Belgium crowns Top Woman in pageant of inner beauty

MONS, Belgium (Reuters) - The pageant that crowned Belgium's Top Woman focused on the inner beauty and body positivity of the contestants.

The 60 contenders for the title, aged from 23 to 64, were among the latest group of more than 5,000 women who have now taken a nine-month programme on discovering and accepting themselves, as well as some styling and pampering.

"True beauty does not come from a perfect body that corresponds with what society dictates, but from a body telling a story," said Nathalie De Reuck, 56, founder of Top Women, the not-for-profit organisation behind Saturday's event.

"A woman who is fine in her head, fine in her body, is a woman who is just 'wow'."

De Reuck, who founded the programme in 2014, is a former model and found the business harsh and destructive for women. Today she points to social media filters fostering women's feelings of shame about their bodies and appearance.

"The beauty of us all is our body and our history. There is nothing to be ashamed of," De Reuck said.

Contestant Nathalie Halleman, a mother of eight, said she felt beautiful.

"The beauty of the body according to the image transmitted by advertising and fashion is short-lived. The real beauty is inner beauty," the 47-year-old said.

She said she used to lack confidence and would cry when thinking about her past. "Now, I smile," she said.

Running for the title after the doing the programme is optional, De Reuck, who heads the jury, said, and the criteria are not the looks, but the women's attitude and evolution.

"For most candidates, just the idea of being on stage and a catwalk used to be impossible," she said.

The title was awarded to Laurie Dreze.

(Reporting by Yves Herman and Inti Landauro; Editing by Charlotte Van Campenhout and Alison Williams)