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I Want to Celebrate Freedom for All Bodies at Carnival

Its runways often centre conventionally sized, racially ambiguous, fair skinned women.

Liberation looks different for everyone, but for me it involves a healthy serving of soca (sometimes dancehall), illustrious costumes and heavy wining. I get all of this and more playing mas (or masquerading) during Carnival. If you’ve ever had the privilege of being in the Caribbean during Carnival, or have seen, attended or heard of one of their diasporic iterations abroad (Toronto’s Caribana, London’s Notting Hill Carnival or New York’s Labour Day parade, to name a few), you’re seeing an aspect of Caribbean history in action.

Though many countries within the Caribbean have their own iteration of festival, carnival or Junkanoo, the most visible are Barbados’ Grand Kadooment Parade—that caps off the country’s three month Crop Over festival—and Trinidad’s Carnival. The carnivals and festivals have differing histories between countries but most are rooted in how the formerly enslaved Africans of each country celebrated emancipation and liberation. Carnivals abroad were usually made to recreate feelings of home and replicate this tradition by immigrants who moved from the Caribbean into their new geographies.

There’s an entire Carnival ecosystem and its inhabitants are inclusive of costume designers, manufacturers, wire bra benders, band leaders, sponsors, photographers, videographers, carnival blogs and the fetes, j’ouverts and parties that run concurrently with each. However, all of these different facets come together during the band launches: the highly anticipated events of any given Carnival season that showcase the design and revelry a band has to offer its masqueraders. Women and men decked in vibrant costumes, adorned in feathers, and with the sweet sounds of soca as their backdrop, make their way down the runway, freeing up themselves in their costumes for all to see.

When I understood this and decided that I wanted to play mas, I had always seen Carnival as a radical means of diversifying the body positive movement, which almost always never includes Black, Indigenous or people of colour. Though the context and politics of Carnival vary within the locales they are part of, some elements are universal: It’s peak Caribbean, serves as an extension of our regional pride and, most importantly, it affords Afro and Indo-Caribbean women an opportunity to exercise their agency, celebrate their roots, and unapologetically get on bad on the road.

However, the visual optics of what kind of woman gets to do this tend to lean in one direction. For an event that stems from an ancestral, liberatory tradition, it often centres a certain body type on its runways, advertisements and post-event photos: conventionally sized, racially ambiguous, fair skinned and/or white women.

Digital communities, like Nadelle Lewis’ #EveryBODYPlayAhMas and Yishaa Persaud’s Curvy Carnival International, have missions to diversify the body types seen chippin’ down the road, particularly so by centering plus size women on their respective social media pages and groups.

“I do not think carnivals are inclusive to women of all sizes,” says Lewis. “The images in the media do not encourage women to participate. It can be very intimidating for women who do not see diverse shapes, sizes and colours to participate when the models showcasing the costumes are not a true representation of the general population that participates in the parade.”

With costumes costing upwards of $600 USD, and many masqueraders travelling overseas to participate, ensuring that you can visualize how the costume will look on a body type similar to yours is important. This is where the barriers and silent implications for plus size masqueraders become most apparent. With the exception of some (read: few) sections, sizing in bras don’t go past 38 DDD and bottoms past an XL.

Costumes in any given section are generally organized into a minimum assortment of three of five categories: backline, midline, frontline, ultra frontline and section lead. The closer one moves toward section lead, the more expensive and elaborate the designs of the costume becomes. Some women have expressed there being a limitation of the costumes that they can choose from because of the unwillingness of designers to make their size available. Says seven-time mas player, Crystal Wallace, “Some bands do not want full figured women wearing their frontline costumes. I can recall times when I emailed section leaders about substituting the regular panty for a high waist or Monokini and being told that frontline has to be worn as is, even though I was willing to pay more to be accommodated.”

Wallace’s sentiments are mirrored by Lewis who has had promises of custom sizing fall through upon picking up her costumes. She states, “I have learned to be VERY assertive when ordering costumes and letting the section leader or designer know why this is important to me to have a good time on the road. When you look good, you feel good and your confidence shines through.”

In similar ways, diversity of shade is amiss on runways and post-Carnival footage. Nine-time mas player, Olawumi Ojedapo, admitted to not playing mas in certain countries because there was little representation of woman who looked like her. Says Ojedapo: "On the roads of POS [Port of Spain], you'd see so many beautiful women of all colors but that's not [reflected] at band launch[es] and even the photos [posted] after carnival is done. From images, outsiders would swear that carnival is comprised of [fair skinned Indo-Caribbean women], white and Syrian people, and a token black woman. I decided to shift my focus to islands that had me represented at band launch, on the website and playing mas for the world to see.”

Lewis echoes Ojedapo’s comments by saying, “I believe there is discrimination based on skin colour when models are chosen. An ambiguous looking model or models of mixed backgrounds are shown more in media than dark skin models.” Tourism and attracting tourists works in tandem with how the residue of a post-colonial Caribbean and how it presently grapples with the intersection of race and class. If we are to understand models as being representative of the ideal masquerade, then the implications are clear, but there seems to be a shift.

Many bands are and have mobilized towards creating a size and shade inclusive assemblage of models to display their costumes during band launches, as well as showcasing costume options that allow plus size women to feel both beautiful and comfortable. Says 11-time masquerader West Taylor, “Back in 2009 when I first played carnival, it wasn't inclusive at all, especially with costume design. Most if not all mas bands during that time had a specific look they were gearing towards which essentially [was] slim women. Not everyone wanted a two piece. However within the last [three to five] years I've notice an expansion of costumes designed for plus size women or those who want to cover up a little bit more.”

Most would say that Carnival is a body inclusive space, not by how its been restructured to fit the demands of capitalism and a post-independent economy dependent tourism, but by virtue of their presence of women of all shades and sizes. Despite their not being represented in band launches or post-event coverage, their being seen where it matters most: on the road. After all, Carnival is woman, so any and all of them should be able to celebrate themselves.

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