How is beauty defined in Africa? Is there such a thing as a distinctly African look?
Beauty pageants are in full swing in countries like Sierra Leone, Ghana and Malawi. Among the prizes are a first class trip to the UK, a car and the duty of charitable work.
Meanwhile the mobile phone company Nokia is holding a Face of Africa 2006 competition to bring African beauty to the international stage. The finals are to be held next week.
But are such pageants and competitions outdated? Do they do more than sexualising the image of women? Can such shows fulfil a mixture of beauty and brains? Or are they just another form of exploitation? It's a subject not limited to women - more and more beauty services are now available to men. Looking good is becoming more and more important in some places, but how is male beauty defined?
This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments. You can read a selection below.
African beauty is empowered by virtue. Beauty or not beauty no one can judge why God has given us all different looks. Anyway there are so many crucial things to attend to rather than this stupid thing which had poisoned millions of African girls who are roaming about in streets thinking their beauty is everything. It is disgusting I am telling you if you see these girls. What is important is how to bring up your daughters and maintain their culture. This will empower them to be real Africans.
Margareth Kirchheiner, Dar-es-Salaam
I hate that thing call beauty pageants. They reduce the dignity of womanhood by freely displaying nudity. They cause adolescent men to masturbate. They brake families by making some men feel dis-satisfied by their wife's beauty. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. My wife to me is the most beautifull woman in the whole world. Want to see her?
Fidel Okaba-Adie, Bekwarra, Nigeria
Beauty is more than slim ladies parading before an audience, and it is more than mere facial makeup that is not real. True beauty is the dignity and integrity of any woman who believes in values of love and respect.
Boniface Mouti, Arusha, Tanzania
Being an exceptionally handsome Congolese young man, I know how exploitative it feels at times when women only seem to want you for one reason only - because of your exterior looks! In this respect I think that beauty, being so fleeting and shallow can often be a burden rather a tool of empowerment. Frankly, I think the African concept of beauty is quite different from that of the European.
Junior Juma, London, UK
Beauty pageants are a totally useless venture. What is so useful about women so ignorantly contributing to condescending stereotypes about them? It's just repugnant.
Patrick Ayumu, Accra, Ghana
I'm not sure that pageants serve any real purpose other than bringing to the fore the fact that women will always be used and viewed as an ornament to be dressed up and showed off. Ask yourself how many pageants are held to pick out a man for his brain,as well as looking good? Most male shows are to do with muscle. They do not have to say anything intelligent, so then why do women have to keep proving to the world that there is more to them then just their bodies?
Ndashi Mumba, Lusaka,Zambia
A woman's beauty is not just how she looks but also about what kind of person she is. Yes, she may look beautiful, but is she really beautifull?
Terrance Coleman, McKeesport USA
I think it's a good thing to recognized beautiful women in society. At the end of God's creation, he said, everything is beautiful. I don't see it as a means of exploitation, I will say that it's a beautiful way of encouraging young ladies to keep fit, beautiful and fresh all the time. Honouring these young girls in such glamourous way, will surely give them a sense of belonging and a high selt-esteem. It will EMPOWER them not EXPLOIT.
Jestina Harris, Barnesville, Liberia
Rachael, USA has made a great point. Having a beauty contest for natural beauties - no makeup allowed. Can we have a 'Have Your Say' on that with feedback from the world wide readers of the BBC?
Mimi, Wooburn, Bucks
Beauty pageants in Africa are very important. Here in Cameroon they help younger women to avoid getting AIDS. Their examples are widely imitated. Their tasks are often efficient.
Marcel Ngomdum, Douala, Cameroon
The comments coming from the males regarding female beauty highlights the fact that they have a long way to go in terms of maturity. I'd like to see a bunch of rich men be used for viewing and as product pushers. African men need to wake up! We await their awakening patiently.
Abyssinia, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Male beauty is hard to define. It is based on one's general physique. Masculine in looks, and body, charismatic personality and also money is a vital factor too. Male beauty without money is like "Satan without the fire" it just don't make no sense at all.
Nelson Okey Onwu, Ohio, USA (Nigerian)
The introduction of beauty pageants in Africa is fine socially, and also good for post conflict societies. But moral standards and African traditions about the sanctity of women must go along with this new social development. Above all, beauty must accompany knowledge, and good conduct; which reflects a better African society. Therefore, there is no beauty without virtue.
Garnet R. King, Freetown, Sierra Leone
I wonder much why up to now are not competitions of Mr? Because the way men admire women is the same way that men are admired by women! To me beauty is a beginning of troubles! We young handsome men are really suffering just the same. Beauty empowers some to go far but to some is an exploitation.
Arnaud Emmanuel Ntirenganya, Bamenda, Rwandese in Cameroon
Beauty pageants are an antiquated exploitation of women. If women are to progress there intellect must be appreciated more than their beauty. Women of African descent in particular are not valued for their unique beauty or brains. The women who take part in these pageants can easily be interchanged; it does not truly celebrate the wonderful diversity of women. If I had a daughter she would not be allowed to kill her brain cells watching or participating in such a trivial tradition.
L. Williamson, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
There is a popular adage that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. This saying only buttresses the fact that it's difficult to determine a beautiful person unless stringent guidelines are set up to identify beauty. To me I still think the beautiful ones are not yet born. There is a distinct African look. African women are really near beauty.
Njungbwen Olando, Bamenda, Cameroon
Beauty empowers. It attracts a lot of attention, especially in a business set up.
Babou Saine, Kaur, The Gambia
I am made to fall in love with the content in the person than the individual's form. Outer beauty is deceptive and exploitative. One becomes vain and worldly when one is made to believe in it than in the individual's content. Africa should be parading people who are talented and skilful in areas like science and technology, agriculture, education, and environmental preservation, rather than beauty to encourage sustainable development.
Besenty Gomez, Kitty Village, The Gambia
Defining beauty in Africa today has no doubt drastically changed courtesy of the Western philosophy of 'slim is beautiful'. The truth is that I am tempted in today's society to marry a girl against my very own conscience because in doing so I will be following the demands of our society by marrying a slim girl. Such is our crazy world today.
Israel Ambe Ayongwa, Bamenda, Cameroon
There is no such thing as African beauty at these pageants. Traditionally the chubby ones were the beautiful ones but these days, Hollywood has redefined beauty and our cherished thick ladies are suddenly not beautiful.
Ouborr Kutando, Ghana
Well, I think that it is good for the women of Africa. It can bring good self-esteem and happiness to all types of women. And when it comes to the point of "exploitation" I think that is just nonsense, unless they are naked, wearing very revealing clothing, then I'm sure that you can agree with. Everyone knows it's for those who want to exceed the ordinary when it comes to beauty and class.
Filmon Hagos, USA
Beauty is already well defined in Africa. "Black is beautiful". Africans are beautiful; but we must strongly advise some of our women who use bleaching creams that such creams are harmful to their bodies.
Peter Tuach, Minnesota, USA
I love to see beautiful women and handsome men. As a matter of fact I am thrilled by exceptionally handsome guys so I admire them from afar not wanting to break my heart and hurt my feelings. Beauty pageants, both female and male, are a good thing as they showcase not only their beauty but also their intelligence.
Rob Shaji, Lagos, Nigeria
It's amazing how we all have two eyes, a mouth, and a nose, but yet we all look so different. If there is one person selected as the winner of a beauty pageant, does that mean the other contenders are beautiful, but not beautiful enough? I think it's all a complete waste of time!
Lansana, Philadelphia, USA
Forget looks, African beauty is defined by the heart.
Ntsanderh Azenui, Chicago, USA
Beauty pageants are nothing but a deceitful medium to deceive the youth. It places emphasis on the "unnatural" and the youth accept this as beautiful. Those who try to look like people in magazines from the West are deemed beautiful. The skinny, fair skinned with processed hair will always win over the natural looking dark and or mid toned person. Africans are looking away from our beautiful people and seeking approval from the West. With men, clearly the one that exudes the most sexuality wins. With men, colour is not always a factor but the one with the most sexual prowess that the eye can see! In this case for men skin colour is not always a factor.
Kofi Aifah, Atlanta, USA
Although "beauty with a purpose" serves as an aspiration for most of these beauty pageants, the exploitation of women is rather apparent within the marketing and commercial interests of the sponsors. Most African girls who do take part in these "beauty" pageants are merely looking for a way out. The fairy tale dream is being used as a tool to fulfil advertising quotas and hook television audiences into believing there is beauty with a purpose. These pageants reinforce beauty stereotypes. Beauty has indeed been taken at face value.
Mutsa, Harare, Zimbabwe
Yes, beauty pageants really enhance women. It breaks the shyness in some ladies and makes them bold. It also makes beauty contestants appreciate themselves. At the end of whatever competition, whether they win or not, it really changes their lifestyle. One can work in radio stations, on television or become an MC for outdoor programmes without any formal education. So I really believe that beauty really empowers ladies.
Maame Adjoa Arthur-Baiden, Accra, Ghana
Beauty pageants should be encouraged in our world. Firstly, it provides the opportunity for women and men to display their God given beauty and talents. Secondly, the winner of these beauty pageants has the opportunity to gain scholarships and career advancement. Some of them also engage in many charitable projects, too numerous to mention. Personally, I admire women with beauty and brains and I'm sure many men do too. Please allow the beauty pageants to continue.
Emmanuel Osunkoya, Chicago, USA
Beauty is as old as creation. There's this strength it carries with it that the most powerful electron microscopes would not observe. Beauty not only empowers it strengthens. Notwithstanding the facts it comes with its bad sides, like it could intoxicate. It really empowers.
Moses, Calabar, Nigeria
I think the term "beauty" has really been misused in recent times. The real beauty comes from within and it is coupled with intelligence. I like the beauty pageants though, as the winners are not only determined by physical appearance but also by mental appearance.
Ayodeji O Wolabi, Atlanta, USA
The way beauty is defined in Africa is different from that of Europe. Therefore if the Nokia company wants to bring African beauty to the international stage, it should use African criteria to define beauty. If it is international then the African definition of beauty should be taken in consideration by not only defining beauty according to the European criteria. It will be exploitation if African criteria aren't taken in consideration.
Mbuva Mpore, Nairobi, Kenya
I do not think beauty pageant competitions are in any way outdated. In fact, they bring out the beauty of our African women. Africans hold beauty in very high esteem, little wonder then that we now see a proliferation of these pageant competitions in Africa.
Joseph P. Abu, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Nokia should use African people to stand as judges for the Face of Africa competition, then maybe we will get a more realistic example of what Africans consider beautiful, not their idea of what African beauty is. Tall, thin (slim) and with practically no curves, is not the African idea of beauty. Continent wide, curves are a major part of looking beautiful!
Mimi, Wooburn, Buckinghamshire, UK
I agree with the old adage: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". Beauty is relative, and specific to culture and race. Most pageants choose winners based on Western standards of beauty - super slim (thin) and often lighter complexioned than the average African. Male beauty seems to have many more facets and is less subject to the same level of exposure/pressure that the pageants do to female contestants.
Velma Kiome, Nairobi, Kenya
The African definition of beauty is definitely from the inside; it's usually a woman's attitude, knowledge and physical attributes. I think a woman could be on a scale of 10, a 6 in looks but if in character she is a 9 then she automatically becomes the beauty of the area. However the phrase "distinctly African" comes across as very restrictive and if it's the flat nosed, shining forehead and big hips then yes it is the African "stereotype". I just think that care needs to be taken in the evolution of pageants to keep our criteria for beauty the African way (the full package). Women want to be objectified more and more just for their bodies and I can only hope and pray it is just a secret feminist ploy to "use those boots for walking".
Tinu, Kuusamo, Finland
I beg to differ with the definition of beauty! What constitutes beauty? Is there a prototype human face by which we determine whether one is beautiful or ugly? In fact, to me, I take such definitions as mere excuses so one can either like or hate you! And talking of beauty pageants; their's is just an aping of Western ideologies of beauty with nothing African other than their faces; which again are not purely African having undergone such harsh and heavy makeup! Rest assured that I lose no sleep when they are holding any such pageants and I am not at all impressed with the so called Faces of Africa! When I want to see an African face, I am surrounded by millions of them in the African rural village, not the streets of Nairobi or the so called pageants!!!
Ndung'u wa Ndegwa, Kipipiri, Kenya
As an African: I SAY Africa is beauty! Black is beautiful! A distinctly African look would be a dark colour without make up!
It all depends on how women use their beauty or how men take advantage of it. I think in poor countries, beauty exploits because it is easy to use beautiful women for anything men want to. Like, it is easy to drive them to a life of prostitution, it is easy to use these women by promising them a meal, at least for a day. On the other hand in the rich countries it is still easy to exploit women with the promise of having a future good life, like as an actress or model. Honestly, I think beauty never empowers, it is always used as a starting point for men to use women and sometimes for the frustration of the women herself. The idea that beautiful women do not need to sacrifice themselves to have a good education is a good example of my opinion. Even though we see beautiful women sacrificing themselves more than ever to get a good education, and to became self independent, but they can still become the target for any men who have power or money.
Henda Claro, New Jersey, USA
The pageants and competitions are not outdated but getting more competitive. Yes, to my utmost dismay they are more than sexualising the images of proud African women! Yes, it ought to showcase the full mixture of beauty and brains but it has become another form of exploitation of the innocent young girls by some of the organisers! I was privileged to see the "Mr. Handsome" contest here in Africa. Well, male beauty is often defined as the guy with the pop eyes, smooth looking face, always smiling and a built up body etc.
Joe Noutoua Wandah, Liberian in Accra, Ghana
If there is one lesson that I have learned over the years regarding this topic, it is that a beautiful/handsome person is different from a physically attractive person. Beauty is long lived but physical outlook is whimsical. As such, I've always learned never to judge a person's beauty from their appearance. Beauty goes far beyond the physical, it involves the heart too.
Chi Primus, Bamenda, Cameroon
Real beauty is without makeup. Nowadays beauty is man made. Where are all the naturally born beautiful? All of the contestants should be judged without makeup don't you think so? Then we can judge right!
Beauty empowers because it gives confidence and self appraisal, keep it up organisers!
Delu Juma, Juba, Sudan
Africans see beauty as the radiation of ones character, not necessarily by facial look. Hence when one is beautiful, it means one is decent and has good character.
Baba Henry, Calabar, Nigeria.