For much of my life, my body has held me back. Actually, let me clarify. For much of my life, I’ve allowed my body to hold me back. It had been firmly ingrained in my mind that I was too big to do the things that I wanted to do, that I would fail because my size was a hindrance and that I would never succeed just because of my body shape.
As I have evolved as a person and now have body positivity running through my veins, I’ve given myself a new lease on life – free from preconceived ideas about myself and from constricting limitations on what my body can achieve. Which is why (hold on to your knickers) — for the last nine weeks, I’ve been attending burlesque class!
Now, if you told 15-year-old me that I’d be shimmying and shaking my wobbly bits in nothing but a corset, knickers and bra – she would have utterly cringed at the idea of her body being so exposed. But as it happens, this is exactly what I’ve been doing. And even more shocking, I’ve actually performed in front of a real, live audience — and with nothing but a feather boa and some fishnets to preserve my modesty. Here’s the story of how I transformed from a terrified burlesque novice, to a confident burlesque bombshell.
I can’t remember when I first became interested in burlesque. But as an avid fan of all things from the ‘50s, I suppose I was always going to be attracted to the glitz and glamour of it all. I remember watching my first burlesque show and being fascinated by the level of confidence that these women exuded – no matter their body shape. More than that, the way that they absolutely oozed sex appeal whilst keeping (most of) their clothes on was so intriguing.
Burlesque is inherently inclusive, it doesn’t judge nor does it exclude. The majority of the world only knows about burlesque via the phenomenal Dita Von Teese, who although astounding to watch perform, only represents one body type. But there is actually much diversity in the world of burlesque. Kitty Cavalier, founder of The School of Charm and Cheek, says that, “when I went to my first burlesque show five years ago, what changed my life forever was seeing women who looked exactly like me, with real bodies, making the rules about what it means to be beautiful.” This idea runs through the whole of burlesque – all body types are included, accepted and empowered.
After a fair bit of searching, I discovered Burlesque Jems. As I paid for my seven-week course, it dawned on me that this was probably one of the most nerve-wracking things I’d ever done. It was pushing me further outside of my comfort zone than ever before, but you know what?
The risk was worth it.
Burlesque captured my imagination from the word ‘go’, and my whole body ached to learn how to do it – to learn how to empower myself and others, how to tease and command a crowd, how to push myself. Although age-old doubts popped into my mind about judgement and body size, I pushed them aside because I WANTED this.
But that’s not to say that, as I walked into the studio for my first class, I wasn’t absolutely terrified. Because you can have bucket-loads of body positive stamina, but walking into a room of unknown ladies, and revealing yourself so intimately both physically and emotionally with complete strangers can make even the strong-willed a bit anxious.
It was in the first class that I learned that some of the ladies partaking had been there before. Some were new like myself, but those who were fabulously trussed up in their corsets clearly knew their stuff. And that was scary. I glanced in the mirror and suddenly my black top and leggings gave me away – they told me that I wasn’t good enough to be here, that these ladies were far more glamorous and far more worthy of being there than I was. But, as I slicked on some red lipstick and Lizzie (burlesque dancer, teacher and all-around goddess) gave us a warm welcome, I began to relax and push those anxious feelings aside.
Staring at ourselves in a mirror for prolonged periods of time is not something that most of us relish. We are all prone to focus on areas that we would like to improve and nitpick ourselves to death. But in burlesque, there is no hiding. You are told to watch the way that your body moves, encouraged to jiggle and it is imperative that an aura of confidence surrounds you.
All bodies are different, and looking in the mirror as I and the other ladies all stood in formation, it couldn’t be more obvious. With around 15 ladies in the class, not one of us had the same body shape, none of us were the same size, we were all of different ages and all of us rocked our individual looks. Seeing such diversity in a class that explores female sexuality and female bodies was eye-opening and as the class came to an end, I found that I didn’t want it to finish.
Over the next few weeks as our routine progressed, so did my mentality. By week four I had purchased an under-bust corset, a glorious new bra and began styling my hair in a 1950’s manner. I found that during class, I would watch my body as I moved and shimmied. Instead of cringing when my thighs wobbled, when my arms were visible, when my hips curved outwards because of the corset – I embraced it all.
I soon found that within this eclectic group of ladies, I began making friends. These women are forces of nature: they raised children, they are women’s rights advocates, they successfully manage their own businesses, they tackle self-defense classes. And there was nothing more empowering than to see these women, myself included, absolutely embody their own sexuality, sensuality and burlesque sass.
As well as seeing my own burlesque journey unfold, it was thrilling to see the journey of others come to life too. A fellow newbie who had arrived to the first lesson in leggings and a vest top, was soon fashioning her own outfits and creatively jeweling her own lingerie. A lady who was nervous at the beginning and didn’t want to be filmed was soon slaying in a pink tutu. We pushed our boundaries in a place that we had cultivated as nurturing and safe and empowering.
We soon became a wildfire – unstoppable and HOT.
It was around week five that a new thunderbolt struck our bonding sisterhood. In order to raise money for St. Helena’s Hospice, we would perform our group dance at a cabaret showcase. When this was first mentioned, Lizzie was met with a barrage of questions. How many people would we be performing in front of? How close would the audience be? How long would we be on stage? What do we wear? Who would be in the audience?
Most of these questions came as a result of a nervous fear because we realized that instead of being seen under our own gaze, we would be at the mercy of an audience. An audience who had their own viewpoints about female bodies, an audience who decided if we were acceptable as burlesque dancers, an audience who could make (or break) our confidence. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, and there were definitely new doubts that began creeping into my head.
But as burlesque extraordinaire, Immodesty Blaize, says, “there is no mystery to confidence, just self-knowledge.” Through undertaking these classes, I had affirmed that I was sexy — more than that, I found myself sexy. I did not need permission from anyone else to love myself. The level of sexiness that you feel is judged by your state of mind, not whatever state your body is in. If you’re female, male (and anyone inside or outside of those gender binaries), fat, slim, curvy, thin, plump, skinny, voluptuous, tiny, tall, short, whatever your sexual orientation or the color of your skin – the list is endless. But I know one thing… BEING SEXY IS NOT ABOUT THE SHAPE OR SIZE OF YOUR BODY.
You can find sexiness in the way that you FEEL about your body. If you feel that you are worth your own self-love, then it will show in the way that you portray yourself, it will show in your eyes, in your lips, you will give off an aura that says that you are ready to SLAY and my God, slay you will.
And it is just as well – because as we were told of our formation, I learned that I was to be at the front and in the middle. Gulp.
As Cabaret day dawned, I woke with butterflies in my belly and conviction in my mind. I could do this. I spent my day practicing the routine at home and as I dressed in my outfit that evening, the nerves really began kicking in. So I took myself to the mirror. I looked at myself. Hair and make-up perfectly vintage. Corset and bra exquisite. Fishnet tights and satin knickers, sexy. But it didn’t matter what I was wearing at that moment because in my mind I was proud of myself.
I could have been standing there with nothing on at all, and I wouldn’t have criticized my body as I once did. I wouldn’t have cringed at my wobbly belly or touching thighs. I wouldn’t have scolded myself for my double chin or cellulite. Burlesque gave me something more than a sassy dance routine and a group of phenomenal friends. It enabled me to find myself sexy. I found that I was no longer held back by my body, but I was able to draw strength and empowerment from it.
And that is priceless.
Walking into the venue where we were due to perform was nerve-wracking. But I soon found my fellow dancers and as the seats filled up with the audience, it became apparent that we were all feeling the nerves. It was refreshing to know that all of us, from the more seasoned dancers to the novices, were feeling the same thing.
Before we knew it, it was our time. We bumped boobs for good luck, took our places and as the first notes of “Fever” played, we commanded the stage. I can’t remember much of what happened when we were on stage, it was all over in a blink of the eye. But I know this – the whole time I was dancing, I did not once question my body. I did not once feel judgement – from myself or the audience. I did not once feel like I was unworthy. I did not once feel that I was failing.
And then, the applause. There is nothing quite like it. Knowing that you’ve succeeded in something that you’ve dreamt about for so long is incomparable. I could’ve cried.
You see, 15-year-old me was so trapped by her insecurities that she would have let her body stop her from doing the things that she loved. She would have questioned, doubted and missed out on that opportunity simply because of the shape and size of her body. But when I stepped off stage, my hands were shaking, my face was beaming and my fellow dancers and I hugged – it was clear to see that all of us were glowing.
You don’t need to wait until you drop three dress sizes to feel confident. You don’t need to wait until the scales hit 120 pounds to find yourself sexy. You don’t need permission from anyone else to justify the love that you have for yourself. Most of all, you don’t need to let the way you feel about your body hold you back – let it be your empowerment, not the anchor dragging you down. Go find your applause, it’s so worth it.
This article was written by me for the Society+ Blog, here.