect of the event was the women’s voices and their experiences channelled through the talks.
Of the four panel discussions, The Business of Beauty was most popular. The panellists were Rabia Ghoor, founder of SwiitchBeauty; writer, editor and entrepreneur Zanele Kumalo; actress and entrepreneur Pearl Thusi and Candice Thurston, founder of the Candi & Co salons. With robust engagement from the audience, we discussed the South African beauty market and the challenges facing women in business.
Ultimately, the goal was to find solutions that will empower women so they can have pride in their own aesthetic and go on to start businesses that will ensure a more diverse landscape in the beauty industry.
The Living Your Purpose panel grappled with the problem of balancing a business and career with values and beliefs. The panel discussing this issue featured Pride Maunatlala, head of marketing at Foschini; entrepreneur, TV presenter and model Shashi Naidoo; and LeAnne Dlamini, entrepreneur and chief executive of End Girl Hate.
Another talk that resonated with the audience was the Body Positivity discussion. Featuring several strong women, the panel discussed how to move society to hold the view that all bodies have equal value — in life and in business. It consisted of body-positive model Lesego “Thickleeyonce” Legobane, Unilever’s head of public relations Sphe Mjadu, fitness and wellness trainer Rushda Moosajee and wellness and yoga trainer Pranya Dhyana.
Perhaps encapsulating the attitude of the festival was the My Identity is Not a Trend talk, where the representation of women of colour in the media and the beauty industry was discussed. The panellists were television host Carishma Basday, body-positive vitiligo spokesperson and founder of B Glam SA Boitumelo Rametsi and Thurston.
Across all four panels, it became apparent how the media has monopolised the depiction of beauty. This has wounded our collective self-image and our self-worth.
To deal with this, many of the women I interviewed — most of whom were entrepreneurs — have created multidimensional social strategies across categories such as make-up, hair care, visual imagery, well-being, fitness, services and storytelling.
Self-love has become an act of political warfare, an exercise in taking back one’s power. Women have begun exploring the radical act of achieving personal freedom, body confidence and agency. They are redefining a culture that has become oppressive. In its place, they are cultivating a new cultural environment that is expansive, embracing, inclusive and diverse. This new environment will not impose anonymity on their existence and it will not sentence their bodies to a lifelong struggle of inadequacy, insecurity and criticism.
The talks connected us to a shared vision that feeling beautiful is our right. Together we began to map a path towards a society that values our beauty no matter our race, age, shape, size or shade.
The revolution is growing, but it’s not about agitating for a reversal of roles draped in separatist rhetoric. It’s about progressive, inclusive values that can uplift and empower every woman and girl.
Thando Hopa is a lawyer, actress, international model, diversity advocate, writer and the first woman with albinism to appear on a Vogue magazine cover