BARING ALMOST all, women who ventured out to party and play mas in the skimpiest of clothing were a common sight during the recent Carnival celebrations. One daring young woman caught the attention of several press photographers when she attended the National Panorama Semi Finals at the Queen’s Park Sav-annah virtually topless, with only body paint and pasties covering her breasts. Another played mas in a costume that was more body paint than actual material. In addition, increasing numbers of masqueraders have been opting to parade through the streets in buttocks-baring thongs, bringing into the local festival customs and costumes more synonymous with Brazil’s Rio Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, than our indigenous pre-Lenten celebrations.
This has led many to express concern about the increasing vulgarity in Trinidad’s Carnival. However activities considered immoral and sexually explicit have regularly infiltrated the festival. As far back as the mid to late 1800s, the term "jamette" was used by the French and English to describe the Carnival celebrations of the African population. According to local historian Jerry Besson, the term comes from the French word "diametre", meaning beneath the diameter of respectability, or the underworld. It was a term used at that time to describe a certain class of people. Back then, members of the upper class considered Carnival activities to be immoral, obscene and violent. The music and dancers were considered to be sexually explicit and the masqueraders were tho-ught to be totally objectionable.
The jamettes of that era occupied barrack yards of East Port-of-Spain and lived in appalling conditions, daily confronting the issues of crime, vagrancy, disease, pr-ostitution, unemployment, sexual permissiveness and dysfunctional families. They embraced Carnival with fervour, regarding it as a much-needed release from their dismal daily lives. The near naked portrayals, complete with suggestive dancing, does not appear to be linked to the old-time jamette culture, however, but seem to be drawn from several imported practices that have virtually no connection to traditional Trinidad Carnival. It seems to have a great deal in common with Mardi Gras in New Orleans where there is a well established tradition of women baring their breasts in public in exchange for beads and trinkets. This practice, which seems to have started back in the 1960s, had been tolerated by the police as long as the display did not cause public disruption. However, the police would arrest people for more explicit nudity.
In recent years, police have been cracking down on the breast-baring, reasoning that flashing can incite acts of indecency against women who expose themselves. The skimpy bikini costumes, adorned with feathers and beads, that have become standard in most Carnival bands, closely resemble the ones worn in Rio’s Carnival. One element of those costumes definitely imported from South America are thongs, once used only by exotic dancers and on Brazilian beaches, but now preferred wear for increasing numbers of TT mas players.Thongs are marketed primarily as underwear and swimwear. Body paint, used in place of clothing, is popular in the United States and is typically worn at football matches, rave parties and certain festivals.
Recent issues of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue have featured models with their bodies painted in renditions of swimsuits and sports jerseys. Some allege this allows the popular magazine to skirt its no nudity guideline. Models in painted on bikinis have also been featured in Playboy Magazine. Locally, body paint has been increasing in use as part of Carnival costumes over the last four or five years. However, while most masqueraders paint mainly to their bare limbs and face, a few daring women have been opting for painted designs on their bare breasts - a practice that generates a great deal of controversy.
The body paint is generally applied to naked skin with hands, paint brush, natural sea sponge or with an air brush. While body paint is made according to stringent guidelines and are non-toxic, non-allergenic and can easily be washed away, wearing it for prolonged periods may cause heat stroke by inhibiting perspiration. While there are laws in Trinidad and Tobago against indecent exposure and lewd behaviour, these have seldom, if ever, been enforced in the Carnival context, allowing near-nude revellers to "free up" with no fear or prosecution.
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