“Big ting, small ting, I winin’ up on all ting. . .”
Hot on the heels of New York’s West Indian Day Parade celebrations, I saw two people I know, bemoaning online about the “rights” of women with certain body types to wear carnival costumes. It’s not the first time that the ever annoying body conscious, bodycentric undercurrent currently running rampant in Trinidad’s carnival for a while now, rears its ugly head. The increasingly body conscious aesthetic of Trinidad carnival has been steadily frustrating to me, personally, because of the way in which it enables people to feel free to police the expression of women (always women), with a range of body types who choose to take to the streets for these festivals.
All this “who she feel she is” and, “why she think she could go in de road looking like that,” which is to say: not toned, flat-bellied and slim is both reductive and silly. (Also referred to at times, allegedly, as the “Brazilianising” of Trinidad Carnival. Apologies to our South American neighbours who may, or may not, feel unfairly maligned).
Plus, it bothers me that some of these people are constantly acting as though it personally affronts them — these women who might even *gasp* have the audacity to not choose a whole suit. As though women outside of a certain size range have no business in a revealing costume, effectively engineering an oppressive space for women who don’t fit a certain mould, in a supposedly ‘free’ space, while nothing of the sort happens for men inside that same space.
Yes, men can be fit for carnival and choose to be — or they can not choose to be and you will hardly hear as many people either thrashing viral carnival pictures online and the like, complaining fervently how men with pot-bellies and or less than stellar bodies, have no right to be shirtless or in a carnival costume offending your eyes. Respectability politics practically never seem to come in to play for men’s bodies inside of carnival culture. And the discourse has shifted; from back when I played my first adult mas and if I am re-thinking carnivals past, from my parents’ generation and snatches of conversation I heard back then: the looming issues were always one of cost, and things like design, functionability, colour and themes of costumes seemed to matter more.
The whole point of carnival (if one can whittle down a complex sociocultural, historical expression of resistance, music, dance and revelry to a single point) is precisely that — that these women, and everyone else can have to ‘freedom’ as it were, to participate in these spaces and wield their bodies to the rhythm, however they see fit, and wearing whatever they desire. Why can’t you wine down the road in a two-piece if your stomach has soft folds or your thighs love to kiss one another?
It’s more than just simply fat phobia too, because Trinidad like many parts of the Caribbean and the diaspora, do accept possibilities for a beauty aesthetic that makes way for “thickness” (and I don’t just mean like Beyonce-thick) — to a certain point, so to speak, depending on one’s purview. If I think back to my school days and among people I know for instance, girls and women lauded as beautiful and desirable were never exclusively skinny, or flat-bellied with stereotypical modelesque figures. (Not to mention, considerable levels of sexiness is constantly meted out and lauded in the curvaceous figures of soca women like Alison Hinds, Destra Garcia, Denise Belfon, Fay-Ann Lyons-Alvarez and Tanzania “Tizzy” Sebastian to name just a few).
Bess tings, bad tings, all kinda ting
By comparison, nowadays, contemporary carnival culture and its designs (and the perceived gatekeepers of those designs) leaves very little range for what is considered a “bess” carnival body or who is “allowed” to wear certain costumes. Band launch season has been in full swing for a while now and any perusal of albums, pages or groups pertaining to 2012 (or earlier) carnival presentations will give you a good indication of the prevailing popular cultural discourse on contemporary carnival culture. (Not to mention, a look at all the models will give an idea as to other things as well — peep skin tones as an aside, for example). Much of the popular discourse on carnival swirls around body-types and what body-types will do well in a given costume (mine, yours or someone else’s).
Alongside discussions of costume colour, coverage (or lack thereof), costume options and sometimes head pieces — conversations and opinions tend to focus on what one will (or will not) look good in. Even less so, do you see conversations musing on prices; of course, at the same time, if one is dedicated to playing mas already — it’s a given that you will be dropping some serious dollars from the jump and it’s also a given that with the current trend, it will go up and vary from year to year.
The viewing populace, as well as people who pledge early allegiance to certain sections and even those who don’t, effectively designate themselves as informal gatekeepers of certain designs. Overall, these gatekeepers converge at the wrought-iron lattice work of contemporary carnival culture. Gatekeepers reiterate what’s right for whom, plying on our notions of respectability with regards to women’s bodies (yes, ironically, even during carnival time) and aided and abetted by the sway of the ever-present male gaze. Because of the overarching body conscious discourse, it is not uncommon to see folks frequently assert that certain sections are only for those people who can wear it, (people with “good” bodies) — even if that person is not them. Underpinned by the prevailing discourse, gatekeepers set boundaries that then become further reinforced. Women, then, are free to get punished and verbally dissected for wearing what’s not right for their bodies.
Of course, in theory, you can wear whatever you want. Not unlike a stroll across Maracas Beach at any given time, whenever you do so, is to open yourself to public scrutiny. Also, in theory — if you have the money and desire to, you can play yourself in whatever the hell you so desire — you can gate-crash but expect to be held accountable for those decisions on the public stage of the streets for carnival.
I’d wager that people don’t gate-crash as much though, that we are all held hostage to public opinions and the body and beauty ideals that we wrangle with or whole-heartedly subscribe to; that there’s always that one section or few sections designated for a certain type of woman’s body; that the discourse sets more of the tone for how vast numbers of women end up contextualising or rationalizing their carnival costume choices.
In, around, and between the frontlines and backlines
A friend of mine is playing mas, frontline at that, for the first time next year in a popular, relatively new mas band. She is a lovely, full-figured young woman and most of her reticence and initial fear from what she’s told me is located in the notion that her body type might be wrong for costume wearing and she had to free herself from that judgement — fed by our current cultural discourse on carnival bodies and beauty — and it still feels revolutionary to hear her proclaim love for her customised bustier and feel her excitement to experience carnival for the first time.
Mas playing, if it’s for you, can be a wonderful, potentially psychologically freeing experience, among other things. In many ways, you can feel deeply connected to humanity too — in the sea of bodies sweating and gyrating and thronging in stride with you, or squeezing through a street in Port of Spain in unison with others dressed exactly like you, or at least, under the same band banner, if you’re not remaining in your section.
At the same time, in concert with carnival capitalism and the commercialization aspects of it, Trinidad carnival mas culture and some of its participants have become increasingly consumed with a particular kind of carnival aesthetic, so it encompasses a kind of perceived totality of self, a package including body, hair, accessories — everything in between and all the way down to one’s feet. Much like the mas band “packages” that now get advertised and sold to participants as packaged “experiences.” And for women, almost any one thing can throw one’s carnival aesthetic scale precariously off balance, just a smidge — or a lot. Tear in stockings? Personalised boots missing the mark? Sweating off make-up? In actuality, the body then, is only one aspect of the whole, for those people who heavily subscribe to burgeoning notions of this kind of carnival aesthetic.
Each year, it is increasingly becoming more and more of an unending quest for perfection for these two days, for legitimacy for female beauty at one of its most vulnerable junctures: in a state of fairly scant undress — in public. It doesn’t matter that you are not alone, but rather that you will be meted out assessment from some place, inside yourself, externally or both; and as women, society often pressures us to answer the call or shames you for not doing so.