I lost interest in beauty pageant in Sierra Leone after the mysterious death of a Miss Sierra Leone winner in 2001. The Miss Sierra Leone Limited, a not for profit company responsible for organising the beauty pageant had to stop operations for over a decade following the death of Miss Anniemaude Cole. Cole died following a fire accident that covered 62% of her body. It was unclear whether she had attempted to commit suicide. She won the pageant in December 2001.
Her family claimed the organisers failed to deliver the promised prizes including a car, bedroom furniture, a ticket to London and a bank account. It is believed the disappointments were too much for her and could have led to her attempted suicide.
In 2016, my interest was drawn again towards the annual Miss Sierra Leone when an issue erupted surrounding the decision to crown Miss Aminata Adialine Bangura. The debate became trendy on all social media platforms in Sierra Leone and among Sierra Leoneans. There were disagreements over the quality of the winner who would represent Sierra Leone in the Miss World beauty contest in America. The debate became heated, warranting one of the organisers Dr Julius Spencer to make a public statement about the auditioning process and Judges decision. According to Spencer, contestants were chosen from among the best who auditioned for the pageant.
This issue jogged my memory to the 2001 incident. It also left me with a lot of unanswered questions. Must Sierra Leonean women showcase their beauty and attractiveness to prove worthy in society? Why are we so comfortable in showcasing women’s bodies for public scrutiny? Why are women’s bodies used as a commodity to satisfy and attract the interest of men? Beauty pageant has done little to empower young women but much to disempower young, beautiful and talented women in Sierra Leone.
Self-concept theories stipulate that through social comparison, people judge themselves according to their alignment to individuals, group and social status. On that note, I am poised to ask is this really the standard we hold for our Sierra Leonean women? Does this fit into how women should be viewed if we are attempting to move to an equal society? What does this say about how we look not just at women but people in general? Especially when we consider having a diverse society in which people with different abilities would be considered equal. Essentially, is there a problem with the idea of a beauty pageant in Sierra Leone, and does it do more harm than good in terms of breaking the glass ceiling or empowering women?
Beauty pageant in Sierra Leone like other counties is dominated by sociocultural stereotypes. Contestants are considered loose and uncontrollable. Beauty contests are believed to be the easy way to prostitution. In a society where violence against women is common place, women who contest in beauty pageants are particularly vulnerable. The focus on body image is disempowering and reinforces stereotypes. Beauty pageant seems to promote one idea and that is to be a role model, a woman must be attractive. As the world evolves towards gender equality and women’s empowerment, we do not have to be attractive to be role models in our society. Our inputs to social and communal development do not have to be linked to our physical appearance. Putting young women through the kind of public assessment like in Miss Sierra Leone is absolutely appalling. But who holds the responsibility for this kind of public scrutiny?
Miss Sierra Leone 2018 was held in August. Following the event, there was a repeat of the 2016 debate over the quality of the contestants and also allegation of foul play. A dad of one of the contestants made video messages that circulated on social media alleging that the contest was stage-managed, leading to some questioning the credibility of the organisers. But is this what contestants signed to when they auditioned for this pageant? Many of them were subjected to public ridicule. There were also public debates about the intellects of contestants and their command of the English language raising questions about the quality of Sierra Leone’s education system. While the debate was ongoing, I was baffled as no one ever thought about how the scandal and negative comments were impacting contestants. No one thought about the emotional and psychological effects negative public opinions were having on these young women.
The Miss Sierra Leone contest enjoys the full support of the government of Sierra Leone through its Ministry of Tourism. But what kind of image of Sierra Leone are we sending to visitors and would be visitors, when women are taunted by a society that is meant to encourage them to excel? I expect the government and the Miss Sierra Leone organisers to work to remove all negative videos about contestants that are still making rounds on social media. They should work to limit the negative impacts the contest brings on our young women contestants. They should also compensate contestants for the loss to their image and integrity communal stereotype brings. Especially so as social media is making it increasingly difficult for women who contest in Miss Sierra Leone.