Wedding after wedding, there is one Setswana traditional tune that always makes the cut: “Tswang- tswang-tswang, le bone ngwana o tshwana le lecoloured.” This loosely translates to, “behold, she is as beautiful as a mulatto”.
This perennial wedding favorite is always guaranteed to get guests off their seats to join the bride and groom in their wedding step routines.
But there is a backstory to the song that is not very merry. It is the product of the internalization of racialized beauty standards, and the continuation of a long history in which black women have been subjected to incessant messages about European ideals of beauty through music, family, peers, partners, the media, and larger society.
It is more than fifty-years since Botswana shook off the yoke of colonialism from the British masters, but the association between beauty and whiteness has proved hard to shake. The nomenclature and grooming products may have changed, but the message and Eurocentric beauty standard have remained the same: “yellow-bone” is Botswana’s new aesthetic gold standard while “black beauty” is only a patronizing compliment.
From hair pieces to skin whitening creams, Batswana women have failed to decolonize their beauty routines. Most feel pressured by family and friends to receive hair straightening treatments, wear hair extensions and use facial make up in order to “look beautiful.”
Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “Family plays a role in our concepts of beauty. Most young women know that the perfect images on social media are carefully chosen, edited, filtered and adapted to produce the best possible results, that it is a skewed version of reality. However, this understanding doesn’t lessen the impact those images have on their perception of their own bodies. This is especially worse when they are put under pressure to look a certain way by their family members. They might see people on the street and compare themselves to them but it doesn’t stop when you get home because you go through social media and you have all these pictures of beautiful people whilst having family members point out your flaws. So, it’s this constant pressure, not necessarily just outside but even when you’re inside. We learn what is societally accepted and shunned through media consumption, commentary from friends and family and even the way that strangers look at us.”
Messages that Batswana women constantly receive from family members create body image and self-esteem issues. The assumption that a beautiful, more perfect self is a happier, more successful self is deeply ingrained in popular conversation, and the language used is often value-laden. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” We are urged to be ‘the best we can be’ and to strive for our ‘best selves’. We should do this because we are ‘worth it’ – the implication being that if we don’t, we are culpable for ‘letting ourselves go’. It is here that the concepts of beauty, happiness and success begin to merge, with the assumption that the closer we come to this ideal, the happier and more successful we will become. For this reason, many women and increasingly men feel under significant pressure to attain perfection. These assumptions are problematic for a number of reasons – most obviously that the ideal is unattainable for most of us.
Additionally, the ideal seems to have become more demanding, requiring a greater range of practices to more types of women and men in more places. As a result, conformity becomes harder to resist and understanding what is normal and acceptable becomes blurry. Body dissatisfaction is experienced when one perceives that their body falls short of the societal ideal in terms of size and/or shape, regardless of a person’s objective size or shape. In other words, body dissatisfaction is influenced not only by how we interpret societal ideals, but by how we perceive ourselves. Therefore, body dissatisfaction and perceptions of beauty are inextricably linked.
Clinical psychologist, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “The family is often considered a primary socializing agent, implying that it is responsible for shaping the behaviour and concepts of an individual at an early age. Verbal and non-verbal messages received by daughters from their mothers influence their body images. Mothers would communicate to their children in a manner suggesting that they ought to possess certain body images. Mothers do this through various means such as teasing, pressurizing children to abandon some form of behaviours, and restricting them on some forms of food. Through such actions, parents are known to influence the body images and eating behaviours of their children. These children grow up with these beauty standards. Because of society’s ever-changing standards of beauty, it’s easy to confirm that we’ve created a culture of dissatisfaction in what genes we are born with and how our physical traits will be perceived by society.”