Being a burlesque performer has led me to experience the stark difference in reception I get when in and out of “burlesque drag”. How people perceive feminine beauty is something I purposely mess with. For years I’ve heard men say that they don’t like women who wear make-up and definitely not women who wear a great deal of it. However, as I go through the urban jungle of New York my, ahem, field research shows very different findings for me personally. I know this experience is not the same for all women. I have a friend who could be wearing a trash bag with a freezer bag hat and would still have to deal with street harassment and cat calling on the street. However, with me it is a totally different experience. There have been many a time I show up for a gig casual, get ignored, change into performance mode and get sudden attention.
When I am not in showgirl mode, I trend towards being a no make up wearing sweats/jeans, tee-shirt, sneaker woman. I’ve never been the type of woman who would “never leave the house without make up”. I’ve had those friends. We are getting ready to run out to the corner store for snacks. I have to sit and wait for lipstick, mascara, eyebrows, etc all to be applied first. The thought bubble over my head reads, “Really?!? Just to go buy some Cheese Doodles?”. But I’d sit and wait patiently. Whatever makes you happy. I on the other hand am perfectly happy to roll out in the same grey sweat pants day after day after day with no shame. When I am dressed down, I can pretty much move through the streets of NYC without being bothered. Mostly I choose to dress this way because it’s comfortable for me. I admit though some days it’s because I’d rather not deal with the harassment.
It’s not so shocking to me that no one wants me to “smile” or “have a nice day” or any of the other litany of things I get told, wished or crassly bombarded with. Perhaps, it is because my casual seems to read as tomboy on most days. I had the experience recently of standing in a room full of Burlesque folks and very few people recognized me. One person, who’d seen me perform only the week before said she was wondering who the soft butch lesbian in the corner was. Hilarity to me. I often end up in conversations with strangers. I talk to everyone. If the conversation leads me to talking about being a burlesque performer or sensual dance/booty twerk teacher, I’ll hand them a card. I forget that the card looks like my on stage persona. The silent skepticism on their faces reminds me that I look very different to other people. Enter Clark Kent/Super Hero joke here.
I took a business class last year. Most people were discussing traditional business ideas. There was a man who was opening a winery, a music school owner, real estate folks, etc. I talked about Essence Revealed and ideas I plan to create in the future. After several weeks in the class the instructor said she wanted to have a one on one session with me. She explained that because she was seeing the entire picture of what I was building. However, because my classmates do not, I needed to be able to ”sell” my classmates and look sexy when I come to class. Her thought was I needed to sell the image visually. What’s funny is that it never occurred to me that “attractive” or “attracting” needed a specific look. I feel good when I walk out the door and that’s good enough for me.
It leads to questions for me. Are people being honest when they say that they don’t like women who wear a lot of make-up? Men, in particular, are very visual creatures. Does attractive or what is attracting “look” a certain way. I tend to have “look” fairly low on my what attracts me to someone totem pole. And also femininity is defined in very limited ways it seems. Is a woman less feminine dressed down in sweats or is that simply a societal construct.
It has been my experience that only after I am in relationship with someone do they express that they love that I can dress down or “put some sparkle on it”. Very seldom, have I ended up in relationship with someone who met me in my dress down mode. I don’t feel any less of a woman, no matter how tomboy I am dressed. However, how I’m physically adorned surely dictates whether people feel like they should give me a “pound” or a “hug” as a greeting. What has your experience been?
- Burlesque Your Way to Body Image Health (thirtythreadbaremercies.wordpress.com)
- On Men Who Think Street Harassment Would Be Awesome (brutereason.net)
ESSENCE REVEALED - Essence Revealed is first generation Bajan born & raised in Boston. She got her BFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and MA at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education. Her writing has appeared places such as $pread Magazine, Corset Magazine, BurlesqueBible.com and 21st Century Burlesque. She now performs & teaches nationally and internationally both solo and as a member of Brown Girls Burlesque. Her favorite thing to do besides reading is to lay on the beach in Barbados to rest up for a night of calypso dancing.