The first time I was ever truly present at a party, I was 20 years old visiting the country of my birth, Trinidad and Tobago, for Carnival.

It’s not that I was new to the party scene. Quite the contrary, actually. By my 18th birthday, I was already frequenting adult bars and clubs in New York City with the assistance of my sister’s ID. Seven years my senior, she not only gave me the ticket to freedom by allowing me to venture into New York City’s nightlife scene, but she often played chaperone too, allowing me to accompany her to the hottest spots in the city alongside her beautiful, trendy friends.

Still, I was never completely present in those spaces — fully immersed or comfortable. I knew something was missing and lacking, but that was all I knew.

So, when my cousin offered to take us both to a party during our first visit to Trinidad during the Carnival season, I depended on my NYC nightlife savvy to guide me. I picked out the tightest, shortest dress I could find, a pair of matching heels, and I compared possible accessory options.

Hmmm.. Which clutch? The dark blue or black? This eye shadow doesn’t really match my shoes…

“Whenever allyuh ready,” I heard my cousin say from my huddled position in front of a bathroom mirror.

Finally, I emerged, stepping like a purebred poodle in a dog show. I was the New York pedigree. I knew I looked good, fashionable, my dress perfectly accentuating my curves, complemented by my matching shoes and clutch.

“Buh ya doh have a pair of sneakers?” My cousin asked in his trini twang, perplexed. My overwhelming sense of confidence immediately began to fade.

“But I thought we were going to a party?” I responded in equal confusion.

He ushered me to my room and picked out a pair of jeans shorts, a tank top and whipped out my converse.

“Put those on,” he urged.

I changed my clothes, and all of a sudden, I felt awkwardly vulnerable. Who was I without my armor: the makeup, the accessories, the mini dress? When I looked in the mirror, I saw an average Black girl, her self-esteem no longer propped up by high-heeled shoes. Unease quelled in my stomach, the anxiety of inferiority.

That reflection was the mirror image of how I learned to see myself in the Big Apple: just an average Black girl. Often, when I arrived at the front of NYC upscale nightclubs or lounges on the weekend, the first thing I was greeted by was that scrutiny and sense of inferiority. With my Black or minority girlfriends, extended waits on long lines were typical, and only after the doorman glanced at every single one of us from head to toe would we be allowed to pass. Sometimes we wouldn’t be. Yet, when with a group of my white girlfriends, we would glide by the velvet ropes with an ease befitting royalty, my averageness and Blackness masked by their presence.

White, skinny girls were the main attraction back home — dancers who spent the night atop stages or bars, gyrating their hips while in bikinis or lingerie. There were also a few equally skinny minority girls who played a similar role. Of course, there were the skinny bottle girls, waving firework-topped bottles whenever someone decided to spend $500-plus on alcohol. There were the models who were just there to party, their slender 100-pound frames and long legs giving away their status. Then there were the average girls in tight dresses and high heels, like myself or my friends.

Even among our “average” group, my lighter or whiter friends always received the most attention or perks, like free drinks.

Despite this hierarchy, one thing was certain: we were all there for consumption. To be consumed. And maybe get trashed. Maybe find a one night stand. Definitely not dance too much, because then our feet might start hurting within a couple minutes of arriving. I knew the unsaid rules.

Yet, something inside of me refused to be contained in that tidy box. I would always find myself shaking my booty to Beyoncé tracks or “doing the stanky leg” (if the music gods bestowed one or two hip-hop songs per night upon me). These moves were often met with stares, as if somehow I’d missed the memo. That, that particular kind of dancing was inappropriate, not high-class or upscale.

I saw myself through that distorted lens of inferiority and averageness when I glanced at myself in the mirror that night in Trinidad, after my cousin disarmed me of the things I used to boost my sense of self-worth back in New York. I saw cellulite, dimples and a girl many inches away from modelesque and imagined this alone, would be enough to get me turned away from the party. It would’ve been back on the East Coast at least.

I didn’t voice these concerns and instead plastered on a smile as if I was comfortable in that basic outfit chosen by my cousin, and I told him I was ready to go.

We arrived at the pier, where the party called “Insomnia” was set to take place. The area was buzzing with life: hundreds of people on the street, scattered between various venues and food vendors sprinkled all about. It was 2 a.m. and my eyes were already growing heavy with sleep. Bottles of alcohol in hand, I wondered if Security would stop us and tell us to throw our liquor out. These thoughts were compounded by my fear that someone there would police my flaws and refuse me access to the party. But we just walked straight on by after presenting our tickets. After all, this was a “cooler fete,” so whatever the heck you could fit in a cooler or in your two hands was good to go. And no one was expected to show up glamorous.

We entered into a huge arena with a stage set up, lights flashing everywhere, girls handing out green bandanas and glow sticks, and the bass of the music thumping loud into the open air. My cousin motioned for us to follow him and together we made our way to the front of the stage, plopped our cooler down, and started to have a few drinks.

Within a few moments, local artists made their way to the stage and the crowd started to move to the music — men and women alike rolling their waist to the beat of Soca music. All shades and colors. All body shapes and sizes.

Soon, the music began to take hold and I could feel myself losing control. My body swayed left to right, my hips shaked. Nobody was watching. No one was judging.

By the time Machel Montano, one of the biggest artists in the country, took to the stage, the sea of revellers were jumping up and down and swinging their bandanas and glow sticks over their head. I noticed the sun was rising — it was already 5 a.m. — and by the time the sun cast its warm rays on my face, water cannons blasted from towers over head. Everyone was drenched. Mud was everywhere.

And for the first time, I was there — actually present at a party. Excited and comfortable. I locked shoulders with my cousin, sister and a few people we had never met before, and created a tight circle bouncing up and down in the muddy water and singing along to our favorite tunes. When it ended, I collapsed from exhaustion on a nearby beach and only came back to full consciousness when I returned home and awoke in my bed.

That party marked the beginning of my first Carnival season. It also marked the beginning of my journey into my Black womanhood — a womanhood that was not ruled by respectability or decency. Where I could bend over and wine — gyrate my hips — on any man, but that did not mean he was entitled to my body. Or drop down into a split in the middle of the road on Carnival Monday and Tuesday in costume, for my own pleasure, not for others to stare. Where my thick thighs and curves were coveted and celebrated, adorned by feathers and beads. Where men genuinely wanted to enjoy my company, not simply get me drunk or in bed. Where I was beautiful and far from average or mediocre. Where there was no white gaze to diminish my self-expression.

I write this not to infer that Trinidadian culture does not have its own limitations and restrictions on women. After all, patriarchy is rampant. Yet, the pressures of dealing with not only sexism and patriarchy, but also American racism and cultural marginalization proves to be a burden far too onerous.

Too frequently, we try to pretend that we do not see ourselves through the lens of the society in which we live. That it is not constantly telling us what we are worth or not worth.

However, as a Black Afro-Caribbean American woman, I can testify to this truth: America told me I was pretty much worthless in many spaces that were supposed to be fun. Less than because of my weight or skin color. Sometimes unwanted. Average. My Blackness and my culture degrading or immoral.

And Trinidad Carnival taught me the exact opposite.

This article was originally appeared on xojane and is republished here with permission.

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