Op-ed: The downfalls of finding national pride in Ethiopian beauty

An Afar woman (Photo: Visit Afar/Facebook)

By Helen Bezuneh

Addis Abeba – In 2009, Chuna Okok, a 22 year old university student from Gambella, won the title of Miss Ethiopia, a yearly beauty pageant in Addis Abeba. Standing aside the fairly light skinned and long-haired first and second runner ups, Okok’s appearance stood out. To the surprise of viewers, she was very dark skinned, had short hair, and overall looked starkly different from what is popularly understood as “the Ethiopian look” in Addis Abeba and beyond. To many, she simply wasn’t recognizable as an Ethiopian. Under a blog post that reported the event, commenters passionately debated the legitimacy of the win. Many implied that Okok didn’t “look Ethiopian”, some argued that Okok only won because she was “exotic”, not because she was actually beautiful.

“Do we really think this pathetic attempt at Ethiopian affirmative action fools any one?” one remarked. “Beauty is beauty; if we are going to send a girl to compete with the best in the world, we know the standards or we are simply fooling ourselves. Certainly the international judges will not be mesmerized by her Ethiopianness……”

Though similarly negative reactions were plentiful, plenty of commenters frowned upon such disapproval of Okok’s win. Instead, they chose to celebrate the victory, considering it a necessary shift in Ethiopian beauty standards.

“It is about time that we show the world who we are and what we look like,” one said. “Chuna Okok is pretty, intelligent, exotic and ETHIOPIAN. Above all she embodies our culture and diversity. Remember, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…This is not about dissing the other girls but recognizing the other faces of Ethiopia.”

“The use of Ethiopian beauty as a vehicle for nationalism is an ever-present tendency among folks in Addis Abeba and the virtual Ethiopian diaspora online”

In the larger scheme of things, Okok’s win was an anomaly. Every single Miss Ethiopia that came before and after her effortlessly fit into the popular notion of “the Ethiopian look”: they had lighter skin, longer hair, and overall less stereotypically “African” features. It’s easy to see this as a simple case of colorism, which equally exists in almost all other societies across the world. But this idea of Ethiopian beauty isn’t that simple.

This narrow imagination of the Ethiopian phenotype puts forward an idea of Ethiopianness that has roots in Ethiopia’s 20th century history. It promotes an image of Ethiopians as racially unlike other Africans and, while doing so, excludes Ethiopian peoples and histories that don’t neatly fit into that agenda. Though Okok’s triumph did not initiate major transformations in Miss Ethiopia’s beauty standards, the tense debate surrounding her win and her “Ethiopianness” demonstrates that she disrupted a reigning, beauty-centered idea of who is and isn’t Ethiopian.

The use of Ethiopian beauty as a vehicle for nationalism is an ever-present tendency among folks in Addis Abeba and the virtual Ethiopian diaspora online. Consider, for example, the several popular instagram pages dedicated to Ethiopian or “Habesha” beauty. These pages typically post photos of Ethiopian women they deem beautiful and representative of the nation––usually, in the comments, Ethiopians express their admiration of featured women and their effective pride in their nationality.

@ethioopian_beauty, who claims Addis as their location, has 57.5K followers. To understand this instagrammer’s perception of Ethiopian beauty, it’s telling enough to simply look at who they feature on the page. The account overwhelmingly posts photos of women with light skin, long hair, narrow noses, and hourglass figures wearing Habasha (Amhara or Tigray) traditional dress. The phenotype of every featured woman is so consistent that one would assume that all Ethiopians look like that. But that is just not true.

What’s even more telling are the comments under the rare posts that do feature women who don’t have “the Ethiopian look”. For example, @habeshaqueens, who has 129K followers, also rarely posts such women, but does so more often than @ethioopian_beauty. When @habeshaqueens does post these women, tense debate regarding the featured woman’s nationality resounds in the comments.

Under a post of a very dark skinned woman, a commenter asked, “Is she habesha?”, to which the featured woman herself, Jodie Oballa, replied “no lol. I’m gambella Ethiopian.” Oballa subscribes to the popular definition of “Habesha” as Amhara or Tigray, though there are various definitions for the word. Some understand Habesha as a descriptive term for all Ethiopians, which is clear in a commenter’s response to Oballa: “ur still considered habesha because you’re ethiopian lol.”

Another commenter responded to the common disbelief of Oballa’s Ethiopianness: “[It’s] 2019 and people still don’t know that we dark skin Ethiopians [exist]. That’s so sad, as a matter of fact there’s more than 60 ethnic groups in Ethiopia and all of them are not Habesha. When I say to people that I’m Ethiopian, they are very surprised because most people have the idea that Ethiopians are light skinned. I’m [proud] [to] be Ethiopian Anyway because our country is full of rich history.”

The passionate opinions under this post demonstrate that the dominant idea of “the Ethiopian look” is limited and not representative of Ethiopia’s diversity. Though the woman depicted was from Southwestern Ethiopia, even Habeshas who don’t adequately fit within “the Ethiopian look” are excluded from this imagination of Ethiopianness.

“Even here in the US, I have been told multiple times that “I don’t look Ethiopian” by my fellow Ethiopians which often leaves me wondering “Who is an Ethiopian?””, tweets Maji Hailemariam. “I reject a narrative of Ethiopia that doesn’t include people who look like me. I refuse any labeling of “the other” based on skin tones.”

“The idea of Ethiopians being inherently different from other Africans has a rich history, dating back to the Battle of Adwa when Ethiopian forces defeated Italy’s initial colonial attempt”

During the summer of 2022, I spoke with 20 Ethiopian women in Addis Abeba to understand this form of national identity. Some women positively aligned themselves with this sort of nationalism, whereas others simply acknowledged its existence or even critiqued it. For example, a 30 year old woman had much to say about beauty in response to my general question: “How would you describe your Ethiopian identity”?

“It’s our beauty. Ethiopians are more beautiful than other countries,” she stated. “It’s the skin tone…our noses and lips aren’t as big as other Africans, sometimes our hair isn’t like other Africans. Compared to other Africans, we don’t have dark colors. Our facial features are more Arab than other African countries.”

This woman draws a direct connection between her Ethiopian identity and her idea of Ethiopian beauty. Her imagination of “the Ethiopian look” is not unlike that of the commenters under the Ethiopian beauty pages: according to her, Ethiopians are collectively lighter skinned than other Africans, our noses and lips aren’t as big, and our hair is different.

On the surface, this seems like a typical case of anti-African/anti-Black beauty standards, which are not unique to Ethiopia seeing as they exist across the world. However, this interviewee refers to these physical attributes as uniquely Ethiopian traits, showing that she understands them as evidence that Ethiopians are different from other Africans.

The idea of Ethiopians being inherently different from other Africans has a rich history, dating back to the Battle of Adwa when Ethiopian forces defeated Italy’s initial colonial attempt. The victory put Ethiopia in the global spotlight, generating varied perceptions of Ethiopia from across the world.

According to Fikru Gebrekidan in his 2005 book, Bond Without Blood: A History of Ethiopian and New World Black Relations, two conflicting racial imaginations of Ethiopia emerged: one being the perception of Ethiopia as a unique symbol of Black and Pan-African freedom, and the other being the notion that Ethiopians are partially non-African, which supposedly makes them superior to other Sub-Saharan Africans. Though these ideas had extremely differing political agendas, both seemed to agree on one thing: Ethiopia was exceptional.

These racial perceptions of Ethiopia provided the nation with opportunities to uplift its global status. For example, Ethiopia’s unique independence enabled the nation’s admittance into the League of Nations in 1923 a privilege that not many other African nations ever enjoyed.

Emperor Haile Selassie developed a positive reputation among European political leaders and American media, strengthening Ethiopia’s image as a uniquely independent African nation. Haile Selassie asserted himself as an equal to European leaders, but also passionately promoted Pan-Africanist thought. The Emperor was known for his moderate politics, which contrasted with the radical politics of other Pan-Africanists. Effectively, the Emperor grew a reputation for being different from, and more reasonable than, other African leaders.

In “From White Males to Black Females: Understanding the National Bodies of Ethiopia (1896-1936)”, Brian Yates argues that Haile Selassie’s simultaneous alignment with European and Pan-African interests shaped his racially “hybrid”, or mixed, image. In the eyes of the world, he existed between Africanness and Europeanness, occupying a unique racial category. This shaped Ethiopia’s own national image as racially unlike the rest of Africa.

Scholarship on Ethiopian self-perceptions during this period does not have a collective and decisive answer as to whether Ethiopians embraced this idea of Ethiopian racial difference or strongly rejected it. In “Ethiopia: The “Anomaly” and “Paradox” of Africa”, Teshale Tibebu argues that “the Adwa complex gave Ethiopians pride, indeed a sense of superiority.”

Engaging with popular debates about Emperor Menelik II’s racial identity, Tsegaye R. Ararssa wrote an article for Addis Standard in 2016 claiming that the emperor did indeed say “I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian”. Ararssa contested the popular view among “social media activists” that Menelik never claimed to be a Caucasian.

“In their most recent iteration,” he writes, “these activists claim that, among other things, the invocation of this statement is an attempt by “Some Oromo intellectuals” to trivialize the image of Menelik II and the famous battle of Adwa that Menelik II fought and won, supposedly, for the entire black race.”

Gebrekidan wrote an article in response, arguing that “the controversial passage in question, which Tsegaye has cited as proof of Ethiopian xenophobia, or even racism, was based on a hearsay [Robert] Skinner picked up while in the capital, more likely from the foreign legations.”

I’m not as much concerned with the validity or invalidity of the quote as I am interested in the fact that there is so much hot debate about it today. Clearly, there are conflicting racial perceptions of Ethiopia’s history, suggesting that race may also be relevant to present-day national identities.

“If we acknowledge the nation’s diverse peoples and varied interpretations of history, we can create more expansive and inclusive ideas of what it means to be Ethiopian”

Whether or not Emperor Menelik II uttered those words, the unending debate about the rumor tells us that we should seriously consider how race and colorism emerges in today’s Ethiopian communities. We should seriously consider why Oromo communities may be so concerned about whether a nationally renowned Ethiopian emperor claimed to be white—do they think this disaffiliation with Africanness is still a problem among some groups in Ethiopia today? If so, why? What is producing this tension?

A 20 year old Ethiopian woman critiqued the popular racial comparison between Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, drawing a link between such comparison and the common romanticization of Ethiopia’s history.

“I never compare very much,” she said. “Others compare them though. Some Ethiopians say “we’re not black” since our skin is lighter and facial structure is different. Ethiopians have huge pride since we were never colonized––I think it starts there…People find pride in Adwa without even really knowing what happened.”

This woman points to the Battle of Adwa as the source of this notion of Ethiopian difference. In doing so, she demonstrates that people often invoke Ethiopia’s lack of colonial history as evidence of Ethiopians’ racial difference from other Africans and Blacks.

Evidently, this distinct idea of “the Ethiopian look” is sourced from interpretations of Ethiopia’s racial history: the historical national image of Ethiopia as amazingly existing between two races, occupying a racial category that transcends binaries of Europeanness and Africanness. The idea that Ethiopians have a degree of racially balanced perfection, not leaning too close to whiteness or blackness, produces what we now understand as “the Ethiopian look”: not too dark, but not too light skin, non-kinky hair, a narrow nose, etc. This imagination demands that we forget the histories and peoples that do not fit within such parameters.

We can even see this direct link between the romanticization of Adwa and this idea of Ethiopian beauty on @ethioopian_beauty’s instagram page. The account has a highlight dedicated to the Battle of Adwa, expressing clear pride in Ethiopia’s anti-colonial history. The highlight also repeatedly promotes the perception of Ethiopia as a symbol of Black freedom.

The highlight additionally displays an even more telling post made by @ethioopian_beauty. The post features a photo of an Habesha woman in makeup and traditional attire with a caption that explains how Ethiopia has never been colonized. The woman, of course, pretty much looks like every other woman featured on the page.

In joining the photo with such a caption, the post makes a clear connection between “the Ethiopian look” and Adwa. The account’s clear idea of the Ethiopian look as not too dark and not too light skin, long and non-kinky hair, etc. draws from their interpretation of Ethiopia’s history.

They draw from post-Adwa perceptions of Ethiopia as racially exceptional, understanding Ethiopia is inherently different from the rest of Africa because it has never been colonized.

Promoting this limited idea of “the Ethiopian look”, and effectively a limited idea of Ethiopian history, excludes the peoples and histories that don’t align with such an agenda. Instead of sustaining this restrictive idea of Ethiopianness, we should emphasize the diversity in looks among the nation’s peoples. We should not simply romanticize the Battle of Adwa, but hold space for the diverse perspectives people have regarding the Battle and other relevant historical events. If we acknowledge the nation’s diverse peoples and varied interpretations of history, we can create more expansive and inclusive ideas of what it means to be Ethiopian.

Editor’s Note: Helen Bezuneh is a graduate of Smith College, in Massachusetts where she worked on a two year research project that engaged with these ideas of Ethiopian nationalism, race, and beauty. Her research paper on the topic won the Ida B. Wells Prize for Distinguished Work in Africana Studies. She can be reached at hbezuneh@smith.edu

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