While we know we women are each as unique as a snowflake (or grain of sand, since we’re talking island life here), socially, I’ve noticed there are two main types of island girls you see most often on a rock: the Fashionable Islander and the more Bohemian Islander.
On a larger island like Jamaica, there is greater variety in lifestyle with people pursuing all kinds of careers: bankers, dentists, race car drivers, boutique owners, media moguls, you name it. Enter: The Fashionable Islander. If you ask these ladies where they were born and raised, if it wasn’t in Jamaica, odds are it was on another island. These are the women who have been brought up with the realities of island life and already know that you’ll still get stuck in traffic on a Friday and that finding parking is rough. There are those who live by the beach and work in those fancy hotels and yet their dress code remains similar to the staff at a hotel in the heart of a city. You’ll see women in jeans and a polo shirt cooking over a hot pan of the fish they are selling to others at the beach.
These women know the joys of growing up and wearing a uniform every day to school and adhering to silly rules like how big the size of their simple gold hoop sleeper earrings could be and that they can’t wear too many coloured clips in their hair at the same time, or the importance of wearing a slip under their dresses. It is these same island women that you will see walking along the main streets of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios or in the heart of the financial district of downtown Kingston in full suits and high heels, hair perfectly done, and makeup tastefully applied. No matter that the sun is beating down or that it’s a hundred and two degrees in the shade. There are even buildings and businesses that won’t allow you past the lobby if you have bare shoulders and arms and yes, even if it is a tailored dress and heels.
It isn’t just the corporate world that sees these well-turned-out women either. Head to any rural church on a Sunday or to a street dance on a Saturday night and you’ll be sure to see every outfit will be coordinated head to toe, and I do literally mean head to toe, including the latest hats and wigs to the most outrageously high boots if the occasion calls for it. Never say a Jamaican woman didn’t dress for the occasion. I recently attended a function with the Prime Minister and other politicos along with the “who’s who” of the social set. I, of course, couldn’t wear my pajamas as I would have liked to. My compromise was a flow-y linen dress and sandals. Of course, I was the only one there not in business attire and high heels. That’s okay. I relished the breeze as I watched them all frantically fanning away, pretending to ignore the fact that it was sweltering. If not born islanders, then the women you spot are here because their overseas company sent them here on a mission. The tradeoff for paradise on the weekends being dressing like they are still back at home during the week, no matter how hot it gets.
This brings me to the second type of woman you may spot around the island – the Bohemian Islander. These are the ones who chose to move here based on a dream. You know, that one where you never have to shovel snow or rake leaves again. A part of that dream often includes living close to a beach somewhere and maybe getting away with forever wearing a bikini top in lieu of a bra.
I grew up seeing these women. In the 1970s, as I played on the then empty beaches of Negril, not a hotel was in sight. What I did see on a daily basis, however, were nudists coming in droves to frolic in the blue Caribbean Sea. Although I was raised somewhat more freely than most other Jamaican children around me, bikini bottoms at least were mandatory on beach days. As I grew older, and the teen years meant dressing along with the fashions taking over the world (yes, that includes neon, shoulder pads, and the horrific side ponytail), I would head to Negril or Ocho Rios and see the tourists happily strolling about in loose clothing (still neon) and with all the psychological freedom that comes with not knowing another soul in sight. Oh, how I longed to be them!
I moved away for a year as a teenager and in that year discovered this bohemian freedom. Although not on a beach, anonymity was its own drug! I returned to Jamaica and years later, my sister would confess to me that she had to grin and bear it through those years when I would go out with her to parties. The crowd remained the same, along with the exacting social standards to look and dress a certain way. And there I was with my hand-sewn moccasins from a Romani (nomadic) tribe I met in Venezuela and billowing peasant skirts. I had tasted sweet freedom and swore I wasn’t going back. Then I got a job and my dream had to be modified somewhat. I was back in the world where you had to look your best at all times and the biggest concession was that I at least could wear ballet flats and not the dreaded super high heels.
Years later (many years later), I feel I have finally achieved the dream of being the second type of island girl: the one who moved to Jamaica to live a dream. You see, I now have something in common with those visitors I gazed at long ago wishing I could be that carefree. I have lived where I could wear sweats and UGGS to the supermarket and be seen and survived socially. I have shoveled snow. I have raked endless leaves. And in all of this, I discovered their real reasoning: fighting with the phone company is universal and taxes still have to be filed no matter where you are, so you might as well do it all somewhere warm where you can also hang out at the beach on weekends. And even the bohemian clothing of today is now considered extremely fashionable and less like a vacation wardrobe. It’s not UGGS, but comfort can still be embraced. I feel I can better appreciate why women move here to become that second type of island girl.
The difference for me this time around returning to the island, (this is about my fifth or sixth time moving back; I’ve lost count), is that I now feel I have the best of both worlds. As a local, I know enough short cuts and how to navigate the established, more conservative everyday world of the island, while having a career that allows me to sit on a beach with a laptop in cutoff jean shorts. Of course, being a little older and caring a little less about what people think might have something to do with it, but growing up on an island where you’re connected by three degrees to almost everyone else, that’s no easy feat!
And yes, in case you were wondering, I do now wear a bikini top in lieu of a bra.