Don’t Hate, Celebrate, That Beautiful You
…a Carnival story
If you’re like most women, at least the American women I know (myself included) you have spent your fair share of time as the loudest cheerleader for the I Hate My Body club.
Sadly, I’ve fought with and against my body for the better part of my life. In my head I battle, “I work you out so hard! Why is that fat still on my belly? Push harder. More cardio. More crunches and planks.” Yet frustration, no change. I give up. A bottle of wine.
I’ve lived as a 2 and 10 and all sizes in between. And sadly, what I’ve come to realize is the jiggly arms/belly/inner and outer thighs, dimply butt, fat knees, turkey neck, or whatever your “thing” is….is never the feature anyone else would use to describe you. We are our own worst enemies! Once someone (your mother, father, partner, 9 year old boy that had a crush on you years ago) told you something negative about your body that resonated with you, you’re blinded by that image for life. UNTIL you choose to do something about it.
Even at a size 2 I could see nothing in the mirror but the little muffin top peering over my panties, the one tiny dimple of cellulite I had, and that my butt didn’t lift no matter how many squats I did. I obsessed over these things for years. What wasted energy!
Over time, and with the gift of living in many places across the globe, I’ve had the opportunity to see how women in other cultures view their bodies — and often it’s quite different than how we in the US see our own. Many cultures like curves. Stick thin models may be great hangers for designer, size 0 dresses to showcase on a runway, but do most men really want to hug up a sack of bones?
When I was in a rural village in Ghana, West Africa, upon seeing some fashion magazines I brought, I was jokingly asked by some local women if these models lived somewhere that food was hard to come by. The Ghanaian women looked at the stick thin models on the covers and laughed. They couldn’t understand what was attractive about these women and why men would be interested in someone with no meat on their bones — no breasts, curves or bottom. “These women look like little boys. “Real women are shapely and sexy” they exclaimed!
Hearing and seeing this view through many diverse lenses helped move the needle for me, but there was one significant activity that was the catalyst to seeing my body as the amazing gift that I do today.
My solution to get over this ongoing, frustrating, self-esteem defeating, time-wasting issue was to be almost naked in public — I kid you not.
At the end of 2005, I was sent to work on project to Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean. Trinidad has the most amazing carnival celebration that that most of the world has never heard of.
Trinidad carnival is the self-acclaimed largest street party in the world. Over 50,000 people participate in an incredible celebration of music, culture and stress release. And even more spectators line up across the parade route to watch the amazing display of color, music, fun and sex appeal. And the best part about it is that anyone can be part of the action. And action packed it is.
As a veteran now, I still remember my first Carnival (held the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), when I was invited by a colleague to join him and his friends to “play mas” shortly after I arrived in the country. I thought it sounded really fun, but that excitement quickly waned by the horrific thought of putting on a skimpy costume and jumping up in the street for two days — especially with people I worked with. How could they take me seriously as a professional after seeing my bottom in d’road (as Trinis like to say)?
Clearly my expression said it all. My colleague gave me the most important message about Carnival- No one cares! You can be small or large, young or old, well-behaved or wild and scandalous — for those two days, it doesn’t matter. Just enjoy yourself, release your stress and everything will be fine. On Wednesday, you go back to work and the past stays in the past. This sounded too good to be true.
I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t take up this amazing opportunity and realized it was time to pack my body-shaming baggage away once and for all.
A few days before Carnival, I received the box with my costume — a bejeweled bikini. Simultaneously, I felt such joy and horror. It was so pretty, yet so small! It came with a brochure to assist you in putting on all the accessories — head piece, arm, leg, and neck bands, and hip belt. I suddenly became frozen. All I could do was stare at the girl in the photo. At that time, she seemed like the most beautiful and sexiest woman I had ever seen. I looked at her, then down at my own body. It’s the same feeling as when a significant other buys you one of those lingerie sets showcased at the Victoria Secrets fashion show. Just because it’s yours, doesn’t turn you into one of those angels on the runway.
I began to panic. Hot flashes. Heart palpitations. I can’t go through with this. Red Flag! Big Mistake! I could come down with an awful illness. Fake a death in the family and get on the first flight out. Maybe I’ll trip and sprain my ankle at the party tonight. Anything to get me out of this awful decision I made. But some deep breathing exercises and a few glasses of wine, I was able to be more rational. I took some photos of myself in the costume and sent them to my sister asking her to honestly tell me if I looked too fat to go out in this. I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
She gave me the straight forward response I needed. “You look fine! And more importantly, you told me no one cares. You only know a handful of people in this country. Go for it! It sounds amazing! If you don’t take this opportunity, that would be the real tragedy.” And she was right.
That said, when the day came for the world to see more of my exposed skin than many boyfriends ever had, I did have a small panic attack as I was getting ready to leave the hotel room. I would walk through the lobby in that costume — the same lobby I walked through every morning for the past 3 months in a business suit. I’ve never felt more naked (literally and figuratively) in my life. I took some deep breaths and floated through. “Okay, maybe this isn’t so bad” I thought to myself (and we know it never is). I actually smiled to the friendly staff I knew well when they shouted words of excitement seeing me in my costume.
Once my colleagues and I arrived at the meeting point, I quickly realized that there were people of all shapes and sizes joining in the fun. Once you’re on the road with your friends, jumping up and dancing all day, no one cares how you look. You’re one of 50,000 people in costume. Who is really focused on you? No one.
These two days transformed my life for the better in so many ways! They provided life-changing lessons which now allow me to feel great about myself and my body and expend my energy on things that are truly much more important than what size my pants are. Happiness and confidence come from within and body shape and size has nothing to do with that. Every one of us is beautiful and full of positive energy. We just need to learn to tap into this regularly. Maybe it just feels easier to do during Carnival where everyone feels happy, beautiful and stress-free!
Now having played mas many times over the past 10 years, I can honestly say that every year putting on my carnival costume is a reminder to the testament to which I have overcome. I can’t say I never have body-shaming thoughts anymore, but much less frequently.
Now in my 40's, I feel better about my body than ever before. I am healthier, stronger and more fit and I’m told this is the best I’ve ever looked. I treat my body like the temple it is and appreciate how blessed I am with great health, a much different perspective than trying to starve my way to be the perfect size 0 and criticizing every perceived flaw.
No, I will never look like these tiny, beautiful 18 year old girls jumping up in the band. But that’s okay. As my man says, “it would take a lot more than two twenties to replace a 40 like you”.
I’ve wasted enough energy to power a small country on this issue. Thank goodness I’ve finally learned to focus on what is genuinely important!
If this story resonates, come down for Carnival. This will be the most liberating experience of your life. Release your stress and jump up!