How to Be a Beautiful Woman
By Obakeng Kgongoane – Skewed ideas of femininity convince us that womanhood can be bought in the form of prosthetic enhancements or anti-ageing products, thus reducing femininity to capital.
Globally, the selfie-culture and competing images of beauty circulate on our television screens and web pages, increasing our consumption of women and thus reinforcing the objectification of women, including those doing the consuming.
In the African context, womanhood is associated with loss, violence and erasure: the killing and burning of women such as in the case of Karabo Mokoena, the corrective rape perpetrated on the black lesbian community, and a whole 16 days a year dedicated to the awareness that women and children must not be abused — as though it is okay for such abuse to happen for the other 349 days of the year.
I struggled to come into my “womanhood”, and I know many other young girls can relate to that. I had left it to men, peers, television and alcohol to decide for me who I was, what my body meant, who I should be, and who I wanted to become.
It never worked for me. I never felt good enough, no matter how much I tried. I sought external validation for something that I was never convinced of in the first place: that I am beautiful inside.
My body and my aspirations to perfect its features fast became how I would primarily relate to my womanhood. My body would make him think I’m beautiful, my hair would give me the confidence I needed, thoughts of my intelligence would make me believe that there was more to me — but my heart and self-esteem would remain broken.
In the thick of my heartbreak from a failed relationship, starting at a new school and returning to the broken situation of my childhood home, God granted me unmerited favour. I was to be re-birthed into newness.
On a pilgrimage to Ngome, I met the woman who prayed for that same grace and inspired my same change. The woman who would change my world by changing my mind and more powerfully, my heart, was Our Blessed Lady and our Mother, Mary. She transformed my guilt, sinfulness and hurt and into power, beauty and love.
My encounter with Mother Mary as a woman taught me what true beauty could mean for me — beauty is the feeling aroused within us when we think about God.
Beauty is in humility: knowing who you are before God, nothing more and nothing less.
Beauty is what you become when you learn to love and accept who you are.
Beauty is seen when you make it about someone else, because Christ made it all about you.
I don’t want to be reductionist in my association of womanhood with beauty. There is a whole lot more to being a woman than just being beautiful. My aim here is simply to shed light on the fact that although it may not be all of it, it is often a strong part of it.
Popular conceptions of beauty and womanhood inside and outside the Church leave little room for Mary’s example. She seems all too far away from who we as “worldly” women could ever be.
Mary was purposefully created by God to be the “fairest of them all”, and that is not the same intention that God created us for. We are not the birth house of salvation. We are mere sinful human beings put on this earth and told to do things right, with very little knowledge of “right”.
But seeing Mary in this way, I believe, diminishes why she was especially chosen: For the glory of God. As are we!
God sets her as the “Prima Maestra” of all women, our Mother Superior, not so she can taunt us with the impossibility of being her, but to let us know that it is completely possible, even in this image saturated society, to be you.
In the limitation of my words, I cannot adequately describe just who Mary is as divine woman, but I can point to the things her example has taught me:
A woman is humble — not exploitable. God-centred — not self-centred. Modest — in everything. Pure — not perfect and graceful. Her example is therefore not impossible, but it is a challenge for us as women.
It’s a challenge because she contravenes almost every expression of womanhood that the secular world wants to convince us to become.
To understand yourself through her means to forsake the things that ultimately hurt and prevent your evolution.
You must be bold and beautiful; beautiful because you are so bold. You must love the Christ whom she leads us to.
Obakeng Kgongoane is a lecturer in visual studies at the University of Pretoria.