The beauty and body-positivity in burlesque

This in-progress corset is for a burlesque performance one month from now. (There will be a non-sponsored ad-ish in this post for a performance.)
There are pieces that go under the corset, bra, and skirt that aren’t drawn in this pic.  Initially I hesitated to say much about burlesque here, but you know what?  I’ve had quite a few people reach out to me since my post a few weeks ago, people who have been feeling bad about themselves and their bodies, people trying to find a way to feel attractive and sexy again, and if they can be so vulnerable with me, then the least I can do is to take the bull by the horns and open up some conversation about something that has been helping me with the same issue.

It can be very, very easy to feel like a mashed potato when we’ve all been stuck at home so long, unable to go out and see real people, having our images of reality shaped by edited photos on Instagram and photoshopped images in magazines, faces digitally altered in real time on TikTok since that’s where technology is these days.  Our mirrors and eyes, however, haven’t caught up, and so we see true reality in ourselves and compare ourselves to the faux reality of the internet, movies, and print media.  I watched my own 11-year-old start to fall down this rabbit hole.

It can be startlingly easy to forget that images meant to sell us something, whether that’s products or the pretty view of like that bloggers and bloggers wish was their life every moment, are in no way representative of reality, no more than reality TV is reality.  Yet this is what we’ve had for a year now.   But it’s not like self esteem issues only started last March.  The very first corset I made back in 2004 was for someone who wasn’t comfortable unclothed with her partner because she couldn’t see herself as sexy since she wasn’t a size 2 (neither was I at the time).  So I made her a white silk corset with caribou trim, and she refused to take it off the first time she tried it on.  She left my house will wearing it. 🙂 But even that wasn’t the start of it.  Self-esteem issues suck, and go back to probably the beginning of time.

Me in burlesque class
February 23, 2020

Before the lockdowns started, I was getting my toes wet in the burlesque world, hoping myself to find some way to accept myself.  I have a lot of scars and a body that has betrayed me.  It’s hard to feel attractive when you’ve got my medical history of missing organs, your body attacking itself, and spending an extraordinary about of time on a daily basis keeping your body running.  The prettiest car body in the world can make the owner never want to look at it again if the engine requires extensive maintenance to do basic errands.

But I was still so worried about what others would think that I told absolutely no one what I was doing. I told Cody he’d find out on April 20th, and to please ask no questions.  I was starting to feel a little okay, though still exceedingly nervous.

Then the instructor I had said some things that destroyed what little confidence I had, but literally just half an hour or so after I met the producer from another company who was his polar opposite.  I wasn’t sure if I was even going to go through with any of it anymore.  I went from starting to feel okay with myself to feeling like crusty days-old mashed potatoes left on the counter too long.  I suppose it was for the best that the world shut down mere weeks ahead of that.

Last month I started being a show kitten.  Show kittens are show assistants.  (Yes, there are in-person shows, but they are distanced, held outdoors, masked, etc.  Temps of the performers and skeleton crew are taken, etc.  These shows are also viewable online for those who prefer to stay in or who are too far away.)  And I had a chance to talk more with performers who have been performing anywhere from just a couple months to years, and the level of care and acceptance and support is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  I’m sitting here not even sure what words are strong enough to convey just how much.  I’ve watched people of all body shapes and sizes and genders across the spectrum get out there and do everything from staying entirely clothed to ending up in pasties, with performances ranging from the funniest things I’ve ever seen onstage in my life to touching performances about deaths from cancer not stopping living.  And do you know what you notice the more you watch?  That these amazing people, whose bodies are more like mine than like catalogues and movies, look more beautiful than anything.  The joy on their faces, even during the most heart-touching of numbers, is everything.  It’s a celebration of being human and enjoying it.  And if they can look that happy and be that beautiful without filters and airbrushing, literally more beautiful for it, then why can’t I?  Why can’t you?  Whether that’s onstage or at home.

And you know what else?  My daughter turned 11 in December, and had already been wanting to lose weight since she sees herself as fat.  She sees me eat like crazy (I go through major calories), but has still picked up on toxic messages that you have to look a certain way to be okay.  She has seen some burlesque performance videos, and watched the Broadway Takeover production online a few weeks ago.  Guess what her reaction was.  She doesn’t care about dieting anymore, just about making food choices that make her body feel good.  I was literally having to force her to eat sometimes.  Now she’s not worried about that, because she thinks that the performers she saw look absolutely…in her words…”so cool…when can I do that?”  (When you’re 18, kiddo.) It’s helped reinforce to her that the body is art, not something to be ashamed of.

I think burlesque is often misunderstood as just stripping onstage, and there’s a lot of stigma against it.  Incidentally, that stigma tells us that we should be ashamed of our bodies.  That stigma needs to be broken, and whatever someone chooses to do with their body respected as their choice, instead of people being made to feel ashamed.  Making others feel ashamed makes us feel ashamed.  How we try to make others feel is how we will make ourselves feel.  But if we believe it’s okay for others to do it and look beautiful and sexy or silly with fake mustaches or all of it together and everyone is happy, then it’s okay for us to try for ourselves, even if we only do it in our bedrooms at night.

But really, what is the difference?  Stripping in the sense of strip clubs is solely to titillate, which is absolutely fine when those performers want to be there (that’s a loaded topic for my other blog), but burlesque has a story, whether it’s as Tina from Bob’s Burgers as an adult baring her butt or a fully-clothed drag king lip syncing to a number from Book of Mormon the world or just to say “I feel damn sexy tonight,” and how much comes off or stays on will depend on the message the performer wants to convey.  It’s a variety show in the truest sense of the word.  And think about this–burlesque shows on the 1920’s and 1930’s and 1940’s were literally no different than burlesque today except for one key thing that I’ll cover in a few minutes.  Watch some I Love Lucy and see the examples of burlesque numbers Ethel and Fred talk about and do in the show itself, and pay attention to the things they talk about doing that would have been incredibly racy for the time, but that we now see as no big deal.  Here, watch part of a sketch from one of the show’s most hilarious episodes (you can hear Desi Arnaz off stage laughing like crazy at times during this episode):

That bit was a well-known burlesque sketch going back a few decades by that point.  But this breathtakingly gorgeous piece, which isn’t at all funny, is also burlesque.

And here is another that is very much a cross of the above, a bit racier and also humorous.

Three very different acts, all burlesque. The only thing that’s really changed is that anybody with any body is welcome. If we can appreciate looking back on these videos now, then why can’t we appreciate it when there is no size barrier?

In just the short time I’ve been a kitten, I’ve found myself being kinder to myself and seeing myself better.  I think maybe a part of the solution to feeling so much like left over mashed potatoes isn’t to hide more, where we privately nitpick at ourselves, but to free ourselves to be ourselves as we are, and at burlesque shows, no one is nitpicking flaws, only looking for the good.  When you see these performers on stage and a mistake is made or a zipper is being a pain, you don’t sit there thinking they look stupid.  You cheer them on as they figure it out and enjoy that they’re sharing themselves with us.  The more you see this, the more you think, “That looks like so much fun.  I could do that too.”

And maybe…just maybe…

Next month is a Little Lioness Productions production with a Disney theme, and you can watch in person or from home.  Most performances will be on stage, and a couple will be via video.  This actually adds to the overall fun of shows.  Since I prefer to lead by example instead of just telling others what to do or to try to try to find confidence, I’m…in the show.  I’ll be Snow White.  If you’d like more info on it, the Facebook events page has some, and if you’re interested in watching either in person at Big Legrowlski in Portland or at home, tickets are available here.  It is Saturday, March 20th.  Doors open at 7:30, and the show starts at 8:15.  You do have to be 21 to attend in person, though all ages are welcome to watch online.

I encourage you to go ahead and give it a watch.  A lot of the numbers are still being choreographed, but what I know so far is there will be silliness and sexiness and possibly some touching numbers, just a bit of a lot of things.  My own number initially had more comedy in it when I started it last year, but we have to keep at least 6′ away from the audience now.

Helping people feel beautiful and sexy is something I love to do, and this is something that has been helping me, definitely enough that I’m actually doing it.  I was once in your shoes, thinking “There’s no way I could,” but then I pushed myself and started watching.  Modern burlesque is such a celebration of the human body as an art piece to tell a story and it’s just wonderful.  If you don’t end the night feeling a bit better about your own body and what it can do, then I may end up having to channel someone else whose career started in burlesque…

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