The Right to Bare Arms: a Reflection on Antiquated Attitudes and the Female Body (in the Caribbean)

I’ve been thinking about Rihanna’s nipples. How they were the peaks some decided to die on when they whipped out their misogyny on the day she was announced as Barbados’ newest national hero – heaven forbid, some energy be dedicated to the merit and meaning of her receiving her country’s highest honour at a seminal moment in its history. It was boring but not surprising.

Just breaking up the text with this aerial view of the twin peaks of the Caribbean, St. Lucia’s Pitons. Image by Caribbeandy.

The nipples have long been disputed territory in the war for control of the female body but since the days of Michelle Obama and the kerfuffle over her bare arms, it’s been clear that the arms – the upper arms at least – have been a part of the fray. The vaxx battles have seen the coopting of the my body my choice maxim of the gender wars, but we of the ‘fairer sex’ might need to borrow that back for a bit, because this battle is not done. Don’t worry, I’m not talking reproductive rights – not yet, nor the right to be whatever sex, sexuality, or gender you are – unclench. How about the right to bare arms though – though the toes might want some of this action as well since they’re also coming for open-toed shoes. You know what, let’s not segregate the body; let’s just say all of it is ours to clothe as we will.

This is not Michelle Obama nor her bare arms.

No, this isn’t a free the nipple campaign. And I’m not some body anarchist who doesn’t believe in time and place but in what context, ever, do a woman’s bare arms offend? What fetish is this? Asking for a friend. It’s me, I’m the friend.

See, I went to the Transport Boart of Antigua and Barbuda recently robed (as pictured above) in an olive-yellow patterned blouse with a studded scoop neckline and what we colloquially refer to as arm-sleeves. No spaghetti straps, no nipples, no food of any kind. When the security guard stopped me I literally had the Scooby-doo confused face. When he told me “arm-sleeves” were not acceptable dress to enter to *checks notes* stand in line, pay, and renew my license, I might have smiled at the quaintness of it all if it wasn’t for how put out I was by the inconvenience.

Blasted sleeves, where had they run off to?

Not my armsleeves making a run for it. (just Nathan Fillion as Detachable Kid in The Suicide Squad)

England, maybe? I mean it is the colonial standards of our former ‘mother country’ that are still living rent free in our heads – unplugged from the Matrix though we presumably were at our Independence.

I decided to “do my own research” on appropriate dress and a quick google (that’s all it takes, right?) turned up an article on ‘3 ways to ensure you’re always appropriately dressed’ that I thought I might give a whirl. It’s only 3. I had 5 minutes. The 3 were – 1, dress for the role you’re playing (role I’m playing: someone who needs to renew her driver’s license); 2, dress with your styling non-negotiables in mind (my styling non-negotiables: I live in the tropics and will be temperature-appropriate); 3, dress for the way you want to feel (way I want to feel: like someone who can get in and out of the queue quick; in fact, is there a drive-through lane I can use).

Oh, what’s that you say, do I have a shawl? (real question) No, I’m not a Victorian era English grandmother.

Also not Dr. Strange.

Where does one even buy a shawl?

I joke but I’m also fiercely angry at this backwardness that is somehow policy enforced not by our aunties but by us (because there are real people behind these policies precluding us from access to public institutions), the aunties of the generation behind us, who will somehow be dealing with this nonsense 30 years from now. To reference noted satirist John Oliver, why is this still a thing?

Real question. My own social media echo chamber doesn’t seem to get what was so scandalous about my attire but what do they know.

A sample of their comments:

“I literally have to keep a sweater in the car because of this dotishnes eh…. and you are well and decently dressed… chupsss”
“It is ridiculous”
“It is cursed in Jamaica too, we need to get rid of these archaic practices bourne from our colonial history”
“keeping me mout shut…it’s still 1822 or is it 1922 certainly not 2022 lol”
“Don’t you think it’s time for us to change these draconian rules? … [in response to a question about how] There are women in parliament on both sides of the isle. They should lead the call to present a bill ending this practice which is a holdover from colonial times. Let us persuade them to lay a bill to end this”
“Keep wan sweater in yuh car for emergencies like this. Ridiculous if you ask me”
“I had a friend who went in wrapped in the floor rug from her car and that was deemed okay. Seriously!!”
“Im with you on this one”
“You look fine to me”
“Not only in Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas too. 🙄 Lone backwards ridiculousness. They won’t let you in government offices if you have on something sleeveless, if your skirt is a fraction above knee length, or if you have open toe shoes. Open toe shoes for crying out loud! Just because it’s a rule/law doesn’t make it right.”
“I get so annoyed. I keep a shawl in my car and a side-eye on my face for when the security guards fall over themselves to condemn my bare shoulders.”
“WOW!! Talk about inconsistency and pure BS!! I went up with a sundress on with the same type of sleeve as your top but my sundress was down to below my knee and I was let in and nobody spoke to me about covering myself up!! 🙄😠”
“PURE nonsense”
“find out who was the forward thinking person in APUA able to materialize change on this idiotic policy.”
“yup same here in Dominica”

If you’re keeping count that’s 7 – denouncements of the rashussness, 1 – acknowledgment of the rashussness, 1 – call to action in response to the rashussness, 4 – whatcha gonna do but just deal with the rashussness, 2 – wildly varied anecdotes related to the rashussness, 3 – we in the struggle too from islands across the water about this island and era hopping rashussness, 1 – sartorial thumbs up (not really addressing the rashussness), and 1 big up to APUA.

Sample size is small but the consensus seems to be, rashussness. And as we do in response to rashussness, we Caribbean people, we make jokes. And so when I posted asking if I was now appropriately dressed

my people didn’t let me down.

“I can still see part of your chest. That might tempt someone….Be careful are the sleeves down to your wrist, and buttoned?…You sure you doh need to do up your top buttons…Is that skin under your neck showing? Maybe add a blazer, bowtie and or a scarf. …Nope! Get the Burka out of the trunk.”

We joke not cause we dotish but because sometimes is the only power we have. But is it? Like one of the commenters said, “Oh boy – some things just gotta change dang it.”

8 thoughts on “The Right to Bare Arms: a Reflection on Antiquated Attitudes and the Female Body (in the Caribbean)

  1. Yep. You know I wrote about this yeaaars ago when I went to get a birth certificate at the High Court. Ain’t nothing changed. Same problem at the Public Library. Last time the security guard lent me a shawl – I tried not to think about how many people had already used it!😒

    • I’ve had a few incidents at the library – 2x with security – once chasing me down to warn me about my bare shoulders and another time refusing to let me in (both times I was there to conduct a workshop). And there was another time when I was offered use of the no-doubt self-same shawl. it’s messed up.

  2. I was flabbergasted when I went to the transport board a few months ago. I was surprised this was still a requirement. As I wasn’t about to drive all the way back to Willikies to get my “veil,” I wrapped up in a nearly transparent raincoat and was deemed acceptable. I’m confused!

  3. WTH. God forbid. Please nooooooooooooo! 30 years from now? I hope we’ll look back and shake our heads. Sheesh. Sorry you had to go through that ridiculous inconvenience.

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