Body image, particularly, women’s body confidence has been framed as a critical issue worldwide. However, when thinking about the Motherland, and what the opinions and experiences of the women on the continent are, I find myself at a loss of stories to refer to. Indeed, if we look at mainstream media for answers, there seems to be a paucity of stories from the perspective of the African woman. The fix: Rutendo Mutsamwira, the ToweRing Goddess, or .R.. On her popular social media accounts, .R. has shared her testimony, and broken the silence on suicide, and mental health and wellness.
In what seems like rather a short time frame, our so aptly named ToweRing Goddess has achieved quite the feat. She tells me that her model name came together because her mom used say she towered over people and managed to befriend “those that barely reached [her] shoulders”. The goddess bit she drew from her interest in the eloquence, elegance and grace often associated with goddesses. My experience of .R. is that she is truly an elegant and graceful being, and during the course of our interview it also became clear that she did “tower” over others, but in the way that a lighthouse would: as a beacon and illuminator.
.R. began our interview by telling me that because she had no plus size fashion role models to look up to when she was younger she was a Tomboy. Despite this, .R. forged her way into modelling in 2014 while she working as an intern for Microsoft’s 4 Afrika Initiative. The catalyst for this journey was her brief engagement as Head of PR and Communication with Zimbabwe Fashion Week (ZFW). What followed was a chance encounter with TZM Fashion House’s Thembani Mubochwa, who upon listening to an experimental house music track she had recorded, asked to use it for the brand’s collection at ZFW 2014, and invited her to close his women’s collection: enter the ToweRing Goddess! At this event was Mustafa Hassanali, a celebrated East African designer and Swahili Fashion Week founder, who eventually had .R. open for his collection at ZFW and two months later in Lusaka at Zambia Fashion Week. To date, .R. has modeled at Swahili, Mozambique and Soweto Fashion Week for Cheukwa, LiZA Couture and Afriblossom respectively, while collaborating with several African photographers. Along with being a model, .R. is now also the PR and Business Development Manager with one of the most notable fashion houses in Zimbabwe, David Alford Harare.
“Anyone can be anything when they are really hungry for it!”
Although .R. tells her journey in such a matter-of-fact way, it was her tenacity that allowed her to be in a position to be approached by designers and photographers alike.“Anyone can be anything when they are really hungry for it!” She details how she reached out individually to all the designers she has walked for in order to highlight the value of her unique body size, social media following and personal brand. In addition to this, .R. revealed that she self-funded 95% of her travel and accommodation to all the shows she had attended because “[she] was very intentional on developing [herself] as a model, choosing to only open or close the collections of the designers [she] walked for,” and choosing only brands whose brand story and inspiration resonated with her and her long-term goals in fashion.
I was curious to know about the challenges .R. had experienced on the road to becoming the pillar of inspiration that she is. She reiterated that the beauty of being the first plus size runway model in Zimbabwe came with so many advantages because it was unexpected. She was the last person anyone would have thought could pull off a professional runway, “I could barely walk in heels to save my life!” She emphasized that she was privileged that the designers and photographers she had collaborated with realized that the plus size market was, and still is, under explored ; therefore, they saw the long-term value and collaboration potential. For .R., modelling has allowed her to develop her business savvy, and to think innovatively about how Africa can tap into the multi-billion dollar industry that is fashion. In it, she sees a plethora of opportunities to eradicate poverty, change perceptions, educate, entertain, compete and dominate! For her, fashion is something “[she] can lose [herself] in and not tire or get weary because [she] can see and believe in the impact, influence and longevity fashion has till death do us part”.
“Speaking out and up is a form of therapy”
.R. is certainly in the business of changing perceptions; perceptions of her and those we hold with regards to beauty standards and mental wellness. Using the platform that fashion and a large social media following has afforded her, .R. is bringing to light issues of mental health and wellness, topics that are hardly broached in most African cultures. “To whom much is given much is expected”. .R. is acutely aware of the responsibility which comes with the many things she has been blessed with, most important of which, she stated, are her spheres of influence. In order not to fall for the fallacies of generalizations, .R. shares of her experiences and uses these as a #testimony, so that others may find the courage to share their stories through the knowledge that “they are not alone and that speaking out and up is a form of therapy”. She explained that, more so than before, such difficult conversations needed to be had as we increasingly drift away from each other, become disconnected and less empathic; “we can’t afford to do that. No way! Naaaah.”
How has her homeland shaped her being? Well, that depends on how you define homeland. .R. and I share a physical homeland, Zimbabwe, a beautiful but sometimes troubled country. However, for her, homeland refers to something less narrowly defined: homeland is a presence and a feeling. Nevertheless, she states that our shared homeland has nurtured and molded her into a resourceful, creative, tireless and stubborn person, and her work subsequently shapes it.
So who is .R. and what insights have we gained from her adventures thus far? .R. is a forerunner, and beacon of hope and a lighthouse of inspiration. Her story, serves to inspire us to share our own.
.R.’s Tips for Mental Wellness:
- Be brave enough to first unpack, trace, acknowledge and process some of the experiences you have endured in life.
- Take ownership of who you are and what has inspired and influenced who you are today.
- You owe it to yourself to find ways which are unique to you to self-love and self-care.
- Make the choice to commit to your heart and mind every single day.
- Watch the company you keep as well. Misery loves company. That’s nobody’s portion.