On burlesque, sexuality and identity.
A few weeks ago I did my first professional photo shoot, followed last week by my debut solo burlesque performance. These acts were ones of glamour, rhinestones, lingerie, and vulnerability. For the first time in my life, I was celebrating my femininity and inviting others to bask in my glow.
It hasn’t always been this way. As a lesbian who came out in the late 90s, the only options available to me if I wanted to be part of the dyke social structure were soft butch or stone butch. Femme lesbians were virtually non-existent, and I was warned off those who did exist because everyone knew when it came down to it, they’d always choose a man over a woman and leave us dykes heartbroken.
I played my part, right down to the shaved head and docs, and pretended I was as tough and nonchalant as my exterior projected, all while my inner femme died a bit more each day. I wanted sparkles and heels and lipstick desperately, but I would never get a girlfriend if I dressed like that. I watched dance movies and Sex and The City in private, and longed for a world where I could just be me.
Besides, I knew how feminine women were treated — why would I choose that for myself? Having already survived multiple traumas, I knew it was safer to be butch, where men didn’t look at me, didn’t pursue me, and I was virtually invisible to the world. The tougher and bigger I got, the safer I was.
I spent nearly 20 years fighting against my inner femme. For my generation it just wasn’t the done thing, plus it was safer, plus the few times I did try to wear a skirt or makeup it never quite worked anyway. I didn’t know what I was doing, and my awkwardness was visible to everyone.
And then 18 months ago I went to a burlesque show and something clicked. There was a stage full of strong, femme women owning their bodies, their gender identities and their power. The longing inside me was overwhelming — I had to be part of it, no matter what. I wanted my lips to be that red, my clothes to be that sparkly, my heels to be that high. I wanted to tease an audience with feminine sexuality and feel in control, the way those women were.
I went along to a burlesque class, and then another, and then another. Somehow the blockages that had been stopping me from releasing my inner femme were set free. In class we danced, yes, and learnt the art of striptease, but we also talked about honouring our true selves, standing in our power and loving ourselves the way we were. For me, that meant allowing this short-haired, fat body to embrace the femininity I had been denying it for so long.
The world didn’t end. I started wearing 6 inch heels to events at work. I wore lipstick with my short hair. I wore tight dresses on my fat, curvy body — and all I ever heard from people around me was how amazing I looked. It wasn’t that my body had changed and become more socially acceptable overnight. It was that I was owning and loving myself the way I was — fat, femme, and finally myself. The awkwardness was gone, and people around me saw my joy, and applauded me for it.
Being fat and femme in public was a new experience. Since starting an Instagram page for my burlesque persona, for example, I’ve been flooded with inappropriate private messages from men. Since putting those photos of me in lingerie out into the world, people have treated me a bit differently, like they love it but can’t quite believe it. It’s less noticeable in person, perhaps because I am literally so big — 6’4” in heels — that no-one wants to mess with me.
But on stage last week, none of that mattered. I’ve danced in a lot of troupe performances since starting burlesque, but this was the first time I was up on that stage by myself. In all that time, I have never heard a crowd go so wild — not for our troupe, and not for any of the other soloists I have seen perform. Something about my performance set the audience on fire. Was it me owning my size? Owning my femininity? Not caring what other people thought about me? Seeing the joy on my face?
My solo performance was the story of coming out. On that stage I was both lesbian and femme, something that for so many years didn’t seem possible. Thanks to burlesque, I have been able to embrace all the disparate parts of myself, and learn to love the parts that I hid away for so long. Last week when I tagged a photo of myself as #fat someone gave an angry react, like they hadn’t caught up with the news that it’s okay to describe — and love –yourself exactly the way you are. I’m just happy to finally have brought all the sides of myself together in one glorious, sparkly, red-lipped, fat, femme, lesbian self. I will continue to embrace who I am, both on and off stage, and people can love it or hate it — but for me, the future has never been shinier.