What the Caribbean Carnival has taught these women about their bodies

CBC News asked three young women, all of whom have taken part in the parade festivities since childhood, how the Caribbean Carnival has taught them to love their bodies.

Why these three women aren't afraid to march downtown in body-baring costumes

Why walking in the Caribbean Carnival parade is an empowering experience

6 years ago
Duration 2:25
We sit down with three masqueraders at the Tribal Carnival mas camp, where many of the costumes for the Caribbean Carnival parade are made, to talk about female body image.

Imagine walking down the streets of Toronto in a bikini with a crowd of onlookers watching your every move.

To many it must sound like a nightmare. But to the women walking in this Saturday's Caribbean Carnival parade, it's an opportunity to show how much they love their own bodies.

According to the Canadian Women's Health Network, between 80 and 90 percent of women and girls are unhappy with the way they look. These masqueraders say the Caribbean Carnival parade teaches them to love themselves no matter what. (Paul Borkwood)

These women strut down the streets of Toronto, wearing glittering headpieces, multi-colour feathers and jewelled bra tops with an undeniable confidence.

"To have something, an event from our culture that really gives you that emotion internally is really pretty amazing," said Thea Jackson, a costume designer who works with over 100 parade participants. "How many things can you really think of that give you that kind of internal boost?"

Last month, some Pride participants identified body image as an issue in the annual march. CBC News asked three young women, all of whom have taken part in Caribbean Carnival festivities since childhood, how this parade has taught them to be proud of how they look.

Shanna Porter

Shanna Porter says the parade has always been a place for women to support and encourage each other. (Shanna Porter)
 "I think every young girl, every woman is self-conscious, but at this time, no one's thinking about that," said Shanna Porter, 26, who began attending parades when she was five.

"I know for me personally I was a very shy child," she said. "Carnival really is what kind of brought me out of my shell."

Last year, Porter decided to try the two-piece costume for the first time. In past years, she'd decided to go for more conservative options: full-piece body suits with cut outs, added details like feathers or straps for a little more coverage.

But the spirit of the Carnival brings out an inner confidence, an "inner diva," as she puts it.

"You put the costume on and you kind of become someone else," she said. "You feel powerful, you feel strong, you feel pretty."

Even without the change, she's always felt comfortable at the parade. There's no one-size-fits-all, and that's what makes it such an amazing event, according to Porter. 

Shanna Porter says her switch to a two-piece costume made her feel "fabulous," but really, she thinks her confidence is what made the outfit look so great. (Shanna Porter)

"You get to feel good about yourself, really, and not worry about what the media says or what they're telling you what you're supposed to look like," she said. "Nobody looks the same. This is what makes the world so great, is that everybody is different and everybody looks different and everyone's difference is beautiful."

Latoye Sharpe

The feelings of togetherness and encouragement make women feel comfortable at the parade, according to Latoye Sharpe. (Latoye Sharpe)

​The Carnival bug hit Latoye Sharpe at the age of six.

Growing up, she watched older generations of women take part, wear the costumes, immerse themselves in their culture and have fun.

When she had the chance to try on her own costume, she felt like a Caribbean super hero.

"There's magic in those feathers," she said.

Women are obviously different sizes and colours, but Sharpe, now 28, believes Carnival is a day to celebrate culture and being together.

"I think the most beautiful thing a woman can have on is her confidence," she says. "You will see bigger women, but they're killing their costume. They're slaying their costume." 
Latoye Sharpe describes the Carnival as her "yearly wedding," because it's a day she always looks forward to and never wants to end. (Latoye Sharpe)

Recently, Latoye went through a big change with her body. She dropped 60 pounds, wanting to have more stamina to do the sports and activities she enjoys.

"I've been on both sides," she said. "I've been on the bigger side and I've been on the smaller side, and Carnival's always taught me that no matter where I'm at, I'm where I'm supposed to be." 
This year, Latoye Sharpe is wearing the 'sea lily' costume, designed by Thea Jackson with TruDYNASTY Carnival. (Paul Borkwood)

"It just really teaches you to accept yourself no matter what, because when you come here, we're all one and that's beautiful."

Celena Seusahai

At 16, Celena Seusahai often wears one of the parade's most extravagant costumes. Her outfit for this year's event is still under wraps, but she's definitely excited. (Celena Seusahai)

Celena Seusahai feels powerful wearing one of the parade's most eye-catching outfits, and says when people ask her for pictures, she's more than happy to oblige.

"I'm very secure in my body and I believe every woman should be," she said. "You can't necessarily change it, and it's just something that you should feel comfortable in."

She's taken the stage since she was two-years-old and has always found the parade to be a supportive place.

"I think with the Caribbean culture, we're very accepting, especially at Caribana," she said, referring to the event's previous name. "Everyone's just so friendly, and that's just something that makes you feel good inside."

No matter what you look like or what size you are, Celena Seusahai says everyone is accepted at Carnival.

Watch below to hear what designer Thea Jackson has to say about how Carnival costumes make women feel.

Designer Thea Jackson talks Caribbean Carnival costumes

6 years ago
Duration 0:39
Costume designer Thea Jackson has been part of the parade festivities since she was 9. She says there's an energy around the Carnival that makes you feel free.