What I Learned From Burlesque Performers About Loving My Body

Burlesque performers taught me that sometimes it’s okay to hate your body too.

Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images

The World Famous *BOB*.

Several days before attending a daylong Loving the Body You’re In class, my body — or rather, my mind — started rebelling. I found myself staring longingly at the scale at the gym, contemplating hopping on for a quick weigh-in, even though I stopped weighing myself precisely because no matter what the number I found, I’d invariably feel awful. The morning of the class, I was more careful about selecting which pair of panties to wear than I was about my outfit (we were instructed to wear comfortable clothes), in case I were asked to strip down. I was already creating worst-case scenarios, and considered chickening out. Maybe these actions were my subconscious’s way of reminding me why I’d signed up for the class, taught by burlesque performers World Famous *BOB* (yes, that’s now her legal name), famous for mixing martinis with her boobs, and Legs Malone, in the first place. My curiosity won out.

I agreed not to reveal details about what happened in the class itself, in the interest of retaining a level of mystery (attendees weren’t given any hints either), so what follows is more of a post-class takeaway than a blow-by-blow account. This workshop cost $125-$150, and was limited to female bodies (a co-ed version is planned for 2013); we wound up with 10 women of various body types, from New York, Connecticut and Washington, DC. A few participants came with friends; some had attended *BOB*’s Ultimate Self Confidence! class previously, but it felt like an equal, welcoming group.

I expected to be told there was a “right” way and a “wrong” way to approach my body during the class. That was the first notion that got dispelled in *BOB*’s Ultimate Self Confidence! morning workshop (something she also teaches on its own at New York’s The School of Burlesque). *BOB* wasn’t there to dictate how to think about our bodies, but to walk us through alternatives when we veer toward negative self-talk. While the tall, glamorous, blonde towering before us seemed to exude not just confidence but supreme ownership of herself, and the room, she made it clear that she’s acquired her knowledge first-hand. After leaving home as a teenager, *BOB* found a community of gay men who took her in; she didn’t identifying as a woman until she became involved in burlesque and learned a new appreciation for her body. Even then, she was faced with hecklers and haters, but found ways to turn their worst barbs into art.

In the afternoon, Legs Malone led an intense, emotional workshop on Healing Your Relationship With Your Body. Malone believes that the negative messages we send ourselves, even in private, have a genuine effect on our world. “Reading or saying those words may feed our insecurities and feel great in the moment, like a naughty, delicious indulgence,” she says, “but imagine someone saying or writing the same about you — that you have fat thighs, that your new haircut makes you look like a dog, that your cellulite is shameful, that your breasts and belly are ugly after childbirth, etc. How does that feel to even consider someone saying that behind your back with a sort of devilish glee?”

Participants shared stories of being body-shamed, sometimes explicitly. Sitting there and listening to people’s raw pain was intense. There were times I could barely stand it, because I felt like there was nothing I could do for them. I believe that is part of the lesson of this class — that sometimes the best thing we can do for others, and ourselves, is simply listen, rather than trying to reason them through to the other side.

By looking at and listening to other women, I was forced to step outside of my own head, even while I burrowed deep down into some of my most deeply held beliefs. Perhaps it’s easier to do this with strangers who don’t know anything about you or your history, who aren’t going to mentally compare the way you look now to how you looked a year ago, who have nothing invested in making you feel good about yourself. Somehow, I was able to listen to them — and see them — in ways I don’t allow myself for the people in my life.

For me, the best part of the class was having a safe space to talk about the nitty gritty of living in a female body in our culture, without censorship. Not once did someone jump in and say, “You’re wrong,” even though people’s self-perceptions were challenged. If you’ve ever expressed a negative opinion about your body and been told, “You’re beautiful [or insert other well meaning adjective]. I love your body; you have nothing to worry about,” you’ll know why this is so vital. Even well-meaning statements can feel like rebukes. Instead, we were given personalized and meaningful tools to use when we do find ourselves bemoaning a certain body part, than some generic catch-all that we might mouth but not feel. Seeing each instructor sit in on the other’s sessions also drove home the point that they are not self-esteem robots spitting out information, but living, human, fallible people. *BOB* told me her goal was to give every participant a courage reference they could recall as needed, which she defines as, “A moment of courage that they refer to that actually helps them build a core belief system about themselves, helping to build genuine self confidence that is unattached to outside opinion and based on self generated acts.”

The class went far beyond issues of body image and weight, delving into issues such as standing up to bullies, authority figures, and family. I arrived thinking I was there to deal with my stomach and thighs, but discovered I have much deeper issues to confront as well, ones that will require patience, daring and trial and error. I didn’t leave with the equivalent of a light bulb exploding in my head, instantly changed. Rather, the lessons sneak up on me when I least expect them. When I’m tempted to imagine that the woman changing in the locker room has a perfect life because I think she has a “perfect” body, I remember that many of my fellow students had similar bodies. Some of them wanted to hide their bellies, but some were concerned with the hair on their butts, a body image issue I’d never even considered.

If “loving your body” sounds utopian, I’d venture to say that in many ways it is. I take a lot of baths, and just as I’m sinking into the bliss of hot-as-I-can-stand-it water, am confronted with my most issue-laden body part — my stomach. I still grapple with that, but instead of wanting to simply shrink it, I’m better able to look, process and accept my stomach for what it is. When I can’t say I love, or even like it, I can wish it good health. I can think about the other women in that class, many of whom also listed their stomach as the part they most wanted to cover up, and know I’d never judge them the way I do myself. Though it doesn’t have the same ring, the class’s title would more accurately be accepting our bodies — right along with our mixed, complex feelings about them.

The next Loving The Body You’re In! workshop will take place February 3, 2013 in New York City.

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