Naked and Not Afraid: Woman is a Word

Why I question what has always been expected of me as a woman and performer  

Scarlett Vanderwoodsen, Columnist // Illustration by Alison Johnstone

The first day I wore black lipstick to school in my junior year, I was told that I looked scary. I had made the dry, sludge-like cream the night before out of a black crayon and lip balm melted together. Smoothing it over my lips felt empowering in a way that I was never able to feel before. Despite the remarks from a few fellow classmates, including my close friends, I continued to reign as the black-lipped queen a few more times. I eventually retired the beauty statement after realizing that the boy I had my eyes on didn’t quite approve of the look. At home I was told that my appearance wouldn’t get me far in the professional world, and wouldn’t do me any favours in the romance department either.  

Upon some personal growth, I learned to just not give one flying fuck about other people’s perceptions – you’ll always come out the loser. After adjusting my behavioural and stylistic instincts for years, I found that I hadn’t won a single battle against the comments regarding my appearance and the way I carried myself. Even after I had tucked away the black lipstick, even before I had ever worn it, I found myself on the receiving end of a continuous stream of critique. The constant nagging seemed to always revolve around what others believed a woman should look and act like.  

There’s the argument that burlesque hyper-sexualizes women, regurgitates stereotypes of femininity and reinforces a degrading and submissive culture. While I can see how those who don’t know what burlesque really is could say that, it could not be further from the truth. The burlesque community is inclusive and constantly evolving. It’s becoming more geared towards taking back the word feminine, redefining it in an empowering way, and steering it away from the meek connotations often associated with it.  

In shows, the performers hold all the power in the room. We can choose to play with the crowd with a strip tease or walk right up to an audience member and plop ourselves down next to them just to bring them out of their shell. Various personas come out of each show, not all of which are glamourous, but all of which remain empowered and beautiful in their own way. Though we’re not permitted to swear, insult or be physical with audience members as we’d be kicked out of the club, we do have the freedom, and are encouraged to be, a bit cheeky in our performances. If someone is on their phone, we’re known to approach them mid-performance, sit on their table and, while simultaneously continuing the number, call them out on it. It’s all at our own discretion and the responses are absolutely fascinating.  

So much shame is placed on sex, especially when women are involved, but burlesque celebrates the sexual liberation of all genders and orientations. Shows are never centred around pleasing the audience, rather, they work to get the viewers to cheer for the performers who are understanding their bodies, having fun and what you could call “strutting their stuff.” Positive and encouraging responses always seem to be the norm after a show, and come from all demographics.    

Although, off-stage and outside the club is a bit different. Waiting on the street for the performer’s door to be opened from the inside attracts derogatory comments and cat calls, all of which I brush off. My lifestyle isn’t for or understood by everyone, and I know that what really matters is what happens inside the club, surrounded by supportive friends and strangers – which is why I’m comfortable with sharing an intimate aspect of life.  

The partners I’ve had in the past and my present partner all know not to expect me to put on a show for them. To put it simply, though intimate parts of my life are public, my life isn’t a stage show. In fact, all of the strong women I perform alongside have incredibly rich lives away from the spotlight – as engineers, biologists working in labs and mothers. I’m still not an overly feminine person, but I love my time dolled up on stage. I’m so much more than my on-stage persona, and there’s no need to limit myself to being one way or the other. Burlesque acts as a creative outlet, a space for self-exploration and a way to give the golden finger to what others think is or isn’t acceptable for certain genders. And if you have something to say about it, so be it. Just know that golden finger is directed right at you.

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