From the moment I had any say in the matter, I was a girly girl. This was actually quite a feat, in light of the way I was raised. Those of you born in the late 70s and early 80s may remember the gender-neutral child-rearing that was popular with many baby boomer types. I was no exception; at any given time you could find me in the corduroy overalls and primary colors with muted browns and beiges that were de rigeur for any self-respecting hippie parent. I didn’t have any strong notions of femininity forced on me; for instance, I have no memories of my mother putting on makeup or perfume.
Litte gender-neutral Emily and her feminist mama.
However, as early as I can remember, I wanted to be pretty and feminine and adored. As I got a little older, this became more specific: I was totally in awe of the bombshell, the femme fatale. By the time I turned ten, I’d discovered – and idolized – Marilyn Monroe and Jessica Rabbit (who I tried to emulate by draping my hair over one eye – I suspect the effect probably wasn’t the same).
The thing is, I was never fed these images. If anything, it was quite the opposite: I sought them out. I wanted to know everything there was to know about how to be feminine and seductive. My early make-believe games centered around scandal-ridden movie starlets and prostitutes (no, really). And don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty sure this was met with a healthy dose of parental feminism (and well-concealed raised eyebrows, no doubt). But still, they let me be me. It’s not that I wasn’t given the opportunity to choose for myself between pink and blue or Barbies and Legos. It’s just that Barbie almost always won. And then I’d take her clothes off.
For some reason I was just totally fascinated by the idea of that femininity and sexuality could hold their own innate power. Somehow, I understood this from a very early age (and yes, I knew about sex from a very early age). I don’t know if I’ll ever really know why. But for whatever reason, it seems to have been nature – not nurture – that made me into the flirtatious, glitter-loving, attention-seeking creature I am today. All my parents did was let that person run free.
Of course, it wasn’t always that easy. Like (far too) many women, I grappled with body image issues throughout my adolescence and most of my twenties. Suddenly my body wasn’t my friend, and I didn’t feel like that powerful, sexy persona was attainable anymore. After years of ups and downs (on the scale and in my self-esteem), I had a life-changing moment: I saw my first live burlesque show. Sure, I’d heard a bit about the neo-burlesque scene, and was secretly fascinated by it. But the idea of doing it myself? No way. That felt wrong, almost narcissistic. Maybe if my body was “better.” You know: flatter stomach, smaller chest, fewer scars, longer legs, all that. But that all went out the window when I saw a show for myself. I saw women of every shape imaginable on that stage. Women who looked how I thought I was supposed to look, and women who looked how I actually look. And they all looked beautiful and sexy and so very happy. And that’s when I knew I had to to get up there too.
…and so I did! I took classes, I volunteered, I did my research, and I bought my first pair of pasties (red sequined stars, for those who are curious). By the time I entered Rogue‘s amateur competition, I must have done something right, because, lo and behold, I won. Somehow, after years of self-doubt, I found myself comfortable in my skin again. It took a long time, but I could finally be the confident, sexy, powerful woman I’d been so fascinated by when I was young. A year and a half later, I’ve joined the troupe as a full-time member. And I’ll share a secret with you: I’m pretty sure I weigh the most I have ever in my life. And yet, this is the happiest I’ve been in my body since I was a kid.
Taking it off.
I’m not saying the only way to self-acceptance is to get up on stage and show off your ta-tas. But it was certainly what I needed to do to remember that whatever my body looks like, it is a miraculous, magical, beautiful thing, and it is mine.
Footnote: I actually started writing this because I really want to talk about burlesque and feminism. It’s come to my attention recently that there is the opinion out there that all neo-burlesque is inherently un-feminist. Obviously, burlesque is a topic I feel very strongly about, and I really do want to discuss this, but I felt like it was necessary to provide a bit of my background first. So stay tuned for part two!