Does weight come into burlesque? Unfortunately, in my experience yes, just not necessarily the way you’d expect it to.
When I started performing I’d say I was a medium 12, at my biggest I’ve been a small 14 and at my slimmest a standard 10. It’s never been an issue for me, I put weight on because I got married, was happy and pigged out. Being able to scoff what I wanted in my life before then I just didn’t think about it and slowly the pounds went on. BUT it didn’t affect me when I first got up on stage. I was thinking more about the fact that I was about to get semi-naked in front of a room full of strangers. My weight didn’t come into it.
I gradually put on more weight. Late night pizza scoffing on the way back from shows (I never had an appetite before I performed) took their toll a little but (again) I should state it wasn’t anything that really bothered me as far as performing was concerned. In my home life I might have been a little concerned that I had E cup boobs (although my husband certainly wasn’t) and that my waistline was getting bigger but I was still rocking the hourglass and looking hot, so onto the stage I went and did my thing.
As I started to perform more however I was approached after shows by audience members who would say things like “it’s good to see someone curvy up there” or something along the lines of “it’s great to see someone representing real women”. This is where I started to have a bit of an issue with it. It’s the “real women” tag.
As much as I know people weren’t saying these things in a negative way, and in fact it was their way of complimenting me, it didn’t make me feel altogether great. It made me feel like I was being singled out as the big girl on the bill. Not that there’s an issue with being the big girl on the bill, but when you want to be complimented on your performance, costume and character then show after show get the same reaction, it becomes a little disheartening. Sometimes I would graciously accept the compliment and smile; sometimes I would smile but feel a bit sad.
When I turned the big three-oh in 2010 (and after a 3 week travelling trip to Vietnam and consequently then seeing the holiday snaps of a size 14 me) I decided that I didn’t want to enter my 30s and be overweight. So I joined slimming world and over a year and half lost 2 stone, and then I started to go swimming and lost a bit more, and then I started to do workout videos and before you know it I was a size 10 for the first time in over 6 years.
In this time the comments decreased by a vast amount, I felt more comfortable in my skin on-stage (I’d taken to wearing skimpier stuff) and I can hand on heart say my weight change didn’t affect the bookings I got. They increased, but only as my skill as a performer did. I never thought I was or wasn’t being booked due to my weight, it was on merit alone.
Then one time in the last few months of performing (and I would like to say at this point I was a size 10, with a 26inch waist – not necessarily flat – and for comparison to the above, now a C cup) someone said those words to me again: “it’s just so great to see real women like you up on stage” and this time – maybe because I knew I was retiring from performance – I did say “yes but we’re all real women, aren’t we?” then felt as uncomfortable as the poor lady did as she backtracked and ran away. I didn’t mean to be confrontational, I didn’t mean to upset her but it did upset me. Like those three years of diet, exercise and weight loss were nothing because I was still being viewed by this person as the one with a bit of jiggle compared to the slimmer girls I was performing alongside.
It happens on the other side too: around a year before the above a slim friend of mine was described by someone who had reviewed a burlesque performance as “painfully thin”. This performer is one of my favourites, she’s amazing on stage and I have never thought of her size in any way. She’s ridiculously hot and she would be whatever her size.
Something else to consider (and this is from my own experience of being slim – I was a size 8 in my early 20s) is how horrible it is when people decide that you must have an eating disorder because you can’t put weight on. Being criticised for being “too thin” is just as bad as being told you’re overweight.
Let me make it clear: I love burlesque because it celebrates the female (and male) form in all of its glory.
Shapes and sizes for me do not come into it, and I can say for the most part that those I have spoken to performers and promoters alike are looking at the performance as a whole, not the size of performer but their skill as a performer. If you have the skill your size doesn’t matter, if you move like a pro you know the right angles and you will look perfect from every one of them.
So why are some audience members so transfixed on people’s size? Why in fact do people think that it’s legitimate to comment on how someone looks rather than what they’re doing when they’re on stage? After some though I came to the following conclusion: it’s not really their fault.
We are bombarded with photos of women daily; newspapers, magazines, websites all telling us we should look like this, or this, or be this way or that and unfortunately sometimes this is in the most horrid way possible (don’t get me started on the daily fail’s sidebar of shame).
As summer is coming up I am sure it won’t be long until I see the usual photos of Marilyn next to some size 8 woman on a beach with the caption “remember when real women looked like this” or last years “fuck society – this is more attractive then this” (points to Marilyn first, then points to slim girl on beach).
The same thing will come up, Marilyn was a size 14. Maybe she was in vintage sizes, but being someone who makes their own clothes a vintage 14 is a modern 10, it’s a 26 waist, a 34 bust and a 36 hip. Why does the label of a “real” woman equate to comparing someone who is bigger than a 10 to someone who is a 10 or smaller? Surely we should all just be accepting of the size we are without the comparison.
So what is a real woman? I’m pretty sure to be a “real” woman you just have to exist, rather than be imaginary. The “real” tag is one of the worst things be bandied about since the phrase “girl power” took the world by force in the 90s and trivialised the achievements of women. It’s a marketing ploy to make those of us who aren’t slim feel better and be critical to those who are. Do people think about how it must feel for a slimmer person to see these posts and know that they’re suddenly being ousted as “not a real woman” because they exercise/diet/are naturally slim? I have as many friends who are naturally slim as not, and their size, weight and shape is none of my concern.
So I’d just ask this: can we please just stop? Can we think of something other than peoples weight to focus on? At the end of the day there’s enough of that crap in the media. So how about we compliment people on the size of their achievements and successes and not the size of body – and next time you’re at a burlesque show and would like to compliment a performer tell them what you loved about their act rather than bringing up their size.
The above is based on my personal experiences of performing from 2008 – 2013