I can’t remember when my idea of Mardi Gras beads switched from shiny objects handed out by elementary school teachers on a seemingly random Tuesday to goods exchanged between drunks on parade routes for cheap thrills and quick flashes. Probably around the same time I started noticing “Girls Gone Wild” ads on late night TV. No matter when I started associating beads with boobs, it’s now impossible for me to think about them draped around the neck of a Mardi Gras reveler without picturing a glaring set of nipples inches below. Always looking for a good origin story, I have to wonder: why are bare boobies a Mardi Gras tradition?
Short Answer: Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street in New Orleans is an open-air, booze fueled party where people get drunk and succumb to their lowered inhibitions.
Turns out those “Girls Gone Wild” ads are more pertinent to this discussion that I originally believed. You see, Mardi Gras in New Orleans hasn’t always been the bacchanal festival we see today. While the holiday is celebrated with great fanfare all around the city, an influx of college spring breakers in the last 30 or so years has shifted focus to Bourbon Street thanks to its bountiful bars and strip clubs. The already strong influence of the local titty bars, combined with the lax open container policies and aforementioned dumb college students, has made Bourbon Street’s iteration of Mardi Gras into the chest fest you see today. The beads come into play because post-adolescents love shiny things and making poor decisions, and it was only a matter of time before those two combined into a form of Mardi Gras currency.
Despite its relatively recent reputation, there is actually a more cultural explanation for all the boobs.
Long Answer: Fat Tuesday is a symbolic moment of revelry before a long period of sacrifice, and thus social norms are tossed aside for more colorful practices. Also, boobs aren’t that scary in other cultures where Carnival is celebrated.
Who knew that such a raucous event stems from one of the holiest times in the Catholic calendar? Since I was forced into catechism for a hot minute, I actually did.
This might seem pretty obvious, but a quick translation from French reveals that Mardi Gras stands for Fat Tuesday, AKA the last day before Lent begins and everyone has to give up one or more of their favorite vices until Easter. In the face of such sacrifice (and, let’s face it, 40 pretty sucky days), wouldn’t you want to get a little crazy and load up on all your favorite naughty activities too?
I highly doubt that many people list “exposing my bare breasts to strangers” among their favorite things to do, but it’s the symbolism of the action that holds weight here. Consider, for instance, the other traditions associated with Fat Tuesday and the days before Lent in general: eating gluttonously, dressing in bizarre costumes, talking and carrying on with people who you would usually never associate with, etc. During such an animalistic throwback to an indulgent time before religion came along and slapped ashy crosses on everyone’s forehead, it’s no surprise that popping a boob out seems like a logical step.
And don’t think that bare chested women are just a staple in the New Orleans celebration. Boobies abound at the largest pre-Lent festival in the world, Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival celebration. True, it’s a more purist form of nudity since their culture is much more relaxed about exposed skin than our sadly Puritanical society. But the idea of their naked bodies being an integral part of their flamboyant costumes ties back into this idea of Mardi Gras as an explosion of beauty, color, and self-expression before an extended period of drab downtime.
So there you have it. Whether you think the abundance of fleshy lady parts at Mardi Gras is a sinful showcase or you’re already unhooking your bra for an oncoming float, it’s pretty clear that Fat Tuesday boobies are here to stay. Sorry, Jesus.