“Gyal,You Get Faht!”

More Reflections on Body Image in the Caribbean

Initially, I found the frankness with which bodies are discussed in the islands to be rather shocking. And also, more than a tad delightful, due to the lack of polite silence or euphemism usually employed by Midwesterners when talking about a person’s body in their presence. The things that come casually or even lovingly out of Caribbean folks’ mouths could potentially destroy many a long-term stateside friendship.

My first job in the VI was at a St. Thomas coffee shop. Within the first week or so, my very St. Thomian co-worker (intimidating until we bonded, which was thankfully quick) let me know that my legs were too white, and I needed a tan. She continued to comment at regular intervals until deeming the situation remedied.

The same woman has two best friends, both of whom she refers to as, “Big Girls.” She doesn’t just say this when they’re not around. It’s a fact, and “ain’t nobody shame a ‘dey body,” I guess. The more gregarious of the two even won the Ms. Big and Beautiful title a few years back, a Carnival pageant that is now sadly defunct on St. Thomas. I’m told she rocks a bikini to the beach. It’s not at all lost on me that while I’m probably half the size of Ms. Big and Beautiful, I fret over publicly exposing my stomach twice as much.

When another co-worker returned for the summer after her freshman year in college, neither Caribbean woman at the coffee shop wasted any time in exclaiming, “You get faht!”. Having gone to school in the VI, and being the lucky type who gains weight in sexy spots, she was nowhere near offended. Truthfully, I think she reveled in the attention—an attitude I could not myself adopt when it was my turn.

After working in food service for too long, I started to gain a little weight in my body’s only fat storehouse: my stomach. Both women regularly brought this to my attention, verbally or even physically. Occasionally, they’d just approach and touch my burgeoning beer belly. With love, really, as if a baby were inside rather than the adipose byproduct of too much pub food and Presidenté.

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A recent Kmart trip offered two examples of this Caribbean cultural norm. Upon entering the store, and before my mission commenced, I observed (because they were blocking my path) what must have been an impromptu reunion between friends. One half of the reunion consisted of a couple, the other half a woman, all West Indian, all looked to be of AARP age.

After the initial exchange of pleasantries, the coupled man reached out and affectionately placed his hands on the other woman’s protruding, middle-aged belly. Then he asked, twinkle in eye, “Ya pregnant?” The woman in question threw her head back and laughed, before responding, “Yeah, I pregnant,” grabbing her belly for added effect. Smiles and laughter were shared all around. If the same interaction occurred between white friends in the states, the woman with the belly would likely leave Kmart in tears, spend the rest of the day in bed, and start Weight Watchers the next morning.

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Later in the checkout lane, I had the good fortune to be standing behind a lively group of women. They seemed to be a combination of close friends/relatives—two of them in high school uniforms, two of them well into adulthood. One of the adults displayed a mesmerizing brown plumber’s butt, bulging over ill-fitting jeans. Hypnotic like a car accident, the image was grotesque in its corpulence. In trying to describe the visual, extra-toasty Yorkshire pudding comes to mind. One of the high school girls pointed it out to the other one, and they both giggled. Then she poked her index finger right into the exposed crack. The woman jumped, pulled her shirt down over her pants, and herself giggled. The high school girl said, “I don’ know how you can’t feel da breeze on ya backside when it out like dat.” And with that statement, she took the thoughts right out of my head.

If I’m wearing something that Magnum doesn’t feel flatters me, he will let me know. “Dat pant do nuttin’ fah you body, ya know.” After suspecting as much for years, I finally threw the cheap clearance rack item out. The truth felt liberating, to be honest. This is the same guy who, after I returned from vacation recently a good five pounds heavier than when I left, broached the topic immediately with, “Wha happen to you? You get faht while you away.”

“I know,” I said. “Two weeks of beer, restaurants, and no dog walks. I’ll lose it quickly.”

“No…don’t lose it. It look good on you.”

It did not, in fact, look good on me, and I did quickly sweat off the weight, but it was nice knowing the extra poundage didn’t detract from my sex appeal in his eyes.

To see this cultural acceptance of diverse body shapes and sizes, one must simply participate and/or witness a Carnival parade. Many local women join Carnival troupes, and spend what must be a quarter year’s salary on beautiful, lavish, revealing costumes, and then shake lightly-choreographed booty down the parade route under the blazing afternoon sun. By revealing, I mean that most costumes have a leotard-style bottom (offering visual access all the way up the thigh), generous cleavage, and quite often, cut-out stomachs. You would not catch me alive in one of those stomach-baring, sequined get-ups, and I’m well within the healthy weight range for my height.

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For reasons unbeknownst to me, I’m told the women are divided up by size within the various Carnival troupes. I haven’t seen evidence that this determines the type of costume worn, just where they stand in the parade route and for photos. (I could be wrong though, and welcome correction.) Plenty of women attempt to diet before the big celebration, but the vast majority still boldly expose rolls of fat hanging over their sparkly ensembles, a wardrobe issue that would bar me from leaving the house. But proudly wear these outfits, and parade in front of the island’s population, they do, posing for photos and TV cameras to boot.

Minus the obvious health concerns, I find this attitude altogether refreshing. We get so hung up on what our bodies look like in the states. Nitpicking our perceived imperfections to a bloody pulp. And while I’m completely part of this system, and I find value in taking care of one’s body, we too easily become obsessed to the point of equating our entire sense of self worth to how our bodies compare to the Photoshopped women in magazines and the it-takes-a-village-to-make-her-fabulous celebrities we glorify, whether consciously or not.

Islanders can make what seem like insulting comments from a Statesider perspective because the size and shape of your body does not define your worth down here. So, it’s not an insult. And as far as many are concerned, the curvier, the better.  Being fat does not make you worthless. It just makes you fat. And if fat is a fact, believe you me, it’s gonna be stated.

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Ashley Ladlie

About Ashley Ladlie

Ashley lives on St. John in the US Virgin Islands where she can be found drenched in sweat while communing with the hermit crabs who live in her yard. The irony of living in a shac-teau on the most remote part of a tiny secondary island in the Caribbean while spending the majority of her time with a creature named after people who prefer solitude is not lost on her.

Despite constant inquiry as to how long she’ll be on St. John, Ashley has learned in her three decades on this planet that setting one’s life plans in stone is the best way to ensure their futility. For now she remains enchanted with the beautiful absurdity on her rock of residence, which is colorful in far more ways than one.

You can hire her to write and design for you at www.badashbabe.com.

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16 thoughts on ““Gyal,You Get Faht!”

  1. This is why I love living in the VI, if I gain some weight, no worries from my West Indian bf, his family, or anybody else, except maybe the white transplants. They even say I gain weight after I come back from visiting the states. It’s because I eat more junk food there.
    The extra weight don’t bother me, but I do worry about my health with the extra weight I’m carrying around, which is tooo much according to my doctor.
    So a little exercise and some better eating habits for me and my bf is going into effect soon 🙂

    • It’s nice having the motivation to lose weight come from a place of wanting to be healthy rather than a place of feeling like you’re judged by your friends and family for being heavy. You’ll have to talk him into walking the airport or Peterborg, LouLou! After work when it’s not so damn hot.

      • We walked the whole waterfront twice early in the morningand that was the extent of our exerciseregime. LOL
        I even walked slow because I didn’t want to break a sweat.
        We keep saying we are going to eat better and start walking,but it hasn’t come to fruition yet. Maybe one day 🙂

  2. This is why I KNOW I should be living on St. John. 30 years later, owning, 50 trips……..I’d be better living there. Der be fat on my belly. I’m sticking to it!! XO Ashley!

  3. I know that I should live On St John. Dey be faht on my body, but I’ve found de happy medium…..faht an exercise. 30 years after our first trip to St. John, over 50 trips and owning for 11 years…….it’s time to come home. Permanently..

  4. This just illustrates yet another “first world problem”. There’s much to be said for less developed (for the lack of a better term) cultures.

  5. As far as Carnival Troups are concerned, I don’t know if they separate by size, but they do separate by outfits in a troupe.
    My West Indian girl friend is in one of the larger troups and she is a larger size woman.
    She always shows me pictures of the outfits she will be wearing that year when they are picked out.
    She always chooses the one that covers her belly somewhat because she says she is a “big gyal”, but the rest of the outfit is revealing.

    • So maybe they get to choose if they want the belly in or belly out option. I would be getting the belly in option, myself. I just can’t move my ass the way the ladies down here can do it, so I don’t think I’ll every find myself in a Carnival troupe. I would totally be up for learning to play the steel drums though.

  6. This happened to me in the grocery store on my way home from happy hour last Sunday. We’re friendly with a local kid who is about 12 and he saw me in line, came over and gave me a big hug and said “you got fat!!!” with a beaming smile, and them slapped me on the back to congratulate me.

  7. This sentence actually brought a tear to my eye! I’m still here in the Midwest, and totally had a ‘moment of real’ when I read this. Thank you for sharing!

    “Islanders can make what seem like insulting comments from a Statesider perspective because the size and shape of your body does not define your worth down here.”

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