The Internet exploded with the color and vibes of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival 2016 over the past few days. The festival’s main attraction? Beautiful women adorned in feathers, beads and jewels who were not afraid to flaunt their curves all over Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
These images of smiling ladies in their Carnival costumes speaks to a long historical tradition of celebrating freedom — the origins of the celebration dating back to slavery when oppressed enslaved people appropriated the French tradition of Masquerading (in which they were not allowed to participate) and added their own cultural flare and significance. They have also long paid homage to the country’s celebration of women’s different body types, shapes and sizes.
Of the most popular faces that paraded Trinidad and Tobago’s streets, this year Amber Rose and friend Blac Chyna wore very revealing costumes that not only accentuated, but also celebrated their curves:
Explained best by Leann Cotton, a 23-year-old performer that has performed as a back up dancer for the past 5 years with Sherwayne Winchester, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most notable performers:
“Women basically don’t care what people think about them or their bodies during Carnival time. They express themselves through their outfits.”
Instagram is littered with images that tell precisely that story. Pictures of beautiful women of color, proudly flaunting the curves with pride.
A photo posted by shannboogie (@shannboogie) on
Yet, locally, many feel that much of the body positivity that helped to shape Carnival and promote a sense of liberation is being lost to the country’s growing desire to appeal to a more “international crowd.”
“In the past 5 years or so, you really see this push towards creating a more “uniformed” body standard,” said 29-year-old Stephanie Leitch who is the founder of WOMANTRA a women’s group based in Trinidad. “It’s tied to exclusivity which is really just exclusion – trying to tell women who do not fall within a certain look that they cannot participate.”
This body standard is, of course, heavily European and Western influenced. In the recent years, Carnival bands, which organize masqueraders — or the Carnival’s participants — into different groups have become increasingly whitewashed with the use of models who are not only skinny and tall but also white or lighter-skinned. A screenshot image of Tribe Carnival– one of the biggest bands in T&T– reveals an aesthetic that betrays country’s majority black and Indian population.
“Right now, the “perfect woman,” by Carnival standards has curly or straight hair and light or white skin,” Leitch extrapolated.
This trend is especially worrisome as cost for participation continues to skyrocket, with increases that have practically doubled, putting masquerading out of reach for many Trinidadian natives. For years, costumes typically ranged between $400-$800 dollars, but now the starting prices begin at $600 and shoot all the way to $2,000– That’s quite a lot of money to spend on some beads and feathers! This poses a double threat for women of the country where they are barred from participation because of finances and also shut out of many spaces because their bodies don’t fit into Westernized notions of beauty.
What will become of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago as the years progress and the festival grows even more popular with non-natives? Based on these trends towards Westernized beauty standards and gimme-all-ya-money capitalism, we should fear that this festival meant to celebrate blackness may reinforce the very oppression our African slave ancestors fought dutifully to free themselves from.