What I Wish I Had Known as a Student

The topic of confidence has come up many times when asked about my burlesque life. Twice now I’ve been interviewed on camera about confidence and how it relates to my personal stripping experience, but the answer is not easily encapsulated into a short reply. Was I confident prior to this journey, or did burlesque give it a boost?

I began my burlesque education in 2008, and fell in love with my mentor’s mission statement: to celebrate women in their unique forms, showcasing what real bodies look like, and that every woman is sexy. Her goal continues to resonate with me 5 ½ years later, and she built a brand true to her word. I feel fortunate to be a part of such a body-positive group of performers, who love and support one another as well as counsel students on building confidence for the stage.

“Ha, I guess there’s someone for everyone, right?” My student’s nervous, half-hearted joke made me think. It was her first recital, and she attempted to explain her source of confidence for the night. The insinuation was “Yes I will show my body, because although not everyone will find me to be sexy, someone out there might.” Therein lies a huge issue of marrying our confidence to being desired. Confidence and desirability are not mutually inclusive. Underneath the student’s beautiful costume, her heart sought external acceptance. She was unaware of the untapped source of self-acceptance and pride that stems from a stage debut.

A younger me could’ve related to her. The pick-ups, the practiced smiles, the flirtation with a college crush over an evening would have me soaring high. I would know the truth: I am sexy, and here’s your proof. By contrast, the nights devoid of such attention would plunge me into doubt,  paired with negative self-talk overtaking all reasonable thought. As a result, I tried harder to make myself fit into what I thought others found sexy, because I only felt good in the moment of validation.

If we spend our lives seeking the special brand of physical validation rather than nurturing it from within, how will we ever get what we truly want? Solely asking for external acceptance invites in the subjective perceptions of the world around you. The world will push and pull and some will want A and the others X, and you are C. We are all real women, and there should be no standard that sets forth an exclusive definition of female. This notion will never fade as long as we continue to follow it. I hope one day we can move past what physical attributes we have versus what we don’t, and the first step is refusing to hold ourselves to it any longer.

Burlesque did not give me confidence. I did not take the stage and wake up the next morning with a profound sense of love and acceptance of myself and my body. I, too, was there in the beginning: ruffled panties on with brick of doubt settled in my gut. Even in the safe haven of a practice setting, I let insecurity creep in. I chose to focus on comments about another’s “perfect burlesque body” and gentle teasing about my small bum nestled between narrow hips. It was exactly because I allowed myself to believe that to be the best, to succeed, to have this person desire ME as a performer, I should pour myself into the mold they cast.

What I wanted was to make them want me, but I’m not an elegant mix of plush curves, soft hips and large breasts.

“You’re too skinny, I liked you better with more meat on your bones.” Two years later, I can vividly recall this statement slamming into my mind head-on. I felt accomplished for leaving behind 40 pounds of misery. The big change was a source of pride, but to another, it was a sharp contrast to their metric of attractiveness. I waited for the approval I thought I needed.

It never came.

The dark cloud of insecurity was not banished by a lightning strike epiphany. I wish it were different, but there is no fast cure, only time. Burlesque did not make me confident, but through the medium of burlesque I discovered how to be confident. The first step was accepting myself before I ask any audience to. Of course we want the them to love us, want us, cheer for us, but we cannot expect to receive it until we give it to ourselves. Loving yourself is a hard skill to master and not a subject widely taught.

Kill the negative self-talk. It only hinders growth. Often, it is such a deeply ingrained habit, we don’t realize when it happens. This article gives great simple tips on how to begin the process of retraining your thought processes. The technique is used in the field of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and is a great tool to help incite change in many people suffering from negative thought patterns and behaviors. I use my mentor’s words: “Would you hurl the same ugly words at your friends that you do yourself?” I let go of waiting around for others to give me the boost. I paid attention to the positive and began dismantling the core of destructive thinking.

Breaking this nasty habit is a daily challenge for so many of us. I don’t believe any performer, great or small, is excluded from this at some time or another. Pinpoint how dangerous internal monologue blooms in your mind. Engage in activities that make you feel good about yourself: volunteering, exercise, dance--anything to fuel the budding confidence. Lastly, and most challenging: accept not everyone will love you, your performance style, or feel attracted to your form, but it won’t matter because you will love and accept yourself. Confidence will pour out of you on stage and will leave a lasting mark on your audience.

Nudity is vulnerability. We spend ours lives dressing our bodies to highlight and to hide. We are up for ultimate judgement naked, and often vulnerability, the absolute honesty, can be terrifying for newcomers. While all of this happens, we should be oozing with pride, unabashed with our brazen, honest nakedness. Harness vulnerability, transform it into a source of power. Someone whom I admire greatly once advised me to never lose sight of my authentic voice. Power is stepping onstage, ready to face a dark sea of faceless people, and tell your story, present your body in your authentic voice. In our daily lives, we don’t get this chance to control public perception. On stage, it’s your turn to show them how who you are and how you love yourself, and why they should too.