Hannah-Freya is a PhD student and teaches literature at Leeds Trinity University. Her research is in Gothic and sensation fiction of the nineteenth century. Hannah-Freya also writes creative pieces and aspires to be a novelist, with multiple cats. You can follow her at @freya_cw.
Boob celebration. Position hands beneath breasts and look down upon said breasts in sheer wonder at their amazement. Look up to your audience, smile, and then vigorously shake. There you have it: boob celebration.
It’s about the only pose I can do in the beginner’s burlesque class, probably because my boobs are my best asset. I’ve got the tits, my sister has the butt. Now I’ve been eating too much chocolate for too long, I’ve also got the thighs, the belly and the wings to take off with. Bit of a difference to the teenage me, a skinny goth girl with an eating disorder. Still, the boobs were present. C cup tits above a rack of ribs; if I’d shook them then, I probably would’ve rattled.
I had little body confidence back then, when I was counting up the calories and capping them at 500, and over exercising to match. Sometimes I’d have binge days; then I’d have to work harder to starve and exercise. I can’t say for sure where it came from. I’d like to blame the French teacher, who made me stand in front of the class and learn how to describe myself before taking my seat, because I was late to arrive. Je suis grande, she made me say, in front of everyone. I’d like to tell the PE teacher who said that if I kept making excuses to sit out, I’d die before I’m 30, that maybe I will die, but not for the lack of exercise. I’ll be hollow and spectral and perfect in this oh-so feminine death.
That stuff echoes. Or haunts. Whichever best describes the constant inner skinny girl prodding and pinching the lumps and bumps that dimple my thighs. She’s not saying starve yourself any more. She’s saying, give up. Skinny little me and present chubster me can’t say the right thing: you’re worthy of happiness and health. Fuck the ex with a drug addiction. Never mind what Jennifer Lawrence looks like. You do you. But no. Pass the chocolate and wine.
Enter burlesque. What better way to fix your own cycle of body shaming than by parading it around a group of women? I say parade. I look a little like a hen in heels trying to hold in an egg when we try to strut.
Last week we learnt how to remove gloves. I think I learnt more about how to fake an orgasm, though. Peel off the gloves to the beat of the music, gasp and pant in tremulous excitement. Then – ecstatic eruption in the form of a flying glove. Except that, actually, we need to keep hold of the glove for a while, so off I cluck to pick it up again from the other side of the room. Like a used condom.
The thing about undressing is that it needs to be done in the dark, for me. I can’t quite jump on the body positivity band wagon, because the narrative is still around a sexual confidence and ownership which only melts on my tongue – I can speak about it, I can make jokes (I delight in innuendos), but the substance of it evaporates as soon as I face a bedroom. Theory vs action. The people who talk about body positivity are not me – those social media posts about loving your stretchmarks? That’s because you’ve had a baby. I’ve only had food babies, and yet still I have stretchmarks. Give me a body confidence post about eating too much cake, and turning out like one. Plus size model? Look at your face and hair. You’re glorious to behold. I look like a Picasso painting when I attempt to contour properly.
I’ve tried the gym. I like it, but ain’t nothing shifting from this body. I sleep naked, and find the feel of the covers against my skin more comfortable than pjs. In fact, it’s more like pjs are day wear and bed wear is birthday suit only. Forget normal day clothes.
Burlesque lessons, then. Last attempt to own this body of mine, poised miraculously between my own feminism that screams not for the male gaze! and my own need to feel good. So this week we’re learning how to bump and grind. I’ve heard twerking can damage your back (ahem, Whores of Yore), so I’m a bit worried about this week’s lesson.
Despite the awkward manoeuvring of limbs, and the humiliation of pouting like a bad plastic Barbie version of Angelina Jolie, I go back. I rehearse in my flat, sometimes dragging myself in front of the mirror to check I’m doing it right (I’m not). Boob celebration is nailed. Hair (think of the Herbal Essences orgasms) not too bad. Teapot? Fuck knows what that one is.
Even so, the best thing about burlesque is meeting other women who feel like they want to find their confidence, affirm it, or simply laugh. We’re a nutty bunch. We’re a clamour of curves with sharpened edges. We’ve got skinny, and we’ve got large, and we’ve got all variations between. Big tits, little tits. Some of the women are my sister hens, others are swans, and some are downright filthy (that’s a good thing in the world of Burlesque).
Lady Wildflower, the instructor, is all for the confidence aim. She told us about the history of burlesque, and how it’s shifted between comedy, to sexual smut, to the celebration of woman’s body for audiences who are now mostly female. It’s a bit like watching Channel 4’s Naked Attraction, a guilty pleasure of mine. I like to see these anonymous bodies, and think to myself, hey, that’s a pretty vagina. It’s a bit like mine, too. You get to see yourself in these other women, and celebrate the success of their confidence, and internalise a little part of it. Even if you’re also thinking, well bugger me. I’ve not seen that position before.
I can’t say whether or not burlesque is going to silence the echo of skinny me, since there are days that she remains repulsed by the bumps I’ve developed. But Thursday evenings at beginner’s burlesque are my favourite; I get to socialise, I get to be different, I get to laugh at my own awkwardness rather than being ashamed of it, or silently pleading to turn the fucking lights off. Sometimes you’ve got to fake it until you make it, I’ve been told. I wonder if it’s the same for orgasms.