In Tai Chi class, our teacher talks about the importance of what happens down there, in your abdomen. She says dinosaurs had two brains — one in the head and one in the tail. I’ve been thinking about that ever since I started going home each year with my Jamaican-born husband.
We learn in Tai Chi to be aware of all the parts of the body, and to translate that awareness into deliberate movement. Jamaican women seem to have mastered that, along with full command of the brain in the tail — so much side-to-side independent motion! It’s as if they can read the expressions of those behind them. I call it “your face out back.”
I grew up in Seattle, where we worship at the altar of good taste and women don’t have backsides to speak of. I grew up during the Age of Twiggy, proud of my skinny arms and flat chest. I wished the rest of those curves would just go away.
Ten years later, I meet my Jamaican in-laws. First impressions. I hear it from my husband, Brian. Then I hear it from Mummy, with the entire family in the room: “Daddy says, ‘Haughton men sure don’t seem to go for women with big breasts.’” She caresses her own ample profile, declaring, “I don’t think I’m so bad!”
Jamaicans have an idea about what makes you sexy. It’s not so much what you’ve got — it’s what you do with it. It’s about…electricity.
Picture this common sidewalk scene: A group of Jamaican guys walk by a babe in a tight, tight dress, accentuating the rolls o’ fat on her stomach.
Always, someone’ll say, “Mmm. Nice!”
My self-concept problem is my butt. It’s big. My mother’s was big. God, I hope mine never gets as big as hers!
“Oh that. I never look back there!” said a glamorous friend when I complained about it one time. I longed for her carefree attitude — and her tiny behind.
In this respect, Jamaican culture has been everlastingly empowering, and enlightening.
One night, we’re standing in line to get into a dance club in Kingston. There’s a big crowd hanging around outside, including a group of neighborhood boys around 10- or 11- years-old, maybe 13. They cluster around a couple of young women, one of whom is pretty, with a pretty big posterior. Unlike what I always do — wear a big shirt — she has on a skimpy tank top, and some spandex pants with the outside seam cut out, replaced by a column of safety pins that march all the way down her leg from the waistband.
One of the young boys comes up behind her and observes, “Big bumper.”
Her response is just amazing. She smiles.
Inside the club, on the dance floor, a gal has all these different parts to move. I mean, here in Seattle, you can back that thang up, but there in Kingston you can wine your waist, swing that engine, wiggle like a milkshake and gyrate like a rattlesnake; you can ride the riddum, undulate, and roll; you can bubble and you can back back so.
One song warns, “Watch out for the bumper moving…for it can kill you.”
This cross-cultural exchange is beginning to change my attitude. I even take it as a compliment when Mummy says, “When I see you from the front, you could be a boy, but when I see you from the back, I know you’re a woman.”
How Big is My Butt??
The test comes when Mummy is in Trinidad, visiting with her sister, Auntie B. She and Auntie B love each other dearly and squabble like siblings. It’s their tradition.
They have a big argument one afternoon, and have to come home early from shopping. It’s about my butt.
Mummy wanted to pick up some little things for everyone back home. She saw some pants she thought I’d like. They went into the store. Auntie B picked out a pair Mummy thought would be too small for me. Or, as Mummy later told me over the phone, “I said, ‘Barbara, Sunny’s bottom is much larger than that!’” Auntie B responded. And that was what the argument was about.
Another time, when Auntie B and I waited in the car, a woman in sneakers marched by, walking vigorously. Auntie B — who is quite musical — patted my arm in perfect tempo with the woman’s large bottom, cheerfully chanting “good afternoon, good afternoon, good afternoon.”
I Want a Fat Girl
After the butt-size dispute, we’re visiting Brian’s childhood friend Gregory and I’m whining. My evolving sense of empowerment is faltering – I’m thinking with the brain in my head.
“Oh, West Indians always talk about how you look,” Gregory reassures.
And then, as if on some invisible cue, Brian and Gregory both start singing an old Jamaican crooner: “I want a fat girl, I want a very fat girl tonight…”
It’s welcoming, you know? Makes me wonder about how in this country we all routinely diet and carve up our bodies to make them more ‘perfect.’ Maybe we’re losing our sense of humor, just the teensiest little bit?
Consider the Mapouka
A while back, I read a story in The New York Times about a dance craze spreading like wildfire across West Africa, the mapouka. It was catching on despite being officially banned for a variety of reasons. In the reserved language of the Times, the reporter explained, “The dance — which focuses on, though is not limited to, the surprisingly difficult act of wiggling one’s buttocks without moving one’s hips — also became an endless source of discussions and newspaper ruminations on culture, sex, women and men”.
Some criticize the dance because it can only be danced by women, and women with plump behinds at that. Men can’t do it. And women, women are actually trying to gain weight to be able to do this dance more effectively.
It’s a big place out there, with lots of different standards of beauty. Aren’t we missing out? Might we not consider moving just a little bit differently?
as if on some invisible cue, Brian and Gregory both start singing an old Jamaican crooner: "I want a fat girl, I want a very fat girl tonight…"
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