19 February 2019

Uganda: Curvy or Not, All Women Should Be Celebrated

Recent comments made by Uganda's Minister for Tourism, when he described curvy women as potential tourist attractions, have brought the debate around the objectification of women back into the spotlight.

Recently, Uganda's Minister for Tourism, Godfrey Kiwanda, controversially declared that curvaceous women are a tourist attraction. At the launch of a beauty pageant, the Minister stated that since Ugandan women are curvy, well-endowed and attractive, the country should utilise them as a tourist attraction. "Those curves, there is a story behind them. This is a story we want to tell," the Minister reportedly said. Speaking on women's curves as a potential tourist attraction, Kiwanda added: "Tourism is not just about animals. It's about our food, the way we walk, the way we were created, our curves." Kiwanda's statements were backed by the chief executive officer of Miss Curvy Uganda, Ann Mungoma.

Miss Curvy Uganda is the company that organises and runs the Miss Curvy beauty pageant. Explaining why she thought using endowed and curvy women for tourism was a brilliant idea, Mungoma said she wanted plus-size women to be embraced and appreciated. The pageant is an attempt to challenge the belief that woman should be slender if they were to succeed in the beauty industry.

Since the statements were made, many Ugandan women have voiced their dissatisfaction about the remarks made by both the Minister and the CEO of Miss Curvy Uganda. Statements criticising their controversial remarks were posted on social media, with many women condemning the Minister for objectifying women. The Minister's contentious remarks were also opposed by many Ugandan men. Even the country's president, Yoweri Museveni, weighed in on the burning issue, saying he had reservations about pageants in general but that he advised a more open discussion on the issue.

When women are treated as objects

This discussion on beauty standards and the objectification of women comes at the right time, when women have to address gender discrimination and sexist labelling. The sentiments expressed by both Mungoma and the Minister are not surprising, considering the conservative beliefs that are pervasive in an otherwise modern society. This debate has crossed over Ugandan borders, and regional and international media have widely reported on the issue.

Many Africans who took to social media, particularly on Twitter, condemned the Minister's remarks for being degrading to the African woman. This debate on the objectification and labelling of women is important for various reasons.

Firstly, it is key that society understands and appreciates women despite their body shape. There is a need to interrogate the sexist standards that "measure" the beauty of a woman, before society will embrace the notion that all women are equal and beautiful in their individuality. A woman is a woman, and her body size should not define her. There is no need to classify women as slim, plus-size or "blessed". This type of sexist labelling has brought about perceptions that slim or slender women are more attractive or elegant, or that plus-size women are "sexy". These assumptions are not only unnecessary but harmful. It is interesting to note that men are not judged using the same yardstick. When people describe men, we never hear that the man is slim or plus-size; we do not hear anything about how "blessed" they are for having a big body part. Why then do women have to be classified in terms of their body size and be subjected to these sexist labels and standards?

Secondly, labelling of women creates an unsafe environment for them. Women have faced sexual harassment for centuries and this is associated with the perceptions that society cultivates. For instance, a woman can be grabbed while walking down the street just because a man thinks that her behind is big. Even with laws that aim to protect women from sexual harassment, many African societies are still battling constant harassment, which is encouraged by these toxic beliefs that sexualise women.

Thirdly, the Miss Curvy CEO stated that the beauty pageant was started to celebrate and appreciate women who are curvaceous. Why do we need to celebrate someone for her body size - big or small? While celebrating curvy women might have its merits, considering that such women have been demonised in the recent past, the pageant raises other questions. Should we not be celebrating each and every woman? I agree that a perception has been advanced, particularly by Western media, that slim and slender is the standard for beauty. We need to change this. However, will this change happen if we start telling women that their bodies are tourist attractions? The answer is no. We need to teach our sisters and daughters that they should be comfortable with their body size and should they feel like getting either bigger or smaller, they have the freedom and power to do so. Celebrating endowed women is not wrong, but why not celebrate all women, whether endowed or not? Isn't celebrating one "type" creating unnecessary competition among women?

Another reason why we need to stop labelling women is because it affects their self-esteem. Teenagers, for instance, are sensitive and impressionable about what they see in the media, their appearance and society's perception of them. When society therefore decides to celebrate endowed women, it may leave others with low self-esteem, because they do not fit the group that has been singled out to be celebrated. Every woman reading this should encourage herself, their sister or daughter to be confident and comfortable in whatever body they choose. We should also let women around us know that they are important and celebrated whether or not they are "endowed". Men should not be left out of this campaign - they should also be encouraging all women to celebrate themselves and be free to attain the body size they want, without fear of being labelled "slim", "plus-size", "endowed" or "curvaceous". Surely we all know that it is what is on the inside that counts, and that this applies equally to men and women.

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