A mob of people followed a fat woman around Bridgetown, Barbados last week resulting in the police being called in to control the crowd. Even before the country’s main newspaper put this woman’s picture on the back page and the main online paper dedicated a two-page spread to her, images of the young woman made the rounds of Barbadian networks on facebook and Blackberry messenger. Pretty soon rumours spread that the woman was so bullied and harassed by men and women alike that she broke down in tears, took refuge in a store and the police had to be called in. The Nation and The Barbados Today, however, reported that most of the attention she received from the crowd was “positive” and the woman was happy shopping and interacting with the large crowd which followed her from store to store, snapping pics of her on their cellphones. They reported that she was seemingly unperturbed if not flattered by all the attention. She was interviewed by at least two local newspapers.
In Barbados more women are fat or overweight than not (men too for that matter). It is one of the Caribbean’s fattest nations. Barbados ranks 12 amongst the world’s fattest nations with nearly 70% of the population considered overweight and number two in the Caribbean. A fat woman in town is hardly news. Except that it is.
Earlier this year during Trinidad & Tobago’s carnival celebrations a video of a fat woman enjoying the festivities like everyone one else went viral. It generated a barrage of negative comments which centred on how as a fat woman this reveller was unsuitable to represent the nation’s carnival. One Caribbean feminist even wondered
whether women’s movements work for autonomy, equality and empowerment had gone awry. Or whether the work had penetrated into the recesses of unequal gendered culture. For this video clip presented a femininity so reduced. The performance seemed distortive and one-dimensional; less ritual abandon and release.
What remains clear is that the fat, black woman’s body is made into disruptive spectacle. But in a country with so much fatness, blackness and womanness, I have to ask why?
I started this blog post expecting that by the end I would have been able to explain the behaviour of the throngs of women and men who followed this woman in the street. Street harassment, usually of women by men, is part of everyday Caribbean life. What happened last week, however, was on a completely different scale and of a different character. Whether or not they were there to ridicule or shout “You, go girl!” just why did such a large and diverse crowd of people think it appropriate to comment on one woman’s body and to follow her around town?
I don’t think that looking at this in terms of fatphobia or the gendered nature of street harassment will provide any useful answers.
Many are arguing that she got the kind of attention she deserved and solicited by choosing to style her body in the way she did. With her manicured nails, cute sandals, long weave, sculpted brows, false lashes, matching bra and body-conforming mini dress, she obviously put a lot of consideration into how she chose to style her body. Perhaps, it demonstrates a kind of radical exhibitionism where she deliberately put her body on display in ways which transgress what many deem to be appropriate. Caribbean literary scholar and cultural theorist Carolyn Cooper argues that
dancehall affirmation of the pleasures of the body, which is often misunderstood as a devaluation of female sexuality, also can be theorized as an act of self-conscious female assertion of control over the representation of her person. Woman as sexual being claims the right to sexual pleasure as an essential sign of her identity. Both fleshy women and their more sinewy sisters are equally entitled to display themselves in public. (Sound Clash)
In Sonjah Stanley-Niaah’s mapping of Dancehall geographies she articulates how people shape space and place, manipulating spaces for uses other than what they were originally intended. Perhaps, this woman made Bridgetown a stage of her own and the people who followed her as though she were the Pied Piper formed a willing group of spectators.
What do you think?
image source: Attitude magazine