In the dancehall, you’re bound to see women of all shapes and sizes. They can be found wearing an array of colours, styles and patterns unapologetically representing the carefree nature of the culture, embracing the sexual agency that has socially been denied in the heavily conservative climate of the country. It broadly represents the liberal and insouciant space that Jamaican women have created in midst of the country’s traditionalist nature. However, the soundtrack of dancehall doesn’t often reflect an appreciation of all of its patrons.
Due to the surface acceptance of fat-bodied women, there is a common misconception that the genre and culture make room for them. This can easily be debunked by listening to a majority of dancehall music produced since its inception that confirms their affinity for slimmer-bodied women who fit within the standards of desirability. But for fat-bodied women, their bodies purely existing in the space has always been a political statement, intentional or not, that defies the “acceptable” body weight.
This standard, which upholds some European-centric characteristics, favours the slimmer or “thick” woman who has a big bottom and a small waist. In dancehall, a paradoxical subtle but obvious body-shaming culture is present that can be seen in the genre’s lyrics and music videos. It continues to be upheld, perpetuating the problematic cycle of an often unachievable beauty standard and dually makes it socially acceptable to shame and dehumanize fat-bodied women.
When songs praise a woman’s body, there’s almost always certain type in mind. Thick and slim body shapes have always reigned superior within dancehall. Simpleton’s “Coca Cola Shape” and “Tuck in Yuh Belly” by Leftside and Esco are some of the many songs that outline a preference for these specific body type. The songs explicitly state that any women whose bodies exist outside of these standards are undesirable and should find a way to conform to the type that is. Arguably, these songs can be seen as forms of expression with harmless lyrics and strictly made for entertainment purposes but art imitates life, doesn’t it? There are usually real-life consequences that come with the creation and widespread sharing of music, having the ability to shape the self-esteem of some of dancehall’s female patrons.
Though there’s a widespread belief that the Caribbean, as well, doesn’t possess these biases, though this is largely untrue. Spice was the newest addition to season seven of VH1’s Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta cast and one scene found the artist body-shaming castmate Tokyo Vanity for her size. She has since apologized in a now-deleted heartfelt Instagram post where she stated, “I honestly feel like there’s some cultural diversity conflict in this situation because we don’t take fat shaming seriously on my side of the world.” We know that as Jamaicans it’s not uncommon to hear, “You get fat, ee?” in place of greeting, paired with an abundance of unsolicited comments about weight gain. This common mindset is reflective of a much bigger problem that normalizes one’s weight as a means to dehumanize and ridicule.
Additionally, body shaming is not limited to women that are fat-bodied. Many of Shenseea’s Instagram followers noticed the artist’s visible weight gain earlier this summer. Although she had been praised by some fans for how her body was beginning to look, it was also coupled with backlash regarding her increase in size. Some users stated that she looked too “chubby”, that her new size wasn’t appealing. A few weeks later, rumours began to surface about her alleged body augmentation.
Plastic surgery, which is a personal choice and an exercising of one’s autonomy over their body, isn’t a new concept but has been popularized by social media sites like Instagram and. Even though many well-known celebrities like Dancehall Queen Sher, Kasi Bennett and Yanique “Curvy Diva” Barrett have been open with their body alterations, it has still been seen as taboo within dancehall community.
In 2017 dancehall kingpin Vybz Kartel co-signed plastic surgery procedures with the song “Luxury Doll”. In the record, his lyrics state, “You do your batty and your breast and dem vex, Gaza Nation girls/ Dem grudge you fi your breast dem/ and fi your bumpa,” continuing with, “Gyal, you look like a luxury doll/ Like five hundred thousand, one million.” Upon the release of “Luxury Doll”, dancehall artist Lisa Hyper said in a interview with The Jamaica Star that she is convinced those who were once opposed to plastic surgery will now have a change of heart thanks to the Worl’ Boss. A Kartel co-sign can be culture-shifting as the artist has, in the past, been able to normalize and even destigmatize some of the most taboo things within our culture including skin bleaching, excessive tattoos and even braces with his music.
The power that dancehall holds is undeniable. For the music to be as carefree as the women who attend the parties, the women who are part of its creation and patronize the culture and the women who make dancehall everything that it is, we need to be honest about how it simultaneously disregards the bodies who are make up a population of its fans. Respect within the culture is not reserved exclusively for the women who fall within the spectrum of desirability. All bodies deserve to feel nice without fearing judgement or insecurity.
Every gyal, shawt and tall, big and small, is a good body gyal.
Illustration by Natalie Blake