Quitting Burlesque Helped My Body Confidence
One Restless writer reflects on her time in the glittery world of burlesque
As a teenager, I made a point of not looking in mirrors. By my mid-twenties I avoided photos at all costs; baggy clothes disguised the fat I’d accumulated from comfort eating, daily purges failing to keep it at bay. I made sure to only self harm the body parts nobody would see. There were days I had to convince myself I was worthy of leaving the house.
Somewhat inexplicably, I joined a burlesque troupe. Having always been wary of women, it turned out I really loved having a bunch of girlfriends. I loved our pre-show bra decorating sessions, tables littered with all the sequins and rhinestones we could get our hands on. I loved how we helped each other out backstage, lacing up corsets or patting down nipple tassels; it was a new and lovely experience to trust other girls enough to fondle my boobs. Up on that stage, there was a feeling of we’re all in this together.
What lots of people don’t realise is that cabaret audiences aren’t generally comprised of men. Whilst burlesque does equate to stripping, burlesque shows have a different atmosphere and energy to them; celebratory as opposed to sexually aggressive. In my experience audiences have been overwhelmingly female, with a few boyfriends dragged along who don’t know where to look.
When the troupe disbanded I decided to go it alone. As a writer I loved the idea of coming up with my own stage name (Lemon Tart) and storyline. Though I was apprehensive about my first performance, having made a great effort of not rehearsing at all, it was comforting to know my girlfriends would cheer me on even if I fell flat on my face or popped out a tampon string.
My then-boyfriend didn’t show up, nor did he for the second show a few days later. My mother didn’t approve either, no doubt picturing men old enough to be my dad nursing erections as they slipped £5 notes into my knickers. Most friends thought it was brilliant, though one believed I was “Sh*tting all over feminism”. Whenever I told a date about my hobby they seemed to latch onto the fact like a dog to a bone, the stage lending me a misplaced air of sexual availability.
My insecurities lay forgotten in a heap on the floor as I peeled off a glove here, a bra there. Most intimate features on show, in my mind I held a level of power over the audience. Whip your tits out and you have them in the palm of your hand – they aren’t noticing your unhealthy BMI or stretch marks, the fresh cuts your foundation couldn’t quite cover up, or the nose you’re so ashamed of because one girl a decade ago compared it to a bell-nosed monkey’s. Head buzzing with cheers and wolf whistles, I was exhilarated. But if I held all that power, why did I feel so vulnerable?
It turns out that actually, I really don’t like performing. As much as I enjoyed coming up with the story of the horny tooth fairy, drunk on mouthwash and in need of some serious D, performing this entire saga was actually a bit traumatic for a natural born introvert (though I’ll concede that whipping off my bra and sending dozens of false teeth soaring through the air was a thrill).
I still loved the pre-show beautifying ritual and camaraderie of the dressing room. I loved the validation of being told I looked amazing. Burlesque is a gorgeous, sensuous art form with the ability to empower both men (boylesque is a thing, too!), women, and everybody in between when done for the right reasons. But as I doused myself in a third layer of glitter and knocked back the wine while other performers got into character, I was desperately pushing all thoughts of the show to the back of my mind. I felt exposed on that big old stage, cursing each second of Björk’s It’s Oh So Quiet and willing the tough crowd to crack a smile. How could I blame them? It was blindingly clear I didn’t want to be there. Was I really this desperate to feel desirable? I needed to learn to feel beautiful with clothes on. so I quit.
It was an instant relief knowing I no longer needed to put myself through all that anxiety. I began taking better care of my body, learning how to feed it properly; I took mental health medication, which helped me realise that the biggest act of self love I could show myself was to not slice up my body with rusty razors. Whilst I previously would have showed up to a party in a tiny dress and heels – if people were distracted by my legs they wouldn’t notice my ugly everything else – now I felt sexy in skinny jeans and Vans.
I still love watching live burlesque. It gives me such a kick to see others embracing their bodies, and I love being part of that celebration. I don’t regret performing; I met creative, ridiculous, wonderful people with oodles of talent. I would like to perform again someday – I even have a storyline at the ready – but I don’t feel the perverse need for validation that I once did. My advice for all the people out there struggling to like themselves? Trust me: you’re beautiful with or without clothes.