For many traveling women, there is a particular country or region that has shaped the narrative of their life. From falling in (and out) of love in Spain to discovering a new passion or talent in Accra, with every passport stamp there is a life lesson, big or small that she returns with and in turn, fuels the next trip.
I started to regularly travel in my early twenties due to work. I also was a good size 8/9 while secretly wishing and working out to be a slender size 6 like many of my girlfriends. And then I took my first trip to northern Brasil and everything started to shift. It was a hot Saturday, the beach was jam packed and there was no ‘one-piece’ in sight. Instead there were bodies. All kinds of beautiful brown bodies on display, from little girls and their mamas to aging vovós all in their teeny bikinis. Their bodies ranged from slender to the curvy, round and rolly. And no one seemed to care. And I started to wonder exactly why I cared so much?
Fast forward to this past July when I found myself walking down a public road in Barbados with nothing on but a bejeweled teeny bikini, Nikes wedges and a feather collar to cover my now size 12ish body with no real care about how my wait-crease/roll, one-pack abs and jiggly arms were holding up. It was Crop Over’s Grand Kadooment day and my girls and I were headed to join a few thousand more women (and Rihanna) ready to prance a cool 5.5 miles (9km) in their own bikinis, thongs, shorts and feathers with their size 2-26 bodies proudly on display. Both men and women cared more for their proximity to the bar truck versus tucking anything in and no one shied away from the photographers. As the music cued for our band’s turn to start, the lesson I started to learn more than a decade ago in Salvador finally hit me and I blurted out: “Need a boost of body confidence? Come to the Caribbean.”
This isn’t to say that euro-centric, class based beauty and body standards don’t exist island to island, look at most of the women that model carnival costumes vs most of the women that wear them. But when it comes to the ladies who are turning the most heads, thick thighs are definitely saving lives on these Caribbean streets. And not just during carnival time as I’ve witnessed more than a few Philomena Kwao/Marquita Pring types absolutely rule the beaches, nightclubs, festivals and fetes from Kingston to San Juan with an organic confidence that is definitely home-grown from within.
Recently, I spoke to Monif Clarke, the CEO and namesake designer of Monif C —arguably the hottest ready-to-wear/swimwear line that starts at size 14 to 24—and a loud, proud Bajan babe. When it comes to the prevalence of body confidence in the Caribbean, Monif believes that it’s all baked in the region’s history. “I believe it’s rooted to a culture that in many ways is still traditional.” says Clarke. “In the Caribbean, there is still a connection to our African roots that historically has an appreciation for women with curves…that naturally creates an appreciation for “real-size” women. In my own Barbadian family, I have cousins and aunts that are plus size, skinny, short, fair skinned, and dark skinned and it has always been embraced as what makes us unique and beautiful. I believe strongly though that self-appreciation sets the foundation for self-confidence, which in turn fuels a greater appreciation for the plus size woman.”
For me, that self-appreciation grew with every beach jaunt on various islands and people watching over a decade’s worth of time. Cover-ups went from long to short to optional and while my body has grown for the bigger so has the confidence in myself. It hasn’t been easy and after a few ugly-cries over the years, I worked (and worked out) to get over it and celebrate this body with a few beach selfies along the way. Besides, when you’re worried about what you look like, you’re not focused on the fun you could be having—there’s no vacation in that. And curried goat with macaroni pie is God’s love on a plate. Back home in New York, that confidence carried over as I began dressing for my shape instead of hiding, or spanxing it to try to look like someone else’s. Having the person you love adamantly reply “I don’t want no hungry girl” when you’re having a moment in front of the mirror definitely keeps the body-love party going as well. Yup, he’s Caribbean.
Looking back at that day in Brasil, I can’t help but laugh at a skinner, younger me looking like a fool in a tank-top and one-piece because she didn’t want anyone to notice what my present day will happily parade on the street. The real lesson with every island? Don’t wait to love yourself. If you’re heading to the Caribbean (or any tropical locale) soon and are feeling less than beach body-confident, perhaps now is the time to remix your state of mind, starting with these wise words from Monif: “1) You are on vacation, 2) Everyone on the beach half-naked, 3) DO YOU! Seriously! One of the things I want us as women to stop doing is delaying our full self expression until we feel we’re “perfect.” Your perfection is in who you are TODAY. Enjoy your life to the fullest and if you want to wear that bikini, DO IT! Period.”
See you on the road in Trinidad ladies, feathers, glitter and little else!
images provided by Rubberball Productions/Getty + Monif C Plus Sizes
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