Miss Botswana and the issue of skin color

Despite the cynicism in the build up to the Miss Botswana 2015 pageant, organizers delivered a well-organized pageant in the past week. Not only did the contestants demonstrate exceptional pageantry skills, for a change, local fashion designers also shared in the limelight as nine local designers had a chance to showcase their designs.

Following weeks of training and grooming, on independence eve, 19 year old Seneo Mabengano was crowned Miss Botswana 2015. She beat 15 other contenders to the crown. Peggy Grynberg and Nicole Gaelebale were crowned first and second princesses respectively. Contrary to the norm where the past immediate queen crowns the three queens, they were crowned by Miss Botswana 1995, Monica Somolekae, who, according to the Miss Botswana media director, Tshepo Maphanyane was selected on account of her credibility.

After the pageant many took to social media platforms to express their opinions about how the pageant went. Many asked if Mabengano was the most deserving queen, or if her light skin advantaged her.  This did not come as a surprise because in past pageants, Miss Botswana queens have been of either mixed race or a lighter shade; Emma Wareus, Tapiwa Preston, Rosemary Keofitlhetse and now Seneo Mabengano.

The issue of color is not a new one in the pageantry industry and in other parts of the world, contestants are bringing it up. According to a contestant who was in this year’s Miss Universe Jamaican pageant, “ she was disappointed by the selection of the top 12, not because I wasn’t in it, but because out of 25 girls, only two girls with a skin tone reflective of the majority of the Jamaican population made the cut. I would like to see a change in the way we define and portray beauty to young women. While young women are growing and forming their own opinions about themselves and the world around them, they are extremely impressionable, and our action and decisions set precedent. Its crucial that, here in Jamaica, we let girls know that the fairness of your skin and the curl in your hair aren’t prerequisites for success or beauty.”

“Seneo did not answer the questions competently,” charged one facebooker. “She was asked what she thought of the age of sexual consent of 16 years, if it should be reduced or increased. Mabengano said the age should be reviewed upwards and did not cite reasons. The others did a better job in responding to questions. I think maybe it is because she is light skinned,” said the lady facebooker. “Looks like Batswana of a darker hue don’t stand a chance in the Miss Botswana pageant,” read another comment. “Personally, I’m tired of a light skinned Miss Botswana queens,” went another comment. The comments may have put off the newly crowned queen as she temporarily deactivated her account.

Even in world pageants, the color issue is often brought up. In the 63-year history of Miss Universe, the overwhelming majority of the winners have been white or white-passing women. And only one truly dark-skinned woman has won within the past decade.

In last year’s pageant, crowd-favorite Miss Jamaica, Kaci Fennell, was fourth runner-up, and her snub elicited a chorus of boos. She was also the only contestant in the top 15 hailing from a nation predominantly filled with black or African people. The history of the Miss Universe winners reinforces the damaging ideal that women can only be deemed beautiful or worthy of attention if they are white or fair-skinned. The pattern says more about a wider system of beauty politics than it does about any individual contestant. But what does it say about mainstream standards when the only woman representing a dark-skinned demographic who makes it to the semifinals is herself relatively light-skinned and even then, does not come away with the crown? Beauty pageants are far from immune to these racialized politics of beauty and such is the case with Miss Botswana.