There has been a recent media blast that has come to my attention about a high school girl who was kicked out of her prom because she "violated dress code." This is a subject matter that brings up a lot of feelings for me and I thought I'd take the time to share some of them with you.
Here is a link to the blog written by Clare, the young woman who was kicked out of her prom.
I think there are several reasons as to why to this story resonates with me. The first of which is that I'm a woman and have spent most of my life dealing with the social pressure that constantly tells me that I'm an object and not a person. Whether it's being catcalled, bullied, or a victim of violence, the history of negativity is a universal one for women and not just my own.
This is also reminiscent of my time in high school when I was sent home for dress code violation despite the fact that I was wearing the same shirt as several other girls. I was a curvy kid and was sent home multiple times. In one instance, the male vice principal of my school came up to me in the cafeteria and informed me he could "see down my shirt." Gross.
I have other memories, of both authority figures (parents, teachers), and other adults, making comments on my appearance that absolutely reinforced that I should be ashamed of my body. This only got worse as I became larger, gaining a good 50 pounds going from high school into college. These comments varied from, "You can't look that way," to "Looking that way makes me want you and I can't control it," and both made me want to hide.
I think this article states it succinctly:
"This whole thing is infuriating, particularly because it so well encapsulates the absurdity inherent in how our culture conceptualizes propriety. We're taught to think that women's bodies are by definition impure and that displaying them is automatically salacious and obscene." - Callie Beusman
It's only fair to assume that if you're taught from a very young age that your body is something to hide because other people might want it or be offended by it, that you're going to develop some pretty fucked up views about yourself and how much control you have over your own being. It breeds insecurity and the desire to apologize for all the things society has taught you to perceive as flaws. I would bet that all the women reading this have been with a group of other women and listed off their own flaws. The reason we do this is because we've been taught to. Even when I was 15 and had never really seen anyone else naked I thought I knew what everyone else would see as "wrong" with my body. I had adults telling me that even in clothes my body was unacceptable.
I am happy to say that all of those feelings have stopped and that I owe it to burlesque.
I'm so lucky that I've found a community that not only embraces women's bodies, but also completely illustrates that our bodies are ours to control. I bet the above mentioned haters would think it's funny that my life has taken this path. I can picture them saying, "Of course she became a stripper!" but I think the real truth is: that I became one despite them. People tell me I'm brave all the time because I get naked on stage, that they'd be too insecure to do it themselves. The truth is, I'm brave only because I'm thwarting the societal pressure to feel shame about it. I can't imagine living forever with the socially induced shame that those authority figures tried to force on me.
Let me tell you about some of the positive things that doing burlesque has taught me about body image:
(these are my impressions in the Boston burlesque scene and I can't speak for anyone else)
1) I mentioned above the practice that many women get into of commiserating with one another about their flaws. This doesn't happen in the burlesque scene I'm part of. It took me being in the scene for a few months to realize that this practice was no longer something that came to me naturally. I was sitting in a group of very dear muggle friends and the once familiar conversation of "I shouldn't eat this because my thighs are huge" and "Ugh, your thighs? Have you seen my ass lately? Massive!" I realized, suddenly, that this type of conversation sounded utterly foreign to me and I didn't have a single thing to add to it. It made me feel sad that my friends didn't have the same realization (they are all total babes) and it made me proud that I felt no need to join in.
2) Before I started doing burlesque I had, what felt like, an ingrained reaction to seeing other women where I would compare myself to them. It used to be that if I saw a woman on TV or out at a bar I would compare (what I thought were) my flaws to hers. This did not make me feel better. It made me feel like I was grasping at something that only created animosity. It made me feel like I had to compete. At one of my very first auditions for a burlesque troupe I met a wonderful performer named Lotta Sass. Lotta and I struck up a friendship pretty quickly and were both trying hard to learn the audition choreography. As the audition progressed we were given the opportunity to switch positions in the lineup so we could be in the front and better seen by the people doing the casting. I continued to hang back. Lotta, noticing I was behind her, grabbed my arm and said "Get up there, girl! You rock." I can't even fucking tell you how momentous of a thing this was for me. She gave me her spot and encouraged me to shine. How many times had that happened in my life? Not a ton. Especially in a competitive setting. I got in the troupe and Lotta celebrated with me, and when she got into Rouge Burlesque, one of Boston's most well-known troupes, I was ecstatic for her.
3) This one's kind of piggybacking on #2 but I just wanted to add that when I see other ladies now I naturally find the positive about them- in both appearance and personality. I have gained a wealth of awesome new friends both in the burlesque community and outside it because I have a genuine interest in connecting with other people. At first the shift in my behavior was most apparent in regards to people's appearance. I stopped being like "My body isn't as sexy as hers" and started being like "Damn, that lady is good looking." Don't worry; I say that to myself all the time too. In doing that, it started making it easier to connect with people on an emotional level.
4) Ok, now let's talk about nudity. I'm into it. Maybe you are too, maybe you aren't, maybe you're a "nevernude;" do your thing. I'm just going to talk a little bit about how it pertains to me. One of the coolest things that burlesque has allowed me is the ability to see lots of people naked. And it's not for the obvious reason that being around lots of sexy naked people is the best. Lots of women don't get to see other women's bodies. You see celebrities and porn, but you very rarely get to see your peers naked. Guess what? Sometimes they look like you, sometimes they don't; but they are beautiful, flawed, and can be all sizes, all shapes, and all gender identities. The more you see, the more you'll realize that you're doing just fine. It's a wonderful feeling to realize that you don't have to fit into the very rigid mold that society has helped to build in your brain. You get to fit into a world where everyone looks different and that's the reality of things, and that is awesome.
5) Control! Ugh! For the longest of time I've felt like I don't have control over my own body because of my constant concern over how others perceive it. This, my friends, is total bullshit. However, it's a very real feeling. It's a feeling created from rape culture, from all the things I mentioned above, and more. It's a feeling that comes from being a victim and knowing so many others who have similar experiences. It's a lack of control with a layer of "I'm sorry for being here, and I'm sorry for being sorry, and I'm sorry, sorry, sorry!" You walk home late at night from the T and you're scared. You worry that if you wear this sundress some asshat is going to call to you on the street. You're thinking about your next act while waiting for a friend, and as you sit deep in thought a strange man tells you that you "should smile more." That skin crawling feeling of being emotionally violated without being able to do anything about it. All those feelings, for all the years of your life. Those feelings...plus more and more. It fucking sucks. I wish I could fix it for everyone. I wish I could fix it for my little sister and my friends. I can't. But what I can tell you is that you can find a way to combat those feelings. First, educate yourself on your rights. There aren't a ton of inspiring ways to fight back but learning them helps. Educate yourself on the tools to stay safe and encourage your loved ones to do so, too. By "tools to stay safe" in no way do I mean that what you do or wear is to blame for abhorrent behavior. What I mean is that there are applications like Kitestring and other steps you can take to make you feel more comfortable. If it isn't too exhausting and you want to, you can also share your knowledge with others, whether they be part of the problem or a victim of it. I have actively sought out professionals: social workers, police, lawyers, and activists that have helped me to learn more. I also found burlesque.
6) Ok, kind of a weird segue but bear with me. I probably don't need to reiterate that this is my process and I am in no way advocating that all of you become strippers to battle rape culture. Although, that would make for a pretty awesome comic. There are things in my life that have made me feel not in control of my body. Objectification, violence, bullying, the list goes on. I lost a significant amount of weight and still felt like I needed to apologize for the space I took up in the world. Simply put, burlesque changed all of that for me. I actively participate in what I do with my body, how I share it, what it looks like; it's mine. I do this on the safety of the stage. I do it for me. Sure, I want the audience to enjoy my piece. When I do a number I'm confident that I've spent enough time, and enough work, to make sure that it's strong. Sometimes I want them to find my number sexy, or sad, or gross, or intimidating, or fucking weird, but I get to decide. I know that some people aren't going to like it- that I'm not going to be what they wanted to see. I don't care. I've been applauded and I've been heckled (once- and they were kicked out for being drunk jerks.) It feels better to be cheered, of course, but being hated on doesn't matter as much anymore. The person I want to impress the most is me. The next people I want to impress are the amazing professionals I am honored to work with. I want to impress them because they know the hard work that goes into building a number. I also know that if I ask, they'll tell me, in a supportive way, that something in the piece didn't quite work.
This is a rare community, and a wonderful one. There's something like that out there for you and it doesn't have to be covered in rhinestones like mine. It could be a book, a friend, a therapist, or a person that inspires you. I encourage you to find it/them, because nothing feels better than having some of the burden taken off your shoulders.
7) You're beautiful.
8) I mean it. I know you are because I'm a burlesque dancer and that makes me an expert on this type of thing.
9) Besides a significant shift in my body image the real joy is that I do something that I love. It's a fucking insane amount of work, the things you love usually are. Finding that thing is something that you own/create/contribute to is incredibly liberating.
So, that's it for now. I imagine I will think of more fantastic things to list about the community I'm part of and the art that I create. Maybe there will be a part two, three, and four! I learn something at every show just by watching my peers perform. I sometimes wish I knew I would end up here; but then I realize I've always been here. It's just been bogged down with a whole lot of bullshit and I'm like a tiny sexy miner digging for the gold that is my own strength.
I got this.
Proms: A Photo Illustration of Growing Fierceness
High School Prom: 2005
Org Prom: 2013
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