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.

Instagram

Instagram

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.

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  • D1Mind

    This is what happens when Africans in the diaspora don’t own or control anything. The original trinidad carnival was nothing like the carnival in New Orleans or Brazil. If you look at the videos and pics from the 1960s or 1950s these people had all their clothes on. Only in the last 20 years or so has this form of carnival become hedonized and all about black women of different shades showing their bodies to the world.

    But here is the point, none of the tourism and travel industry in the Caribbean is owned or controlled by black folks. So whatever form of promotion that is used is most often in the hands of non Africans and the only role most of the Africans get is as dancers and as ‘exotic island beauties’ to attract male tourists. Black folks own no resorts, no hotels and no ship companies. And they don’t even own the entertainment, modeling, fashion or beauty industries in the caribbean.

    So this is to be expected.

    • CoolChic

      Agreed.

    • alirich

      I have to disagree with you there. While not many black people own hotels and such, there are many black people who own entertainment and fashion industries in particular. There are many black fashion designers and entertainers who often promote their businesses especially around carnival time.

  • CoolChic

    I don’t think we have anyone to blame bUT ourselves. Black people are the only ones who in the “name of inclusion, and celebrating/accepting everybody” inevitably allow other people to usurp our traditions. There is POWER in exclusivity.

    • vintage3000

      Exactly. That’s what happened to Soul Train, too-lol.

  • fila nike

    Wow, people biting off black culture yet non of them want to be associated with us.. Smh. It’s been happening for years in many aspects such as music, fashion, slang and others I’m not startled that this is happening

  • nutmeg26

    I wouldn’t say whitewashed but it is becoming engulfed in neoliberalism and capitalism. This is something happening to many of the carnival celebrations throughout the islands where the national tourism industry/agencies are appealing to attract mostly european tourists (so yes, in a sense whitewashing). The greed is so visible that islands like the Bahamas now have carnival, which was not part of their culture (this brought a lot of controversy in the Bahamas last year because some believed carnival would take away from Junkaooo). Anyway back to Trinidad. So there is no ‘mas’ in carnival anymore, where are the stories? where are the narratives in the costumes? Why are we only wearing “bikinis” and wearing less clothes? Because we want to compete with Brazil? That is my main issue with the celebration now. Tribe is the most popular and expensive mas camp, but there are others working to preserve the authenticity of carnival. Unfortunately, such camps are less popular and usually not sponsoring soca artistes and celebrities from abroad (amber rose…etc). The models in Tribe’s advertisement represent the aesthetic of beauty in the islands (mixed, light skin, long hair, dogula (african and indian)), which we like to deny (around outsiders) but we have our internalized issues passed down from colonialism era and slavery. Finally, I think jouvert/jouvay, the pre-carnival celebration, still preserves some of what is mas and the cultural roots of carnival.

  • D1Mind

    Also much of these ads are from one company: Tribe Carnival, which was started in 2004 by Dean Ackin and his wife Monique Nobrega. They are considered the biggest of the T&T “bands” and have made a huge enterprise out of Carnival related entertainment packages. This new new ‘all inclusive’ style of carnival travel package is now spreading across the Carribbean by other similar kinds of enterprises. And many folks don’t consider this kind of “entertainment package tour” as real Carnival or Carribbean culture at all. See “Carnival’s Louder Commercial Beat Adds Dissonance” in the New York Times.

    QUOTE:
    PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — To some people here, Dean Ackin, 38, with his boyish face, is an inspiration of entrepreneurship, a bearer of this country’s evolving culture. To others, he is a threat to this nation’s most beloved social and cultural treasure: Carnival.

    Mr. Ackin runs one of the country’s most popular Carnival bands, the groups of people who don costumes and masquerade — or play Mas, as locals call it — in the raucous annual two-day street parade. The roughly 5,000 spots available in Mr. Ackin’s band, Tribe, sell out every year almost as fast as they go on sale. Demand has been so high since he started Tribe in 2005 that Mr. Ackin just started a second band.

    But some say Mr. Ackin and others like him, who have in recent years spun profitable, year-round businesses out of organizing these bands, threaten the existence of Carnival as Trinidadians know it.

    By shunning the conservative, traditional costumes for cheaper, skimpier outfits that are sometimes produced outside of Trinidad, these new bands, critics say, are distorting their forebears’ creation and sending work elsewhere at a time when the government and others are trying to turn Trinidadian-style Carnival into a more profitable and exportable industry.