Written by: Suhana K. Rampersad
Picture this: You’re getting ready for a family event. You’ve concealed pimples, done your makeup, and chosen clothes that will flatter your figure, hoping to avoid any unkind comments from aunties and uncles.
Yet when you arrive at your relatives’ house they greet you with:
“Gyal, yuh get fat! Yuh must try and exercise some more.”
“How yuh so thin? You not eating?”
“You so dark! Must stay out of the sun to keep yuh colour.”
“How yuh skin so bad? You eating too much junk, that’s why yuh face break out.”
In that moment, your most coveted insecurity is publicly highlighted. You smile to hide your embarrassment, laugh it off, or mumble something back, but the shame and pain stays.
Body shaming is a huge issue in Indo-Caribbean culture, one which stems from the verbal liberty used when addressing one another. Name-calling is often a normal, funny and familiar way of addressing the physical features of others. Nicknames such as ‘brokko foot’ for someone with an injured leg or ‘blacks’ for someone with dark skin. The one I’m most familiar with is ‘fat gyal,’ used for a girl who is on the thicker side. However these comments then allow for body shaming, colourism and fatphobia to be normalized in the Indo-Caribbean community. These issues are harming to women due to the pressure we face to meet beauty standards. While our relatives are not intentionally trying to harm us, in fact they may even think they’re looking out for us, it remains that commenting on appearances affects the well-being, self-confidence and self-worth of Indo-Caribbean women.
When someone is insecure about their looks, pointing out their flaws only encourages self-destructive behaviour, as well as unhealthy dialogues of female perfection. In my own experience as a chubby woman, my weight has always been the topic of conversations I never wanted to be a part of. Growing up, my boy cousins teased me often, and I became the butt of their jokes. Older aunties and girl cousins mentioned that I needed to lose weight or else I’d never get a boyfriend. I felt like I was never enough, that I wasn’t worthy of love and believed that I needed to become what they wanted me to be. Only then would they be proud of me and the hurtful comments would stop. I have been on countless diets throughout the years and still strive to be the ‘perfect girl,’ a mythical standard I am slowly unlearning.
People might tell you, “doh take it on,” but when ideals of feminine beauty are ingrained in you from a young age, this is not so easy.
Criticizing weight, skin tone, etc. shames women into attaining certain beauty ideals. What we tend to forget is where these standards stem from. A mix of Eurocentric influence as well as South Asian beauty standards might be responsible. Bollywood films play a role in the enforcement of feminine perfection in the diaspora. The actresses tend to be very thin or voluptuous, with clear, fair skin and long dark hair— they are the embodiment of Indian female perfection. In my upbringing, if you resembled the women in these films, you earned the nickname ‘star gyal,’ which is a source of pride. The influence of Eurocentric ideals can be found in the popular trend of dying hair blond, as well as in the value of fair skin.
While the ideal for Indo-Caribbean women is influenced by Indian and Eurocentric standards, there is also the myth of the ‘sexy island girl.’
I remember going to the flea market as a young girl and seeing the many stalls selling Chutney and Soca CDs, the covers displaying half-naked Caribbean women. Women with gorgeous faces, slim stomachs, and island girl curves—big hips, butts and breasts, with rich, shiny skin, posing topless, in tiny bikinis or sometimes in a skimpy sari. The prime beauty ideal for Caribbean women was displayed right in front of me. I always felt embarrassed and ashamed looking at those CD covers. Even then I compared myself and knew I would never look like that. Now when I see flyers for the latest fete, the gorgeous women on the cover tell me I need to strive to look like that. However it’s important to remember that these images are degrading and not empowering. The over-sexualisation of Caribbean women’s bodies reduce their humanity by objectifying them in order to develop appeal in a product for monetary gain. Most of these flyers and CD covers are not celebrating the female form, they are turning the female form into an object targeted towards men for profit. This is non-progressive for Caribbean women because it steals our personhood and humanity, only adding to the negative body image and self-esteem issues in young girls. Standing in the flea market, comparing myself to the images of West Indian perfection distorted my perception of my own beauty and made me feel as though I was inadequate.
Self-confidence is the foundation of success. When women are not empowered and have low self-esteem, it can lead to abusive relationships and unfulfilled potential. This is why we need to assure that young girls are growing up confident in themselves. One way to do so, is to encourage healthy body image.
Between media images and negative comments from relatives, Indo-Caribbean women are taught to shape ourselves into the ideal beautiful island girl. Too thin, and you’re not tempting enough. Too fat, and you’re too gross, too much. Crooked nose? They'll blame your parents for not rubbing and straightening it out when you were young. When a girl is too dark she is taught that lighter skin is more desirable. When she is fair, pretty and well-proportioned, fitting the ideal, they hate her. Even if one attains ‘perfection,’ people will find some other quality or flaw to gossip about. Idealistic standards of womanhood are hence impossible, and only harm West Indian women because instead of embracing and accepting ourselves. We live under constant pressure to keep our bodies tight, our faces painted and fake smiles bright. You just can’t win.
Unfortunately, one’s value as a woman is still determined by measuring up to society’s expectations. Our self-worth becomes distorted since we learn to find validation in our looks and in the attention our beauty receives. My self-worth still partially relies on validation and opinions of others and I believe many women feel that way. Our own internalized misogyny tells us to never stop striving for perfection. We start listening to the comments of our relatives, start skipping lunch in middle school, and walking home instead of taking the bus, start doing squats to get Instagram butts, start lifting weights to avoid being called anorexic, start hiding in the shade or wearing a hat to avoid getting dark. We learn to appease society, to become the girl they’ll dote on and praise and accept without judgement, as if there is only one type of attractive woman. It's simply not true!
Men, women, and gender-nonconforming people are all attracted to different things. We just don’t talk about it because our culture perpetuates the idea that only slim-thick, flawless faced women are wanted. It’s exhausting to continuously force yourself to meet that standard, and takes up so much mind space and time.
What if that time was used to pursue our passions, to find peace, to find ourselves and to learn love and acceptance? Imagine if we could be exactly as we are?
No more teasing. No more comments. Just a diverse set of people happily dancing in Carnival costumes, embracing their bodies, nobody judging, under the sun. That acceptance and freedom of body and spirit is a part of our culture too, and as a community, we need to own it. To quote Allison Hinds, “if yuh know yuh smart and yuh sexy, never let dem abuse yuh body. Show it off gyal and let di world see. Roll it, gyal”. Love yourself, you are already worth it!