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.
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.
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.
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.