A woman walks into a store…

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

Carnival is woman…but not just any woman

Women’s public performance is always political, the fat black woman’s even more so.  There mere fact that this video* is circulating so widely is because people view the fat black woman’s performing body as disruptive and “unruly” (to draw on the work of Jamaican literary scholar Andrea Shaw.)

Some people argued that images of this woman would deter tourists from visiting Trinidad and Tobago for carnival.   This calls up how women’s bodies are used to signify the nation, in ways that are ultimately harmful for women.  Despite this nation being one where “every creed and race find an equal place” the fat black woman’s unruly political body is out of place, especially at carnival which itself has become a more commodified, commercially driven enterprise which re-inscribes class divisions rather than turning them on their heads as carnival has been expected to do.

Not just any body can represent the nation.  (Think of how he Caribbean’s beauty queens have traditionally been light-skinned, middle-class and slim.)

Trinidadian comedian Rachel Price had this to say:

That have to be CONFIDENCE to leave yuh house with nothing but red lace. When de holes in yuh arse that bigger than the holes on de road to Lopinot and of ALL words SEXY THING on the drapes posing as a panty ???

Yup, a fat joke! A cheap ridiculing of one woman out to have a good time.  What strikes me as most disturbing is the assumption that a fat woman couldn’t and shouldn’t be confident.

You would think that generations of fat, black Caribbean women who have refused to know their place would have put an end to such ignorance and prejudice.

Andrea Shaw’s The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies is available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Embodiment-Disobedience-Womens-Unruly-Political/dp/0739114875/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1301155101&sr=8-2

This post was originally posted to our facebook page and tumblr.  Read a response to our post from the roots and rights blog.