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Paraiso School of Samba Dexter Lewis Notting Hill Carnival
Paraiso School of SambaPhotography Dexter Lewis

How Notting Hill Carnival taught me to love my body

‘Adorning ourselves with colour, encrusting our skin with rhinestones, and growing majestic wings, we reclaim our bodies from negativity’

By the end of any given Notting Hill Carnival weekend, a seat on the London Underground will have probably greeted more figure-hugging belly tops, brightly coloured string vests, and bum-skimming batty riders than it does in a whole year. This year’s forecast might predict showers, but the streets of West London will doubtlessly tell a different story. If a cacophony of calypso, reggae, and soca are the sound, and jerk, Red Stripe, and rum punch the taste, then scant, body-freeing ensembles that suggest a heatwave – alongside the tropical costumes of the parade – form the undisputed uniform of the annual event. 

It goes without saying that there’s always a lot of skin on show at carnival. Everywhere you turn are various portions of boob, butt, and belly, all of which belongs to beaming, laughing, and glowing women. At my first ever Notting Hill Carnival I remember falling instantly in love with what was going on around me: so much body liberation and melanin glow. It wasn’t just the fact that women’s bodies were proudly on display, it was more that this was the first space I encountered so many examples of women at peace with their bodies, whether or not they wholly prescribed to society’s ideals.

Carnival is one of the few safe spaces that those bodies are allowed to exist in – but many choose not only to simply ‘exist’. Instead, they opt to flaunt what they have to the very extreme. I have seen paraders turn up in nothing but body paint and coloured-in panties, jewel-embellished cage bra and knicker sets, and much less besides. Big booties, big thighs, cellulite dimples, stretch marks, and love handles are all celebrated as women dance unselfconsciously to anthems which further hammer home a message of positivity: “Hey miss fatty fatty yuh a murda, milli lovin’ di way yuh twist and a turn up”, being just one example. 

This freedom is not confined to clothing only. It’s also about the ways in which we use our bodies. Dancing at carnival is fiery and there’s an audaciousness to many of the different styles. I’d always loved to dance, but it was seeing the paraders – the soca dancers and samba queens and those rolling and whining their way through the West London streets in their jewelled costumes and feather wings – that sealed the deal. Now, I parade myself, with the Paraiso School of Samba, and I can’t begin to explain how empowering it has been, and the connection I feel with my body when I’m dancing. The costume I’m wearing is a big part of that. 

I’m not the only one who feels this way, though. Anthea is a mas designer and band leader with the Ebony Mas Band – one of the first steel drum bands in Notting Hill. ‘Mas’ is an abbreviation of the word masquerade, and mas bands are usually Caribbean musical groups that are accompanied by, or include, costume in the parade. Half Trinidadian and half Ghanian, on Anthea’s Trinidadian side her nan also used to make mas’s while many other members of her family, from siblings to aunties, all play or have played pan. This year will be her first year in costume at carnival. “I used to feel like I don’t know if I can wear this or wear that because I’m a person with big breasts, it was something I worried about. But then I went to Trinidad Carnival and saw women of all different shapes and sizes whose confidence was through the roof. Once I took part in that I never looked back,” she explains.

As a bigger woman, she admits that she felt nervous about showing up to Notting Hill Carnival, but this year she is intend of putting her insecurities aside. 'I feel a lot has changed. There’s zero body shaming in the world of carnival. And a lot of mas bands try their hardest to create costumes for all sizes,’ she says.

Maxine, who will be dancing as the Princesca of Paraiso at this year’s carnival, has participated in three of the world’s biggest events – Rio, Notting Hill, and Trinidad – but explains that her first costume arrived before she believed she had the confidence to wear it. “I was so nervous about stepping out in such a small costume with my stomach out, but I totally forgot about my insecurities because I was having so much fun,” she remembers. “Now I embrace the days when I’m bloated and if I’ve put on weight it doesn’t stop me from putting on the costume and enjoying it.” Like many women, Maxine notes that being in front of an appreciative crowd like the one at carnival has played a huge part in her journey to self-acceptance and love. 

In a world that still polices ‘undesirable’ bodies by amping up pressure to make them cover up, women from all walks of life continue to be oppressed. For black women, however, the constraints and limitations surrounding what constitutes ‘beautiful’ are even tighter, as we also do our best to sidestep the labels which deem us too dominant, too aggressive, too sexually adventurous, or too masculine – bigger and darker women even more so. 

Carnival is a place we can truly push back. Melanin a-glow, we adorn ourselves with colour, encrust our skin with rhinestones, and grow majestic wings, as we reclaim our bodies from negativity and prejudice. To begin with, for me, the costumes, sequins, lashes, and glitter were new territories to have fun with, but I have come to also appreciate the development, expression, and freedom that comes from performing – our bodies and smiles add to the atmosphere of joy, but I also take so much away from carnival. 

As Anthea so succinctly puts it: “At carnival, I feel untouchable – it’s the highest point of happiness and I feel very confident and beautiful. Nothing can dim my shine.” As I go into my sixth year performing there, I can only agree.