Me and My (Curvy) Shadow: Burlesque and Body Image

TW: talk of size and weight (no numbers)

“I hope no one thinks, ‘Why’d they let the big girl in?'”

That’s what I whispered to a fellow dancer as we waited to show new routines at rehearsal last Monday. Kind soul that she is, she shook her head and said something to the effect of, “oh, come on.” But my statement has so much history, insecurity and worry behind it.

In my day life, no one would refer to me as “big.” I’ve read many articles about the size of the “average” American woman, and let’s just say I fall several sizes below that. Even in burlesque, where body diversity is not only accepted but celebrated, no one’s judging me.

Except me. And I’m very, very harsh.

You see, while I’m not plus-size, I’m slightly larger than most of my fellow dancers – both in the nerdlesque troupe and the weekly variety show. I wear a bigger bra, my butt poofs out more. Serious T & A? I got it. I look fantastic in corsets and waist cinchers. But no one, ever, will call me “petite.”

I want to make it clear that NO ONE I’ve encountered in the burlesque community has ever made me feel bad about my body. My teacher for three years, an internationally renowned dancer herself, makes it her mission to make every student feel good about herself, just the way she is. Another instructor and performer, whom I also consider a friend and role model, is about the same size I am. When I was accepted into the troupe I’d waited a year to audition for, and the apprentice costume kept riding up, the director and producer didn’t hesitate to order one in the next size. “We needed a new outfit anyway,” they told me. “Now you’ll have an alternative that’s comfortable, and we’ll have it for the curvier gals who apprentice. And you will look great!” (They were right on all counts.)

Even so, before my very first show with the troupe, I scrutinized the fringed dresses for the final group number. They came in two sizes. Holding my breath, I slid the bigger size over my head and prayed to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It fit, and I set it aside so my tinier counterparts wouldn’t find it first.

Same with audiences: no one’s ever cast aspersions on my size (that I can hear, anyway). In fact, two weeks ago after a show with two bachelor parties and one bachelorette party in the audience, I headed out into the night in jeans and flip-flops. “Hey!” yelled one of the bachelors, a shy guy who’d seemed thrilled when we posed for a photo with him earlier.

I stopped and turned around. “Yeah?”

“You were so good,” he said sincerely, no leer on his face. “You’re really gorgeous.” Several of his buddies nodded in agreement.

It’s worth noting that earlier, backstage, I’d lamented to the stage manager about our shared costumes. “God, I hope no one’s wondering how I squeeze into this leotard.” “It’s tight,” she told me. “That’s a good thing in burlesque.” Touché.

What’s also worth noting? I’ve lost a significant amount of weight in the past several months. I don’t own a scale, but I’ve noticed my clothes fit better and others have noticed as well. A friend remarked that my jaw’s really defined now. The weight loss started last winter when I had the flu and couldn’t eat solids for a week, continued when I gave up red meat and cut down on carbs and peaked after I embarked on weekly two- to three-hour dance rehearsals and fairly frequent performances.

For the most part, I like the change. I look and feel healthy and strong. Until I see the thinner girls in the troupe and I get all self-conscious again. Like many women, I have a complex relationship with my body at all times. For several months this past year, I had a phobia of eating in front of people I didn’t know well. My past includes anorexic behavior, disordered eating, and straight-up bulimia.

Last Monday, my routine went over well, but insecurity reared its ugly head afterwards and manifested in a panic attack. “If I lose any more weight, I worry I’ll disappear!” I texted my best friend. Usually not one for compliments or self-pity (but very, very cognizant of my body issues), he replied, “You don’t need to. You look really good. You know this is all in your head, right?”

Right. I’m a dancer who is learning so much and practicing so hard, who’s trying to embrace every challenge and who loves burlesque with a fierceness she never imagined – in large part because it is so body-positive.

I’m also now very, very aware that a body-positive environment isn’t a cure-all for the deep, dark worry that I’ll never be as beautiful as the others, because I weigh a little more and probably always will.

I’ll continue to try. To take selfies when I think I look especially cute in a costume. To admire how good I feel physically, stronger and more confident in my abilities and creativity. To let the hoots and hollers and accolades drown out the horrid inner voice that tells me I’m far too fat to take my clothes off in front of strangers.

Burlesque has helped my ability to love (myself and others), but it hasn’t erased my worry. The latter is an everyday struggle, and slaying that dragon is up to me.

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Emma Glitterbomb

Emma Glitterbomb is a burlesque dancer in Chicago. Writer by day and vixen by night, she's a proud company member of Gorilla Tango Burlesque and a founding member of Madame Hatter's Moonlight Marauders. Emma has danced with Beast Women, the Better Boobie Bureau, Festival of Flesh, the Kiss Kiss Cabaret, the comedy show Menage a Hah! and the blues band Miss Jackie and the Sass. Say bonjour at eglitterbomb(at)gmail(dot)com.

9 thoughts on “Me and My (Curvy) Shadow: Burlesque and Body Image”

  1. A bit off-topic, but one thing that has always made me feel uneasy about burlesque is the corsets. Many wear them for waist-training, rather than loving the waist they have, and seeing the unnaturally thin, laced-up waists onstage doesn’t seem very body-positive to me. What’s the male equivalent? Maybe I’m the only one who feels conflicted about this…

    1. I’m not involved with burlesque so I can’t really answer it from that standpoint, but I don’t think wearing a corset indicates body shame. I wear them all the time for steam punk events and it’s not about not loving my waist. I do love my waist. I love my little pot belly. I think it’s cute. But I also love the way I look in a corset. I love that it makes my tits look extra huge. I love that it makes my hips look hyper flared out. Just like I like the way my legs look in flat shoes, but I also love the way that wearing heels shapes them into something different.

      As for what the male equivalent is, well, boys wear corsets too. And they look lovely in them. Some give them a more androgynous silhouette with flared hips, others aim to create a streamlined triangular silhouette. Rummaging through steam con snaps I managed to pull up this one that I think I took at Tesla Con a few years back:

      1. Thank you both for your input. Lindsay, it’s a vanity thing for me: I just like the way I look in corsets! I feel very sexy. Also, my very first performance costume involved a corset so there are positive memories attached as well. I just think they’re pretty.

        Opifex, that’s a cool picture! And I agree that guys can pull them off too – I’ve seen many a hot corseted gentleman at Rocky Horror and other shows over the years.

  2. Your bravery to go out there, embrace your (beautiful) body and show other women what it’s like to live in a difficult world as a woman and to be body positive in that world despite the immense pressure and ultimate insecurities many of us have is really inspiring. I’ve got nothing but love for ladies who advocate for body positivity.

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