Bodies… women’s bodies… used to be pretty scary.
Let’s take the Victorian era – women were tied into their corsets, buttoned into their boots, skirts down to their ankles. Covered up. Repressed.
The 20’s were better, weren’t they? Shorter skirts, boots and corsetry gone. Such improvement… Yet, in 1923 in Boston, when Isadora Duncan was dancing on stage in a silk tunic and her breast fell out of her tunic when dancing (no leotards at that time), the U.S. was in an uproar. “The outcome… was a degree of bodily revelation unbecoming to a middle-aged woman…” “Audience is disgusted!” “Her costume was exceedingly scant… and the upper part persisted in slipping down,” stated newspaper articles all over the country. People were not just shocked. They were disgusted. (1)
Well, it is better now, isn’t it? We see scantily clad women in bikini bathing suits cavorting on the beach. Women’s bodies and sexually stimulated advertisements hit us in the face multiple times every day. Certainly we are inured to the visual stimulation of a female in 2017. Or are we?
We live in an era where women’s bodies are still expected to be perfect. Young, thin, fit. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but there is something wrong if that is the expectation that we are all supposed to fulfill. We live in a society where eating disorders are rampant (2), where models wearing a size 6 (that is my size) are cast as PLUS-size models (3) and (4), where girls are sent home from school for ridiculous standards of dress (5), and where women are still regularly slut-shamed (6) and blamed for inciting rape (7). Furthermore, new studies show that millennials are not attracted to large breasts. (8)
To me that says that women’s bodies are still frightening. Our own bodies are frightening. And the sexuality of those bodies – the most frightening of all. Some of my most recent students identify as asexual. I understand that asexuality is a legitimate gender identity, and I do not intend to diminish or even question it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that completely foregoing sexuality entirely, denying it even exists, is a reasonable response to the strange and confusing combination of sexual obsession and sexual repression. Sometimes, I feel like it would be just so much easier to give it up entirely. Our bodies are relentlessly defined as sexual, and at the same time we are condemned and judged for having sexual bodies. Who wouldn’t want to give it all up?
I recently performed burlesque at an Isadora Duncan dance symposium. The presentation (performance demonstration and discussion) was on the use of burlesque in Duncan dance. I told the audience that I would be stripping down to pasties and a g-string and if they could not handle it, they should leave now. No one left then. Some left later. Because mentally, it sounds okay. But, then when you see it, it is a little raw. A little revealing. Seeing a naked women dancing, storytelling with her body, and stripping, are way more emotional than you thought it would be. Because it is a real situation; a real act; a real female body on a real stage, not an air-brushed photo in a magazine. And this female body was doing things that were happy, flirty, loving, sexy. It was powerful. It was emotional. And for many, it was – is – still scary.
I knew I would be dealing with historical purists. People who worship Isadora Duncan or think they do. People who think the Victorian way of dress should never have gone away. One person asked, essentially, if taking off my clothes was required or part of the artistic expression of the dance. Another person asked if I was (paraphrased) debasing Isadora’s high art by doing it in bars. And people questioned whether taking my clothes off was really feminism, at which I patiently reminded them that sexuality is actually a part of being a woman.
Not all reactions were negative. One person said it made her really uncomfortable, but then she realized that what Isadora Duncan had done made people really uncomfortable, too. And maybe we should feel uncomfortable more often. Some people wanted to do burlesque. Because once they saw it, they could see the fun, see the empowerment, see the strength in the dance, in the movement, in the freedom. A freedom to be what we want on the stage, regardless of our sexuality.
But we are still taught that our women’s bodies are somehow wrong. At the same event, one of the showings after mine featured a group of serious modern dancers portraying a “cabaret” style modern dance in their underwear. To me, it was a formal dancer response to woman’s sexuality. They called it Air in a G-String, but Air in a Boy Short would have been way more appropriate.
The dancers were all stereotypical modern dancers – all very fit, thin dancers with small chests and slim hips. They all wore plain utilitarian black underwear. All of them wore boy shorts – some that I would even consider bike shorts. (I wear less on my ass when go-go dancing at shows.) I talked with the creator after the showing and she said that the ladies all picked “what they were comfortable wearing.” In the performance, the dancers would occasionally hold both hands behind their head in what I consider a traditional burlesque sexy power pose. They giggled or looked embarrassed. Not just the dancers, but furtive audience giggles could also be heard. Not hilarious giggles. Embarrassed giggles.
Then the dancers did the crotch covering move. Covering their crotch – which was fully covered already – with one or two hands. As if to protect it. No self-respectable cabaret or burlesque performer does that unless it is tongue-in-cheek,. This was not. This was a whitewashed, asexualized version of women’s sexuality. It was fascinating how dance intellectuals view women’s bodies, their own bodies, and women’s sexuality. It was sad. Why can’t we embrace who we are? Or do we really think women have no sex, should claim no sex, that we really only do it for men? Have we forgotten that we too have sexual organs, have sexual needs, have orgasms? Have we forgotten that enjoying our sexuality is an inherent benefit of being human? Of being alive?
I teach burlesque a lot. One of the scariest things we do in burlesque is taking off our clothes for other people. Showing our bodies. Showing our vulnerabilities. Showing our sexuality. It is eventually empowering. But there is still a scariness in that vulnerability. Because in this culture, we are often not allowed to celebrate our bodies or our sexuality, as part of our celebration of feminist culture. As part of our celebration of ourselves and what we can achieve, we seem to forget – or are told to leave at the door – our innate sexuality.
Where in the known female stereotype is the hot sexy woman? Is she in the maiden, the mother, the crone? With the maiden we associate innocence and virginity, the mother a certain pious caring, and the crone we certainly consider too decrepit to want or need sex. Actually, the sex is in all three – we are just very good at distancing it from our “respectable” views of what a woman should be.
The superwoman who has a home, family, and a job is never revered for her sexuality. It fades into the background. Tits at work are scary. Men can’t control themselves (9) and it is all our fault. Look nice, but not too nice. Look like a woman, but not too much like a woman. Be feminine, but not too feminine. And not too masculine either. We have a very small crosswalk of acceptability. If we step outside of those lines, we are liable to get run over. What does getting run over look like? Anything from slut-shaming, to less pay, to no promotion, to disdain, to date rape. Because it is another excuse to belittle us, to demean us, and most importantly, to control us. Stop letting society limit and control us. Stop letting society tell us that our bodies are bad and that our sexuality is bad.
Let’s accept our bodies, accept our sexuality, and support other women doing the same. We are fucking amazing. Let’s be who we are meant be in this world.
Yes, these are footnote and links:
(1) Kurth, Peter. Isadora: A Sensational Life, December 2002.