In black stiletto heels, the woman in pink Spandex pants strolled down Ocean Drive flaunting her ample hips with perfect confidence and flair. Heads turned, tongues wagged and hoots erupted from the cigar-smoking hombres seated at the outdoor cafe tables.
"That woman should not be wearing those pants," said Katherine, a friend of mine visiting from the frigid suburbs of Boston. "Look at her -- her butt's as big as a house and she's walking around in that outrageous outfit as if she doesn't even care."
Katherine had only been in Miami one day. Hers was the same disdain I had heard many times from Northerners who came to take in a few days of winter sun and Art Deco diversions. Welcome to the Land of Big Butts, I tell them, where swaying big hips make the local landscape as much as the Atlantic's waves crashing onto shore.
Miami women take pride in their plump bottoms and zaftig thighs. Showing off is a birthright and there's nothing subtle about it. In I-can-barely-breathe pants and too-too-tight skirts, they shimmy to the grocery store, strut to PTA meetings and sashay to the beauty salon. They relish the attention their conga quakes get them.
A few years ago while writing a guidebook to the city, I submitted to my editor a photo of a Miami tourism promotion poster that had a full-body shot of a bikini-clad model peering over her shoulder with her back to the camera. My editor, a German man living in London, rejected the photo because, he said, "The woman's rear end is just too fat for me to put in the book." He was hoping for a long-legged blond with voluptuous breasts.
I informed my editor that Miami is a tropical city where Latin and Caribbean cultures -- whether they be Cuban, Haitian, Colombian, Brazilian, Bahamian, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Venezuelan, Peruvian or Dominican -- hold sway. And that among these cultures bosom worship is considered infantile, and the ultimate symbol of sexual desire is definitely below the waist. I insisted that the woman in the photo was a typical local beauty, and an ideal example to represent the city. No thanks, he said.
In the week that my friend Katherine stayed with me, I tried my best to explain to her the cultural nuances that give Miami its exotic and erotic character. I told her that it's not that the Spandex woman didn't care about the commotion she was causing, but that in Miami, the bump-and-grind of big hips is a much-desired female attribute, and a seductive symbol of our hot-blooded civic identity.
Not that Miami has no Kate Moss wannabes; there are many, and liposuction is alive and well. But a woman with a big butt in Miami is not trivialized or ridiculed, nor made to feel that she should drop 10 pounds before squeezing into a pair of jeans.
I told Katherine about an interview I did a few years ago with Celia Cruz, when the lusty Cuban salsa star told me that the most important thing I needed to remember about dancing to Latin music was to wear tight, tight pants and shake my hips a lot. I told her how Gloria Estefan, before she got slimmed down and slicked up by the pop music industry, was once a chubby Cubanita with plenty of baby fat encasing her butt. I told her that "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty," the old disco number by KC & the Sunshine Band, came from Miami. I told her that gorda, a Spanish word meaning fat woman, is a common term of endearment here and considered a sweet compliment. I told her about my Haitian boyfriend, the mayor of Port-au-Prince, who revered my less-than-narrow hips and paid homage to my shape by whispering, "Fat Thighs" into my ear in the most adoring way.
I showed her the three-dimensional collage art of the locally renowned Scull twins in which a well-rounded woman walking through Old Havana causes a fruit vendor's eyes to bulge from his head. I even pointed out Haydee and Sahara Scull themselves, in person, in identical gold lamé dresses that looked to have been spray-painted on their curvy 46-inch hips.
I took her to a drumming session at a Haitian restaurant on Miami Beach where a troupe of woman dancers let loose an earthy, sway-back performance. I took her to an outdoor reggae concert where hundreds of Jamaican women rotated their hips to the pounding rhythms. And then I took her to a salsa nightclub where the action on the dance floor made the lambada look tame.
I recited the old Cuban come-on that goes something like this: "If you cook like you walk, I'd love to lick the pot." And told her that references to el culo (the butt) are engrained in Cuban literature, and that on the island itself, the body part enjoys an almost mythical status.
Katherine didn't get it. She cringed and rolled her eyes. The constant procession of swaying hips and big bottoms, she thought, was distasteful.
She lived in a place where Puritan values still prevailed. Where fair-skinned blonds with boyish hips and thin thighs were the ideal trophy wives. Where women tried to hide any hips they had in baggy L.L. Bean dresses and long flannel shirts. Where bony-butt girls suffered from anorexia in almost every private high school in town. Where a man who called his wife gorda would be considered a brute, a boor, an abusive husband.
Days later, when I took her to the airport, Katherine's flight to Boston was overbooked. Standing in line in her proper corduroy jumper and waterproof ankle-boots, she tried desperately to convince the sole Delta agent working the counter that she just had to get on the flight in order to be back at work the following morning.
There was one seat available and the Delta man had just given it away. Katherine scowled as a woman in a tight yellow skirt and four-inch platform shoes, boarding pass in hand, wiggled away from the ticket counter like a ripe mango in motion.