A revealing photojournalism series.
NEW RELEASE AUGUST 2020 ARTICLE:
The ugly untold story- Making history while baring it all for a purpose at the Toronto Caribbean Carnival.
On August 3rd, 2019 we made history!
Four beautiful Black individuals took to the streets – topless – at the Toronto Caribbean Carnival in support of The Boob Book Project, and to shed light on the history of film and media around the treatment of the nude black female body.
As a Canadian-Jamaican, I realized this annual celebration - and my favourite time of year - would be the perfect place to spread the mission of The Boob Book Project. It was the quintessential place to find diverse individuals interested in increasing the spectrum of diversity in the project. With a layered history of emancipation, Black and Caribbean pride, and female power this was a special place to bring The Boob Book Project to life.
The Boob Book Project is a photojournalism series and so much more.
The Boob Book project shares intimate, raw, anonymous portraits and interviews to inspire healing through representation and rapport. The project uncovers the impact that our breasts have in our daily lives, society, and around the world by filtering through history, health, propaganda, media, mental illness, the economic impact of social conditioning, patriarchal ideologies, and much more. The purpose of uncovering such an impact is to allow healing to happen by understanding why we need to heal in the first place and where our toxic mental constructs came from.
Carnival seemed like a great opportunity to continue this mission!
The original plan for Carnival 2019 was to wrap a truck in Boob Book branding. We received full support to spread the mission by providing the body-positive affirmation cards into the costume bags of all the masqueraders. One band in particular was very excited and supportive of the project and the idea to celebrate the topless black individuals to start an important conversation. The band representative agreed to sponsor 4 topless individuals in attempt to create awareness around our mission.
Why focus on the media?
After stumbling upon a film, I realized that I had never seen a positive portrayal of a nude Black woman. I decided to look into this further, only to find more disturbing films. The recurring, underlying theme was systemic oppression.
Nude Black women were depicted predominately in scenes of white male domination, murder, abuse, slavery, distress, and racial fetishism. On very rare occasions, scenes of passion and respectful intimacy are found. A few positive portrayals I found was from Spike Lee’s hit show “She’s Gotta Have It” and Amazon prime's "Harlem".
Brittany Terry’s “The Power of a Stereotype: American Depictions of the Black Woman in Film Media” succinctly sums it up: "The Black body was, and still is arguably today, oppressed in the form of mass media as a result of white mythology. Historically, Black women have been treated as less-than-human in many contexts, including the sciences, popular culture, law, and media. When Black women’s experiences are visible, they lack the full range of real world experiences that include normalized human emotions and educational achievement. Cinema not only provides entertainment, but also sends messages to viewers, helping to shape our values and belief systems. When the media's image of the Black woman is limited – both in her behavior, and the ways she carries herself, a message is sent to audiences regarding the standard for Black women largely imposed and approved by the white male spectator."
Projects coming to life.
I found women empowered to bare it all, had a PR woman who passionately worked alongside me and a mas camp representative, who secured us sponsorship with bouncers and costumes.
Once the press release rolled out, interviews from top news and media outlets such as CBC, Global, Narcity, The National, CP24, and many more spread the news about our initiative. Japan, Russia, and India also picked up the story.
Everything was coming together to begin discussing the important message and then the story was reduced to “Topless Dancers” for headline clickbait. The story lost a lot of its value but luckily there were important articles and interviews that got the mission and vision right (thank you to those writers and interviewers).
Why I do what I do.
A woman whose husband heard one of my CBC interviews reached out to The Boob Book team. She said she thought it was fate. As a Black woman with a mastectomy scar, she searched for someone that looked like her in the media that would help her find peace with her new body. She decided to reclaim her own power, by sharing her story. In efforts to heal, reclaim, and celebrate her body, she became the woman she’s been looking for by joining us and becoming a Boob Book Project Masquerader.
The vision brought to life, turned sour.
The night before carnival, during a conversation with my Mas camp connection, I informed him about the story of one of the participants who received a mastectomy. His reaction was of disdain and strong disapproval which was in complete contrast to the warm and supportive response from the band leader. I questioned why he was involved with the project since he held such opposing views. I was also informed by him that he had arranged for the sponsors logo to be painted on the participants breasts. I was horrified on both accounts. This was in direct opposition to the mission. I expressed to him that placing a logo on the breasts of these individuals was disrespectful, oppressive and disgusting.
To label their breasts would go against the goal to liberate them, celebrating a new narrative of autonomy, diversity and respect. I refused to have the participants demoralized in this manner. After a conversation with the sponsor it appeared they had the same opinion to have the logo on the participants breasts. I explained to both the Mas camp rep and the sponsor that I would not objectify these women by using cheap, outdated and oppressive tactics just to suit their bottom line.
I informed them that The Boob Book Project stands in solidarity with body positive and female empowerment and that I was no longer interested in their sponsorship and involvement. After leaving the conversation and taking a breath, I realized this is exactly why I am doing this project.
I was approached by the sponsor who then apologized for his actions. Understanding that the project was bigger than us, I heard him out. Clarity came to me in a moment through my frustration and I realized that this could be a teachable moment. The conversation flipped and a respectful conversation finally began. Sharing my intense disdain for his prior views, I would only consider his sponsorship if he agreed to digest everything that happened. I asked him to be an ally, a friend, and a true supporter. I asked him to think about the women in his life, how his actions today are more than this moment, and how he can educate and hold his friends and colleagues accountable in the future.
The participants were informed about the situation and as a group we agreed to move forward, realizing that the focus was on positivity and progress.
“I'm all about resolve, disagreements happen especially when there is so much passion involved in the project. So I don’t feel like this should be a damper on what it is as long as we at the end of that we come to an understanding that this is the vision and can we work together.” - Kay Geni
A devastating execution at the parade.
Starting the day feeling good and covered in glitter the participants were glammed up and in costume ready to hit the road. We had a pep talk and discussed some safety tips. In total, there were 4 beautiful diverse and awesome individuals participating.
"The truck was supposed to be our safe haven if anything were to go wrong, and also a place to have fun. It wasn’t."
I witnessed a horrified look on one of the participants, while on the truck she was slapped and groped on the butt with two hands by one of the sound engineers. He then continued to taunt her at which point she felt no other choice but to get off the truck.
"The bouncers were supposed to be our protectors. They weren’t."
They did little to protect us when we were violated and the participants expressed feeling uncomfortable with the bouncers advances in the form of inappropriate touches on two occasions during the parade.
"The day was supposed to be empowering and fun. The fun quickly faded."
I felt hopeless, responsible and angry but I felt the need to keep a smile on my face while I navigated the day. I continued to openly communicate with the participants about their experiences while we attempted to enjoy the parade.
All I could think next was, “what is the solution?!”
Lessons learned & doing better:
The series of events brought on many new insights into what women, including LGBTQ+ go through. I realized that mental health, trauma, anxiety, harassment and prejudice are experienced on the parade route, as they are in life. This year I hope The Toronto Caribbean Carnival is open to discussing the idea of having a safe zone.
The safe zone tent on the parade route could have mental health professionals and evacuation staff to cater to those who need assistance. An example could include those that may have seen their sexual perpetrator or stalker on the parade route, or have been triggered by something while playing mas.
We all come to Carnival for culture, music, dancing and fun. I feel as though conversations around respect, mental health, and inclusivity will continue to grow, and in turn the fun and magic of Carnival can truly be enjoyed to its fullest potential.
Special thanks to The Toronto Caribbean Carnival, all of the support from the Bands and every individual that took time out to support and participate in this initiative. With great appreciation and gratitude I would like to thank Venom Carnival and an ongoing sponsorship by RY Law, one of the first Book Book Sponsors that has supported the project from the beginning and was an incredible sponsor during The Toronto Caribbean Carnival. With a positive outlook we realize this experience was meant to be a starting ground to see where we are as a society to make changes for a brighter future. Despite the events that took place we had moments of laughter, joy and great support on the ground with us and around the world. The crowd showing support with thumbs up and excited waves kept us going. I am truly grateful for all of the experiences and will continue the conversation of diverse breasts and bodies around the world while growing from each experience to be better and stronger.
Beautiful, inspiring body positive women are the face for Toronto Caribbean Carnival 2019.
Small changes, big difference. Brilliant actions taken by Toronto Caribbean Carnival, Band and Section Leaders.
While working on The Boob Book Project initiative I ran into some truly inspiring women with their own mission to show diversity and open doors for conversation and change. Unanimously decided by The Toronto Caribbean Carnival Committee, Nadelle Lewis was chosen to be the face of the festival for 2019. After chatting with Nadelle I realized how similar her core mission was to mine. I couldn't be happier to see someone advocating and making change for plus-size designs.
Plus size never looked so good with the Toronto Revellers section thanks to @rflavour @stylishreid and @everybodyplayahmas. I am so grateful for these conversations around changes to costumes that make people of all sizes feel sexy, confident, secure and beautiful to further enhance the Carnival experience. I am loving the new plus size bras! Supporting initiatives like this brings so much potential. I cant wait to see what next.
Nadelle Lewis brings body positivity to Toronto’s Carnival
BY CHAKA V. GRIER
“I didn’t want my [plus] size to stop me from being able to participate in mas. I knew if I felt that way, there were other people who also felt the same,” says Lewis, who has taken part in Toronto’s Carnival for 16 years and Trinidad’s for 12. “I thought, get groups of people that aren’t accustomed to playing mas and I could be that liaison for them.”
Creating a safe space for all to participate, whether a size 24 or size zero, became her mission five years ago when she founded everyBODYplayahmas, a body-positive movement for the Carnival community in Toronto. Since then, the former full-size model has taken on the role of model coordinator for Carnival events and Carnival runway shows, as well as activist.
Lewis reaches out to designers in the months leading up to Carnival weekend and encourages and even guides them on how to create outfits that make revellers of all sizes feel beautiful.
She also works as a support person for interested new revellers who are hesitant to take part. This can mean anything from offering one-piece swimsuits rather than the famous two-pieces to shorts, but without losing festive glamour, of course. Other body-affirming costume modifications include tights or fishnet stockings, feathered boas as well as tankinis instead of bras. And her message reaches beyond attire by encouraging bands to feature diverse shapes and sizes at their launch, as well as in their marketing and social media feeds.
“People need to see themselves represented,”
she says, adding that word of mouth has spread the everyBODYplayahmas movement throughout the Caribbean, Europe and the U.S. Today there are international representatives championing the movement globally.
“If they can see diversity, they feel more comfortable participating.”
This year Lewis, who has been a member of various mas bands, will be “jumping up” after winning Carnival’s annual “Face of the Festival” contest to officially represent the event.