At 23, my life was going about as well as any recent college grad could hope for: full-time job, no debt, new dog, new boyfriend.
Naturally, I decided to start stripping.
My parents put me in ballet class at age 4, and it stuck. I was transfixed by the grace of my teachers, with the long lines of their arms and the elegance of their movements. I watched myself in the mirror, mimicking. All I wanted in life was to be as pretty as they were.
Every June, the other girls in my classes complained about the recital. Too many sunny afternoons spent in the auditorium of the local high school, waiting for our turn during dress rehearsal. Garish spandex costumes with sequined trim that cut into our armpits. I probably complained too, but mostly I loved it. My classmates would fumble their steps onstage, sweating under the stage lights. I reveled in it.
At 17, I was as good at ballet as I was ever going to be, and I stopped telling myself and anyone who would listen that I was going to be a professional dancer. Instead, I set my sights on the only other thing I felt I’d always been good at and joined the school newspaper. The fantasies of tutus started to fade, but the eating disorders lingered.
Starting at 14, I had counted every calorie I could and stuck my fingers down my throat to bring up the ones I couldn’t. ‘Petite’ isn’t small enough for most ballet dancers; one must be waifish. I mostly quit making myself throw up when I got to college—the communal bathrooms made me too nervous—so I alternated periods of eating midnight pizza and Krispy Kreme doughnuts with my roommates and doing “cleanses” with raw vegetables and diuretics. I used diet pills and teas from the Asian market that made my stomach cramp too badly to want to eat. Seven years of refusing to let my body function normally left me with a heart murmur and fillings in my back molars. My hair may never recover.
I never heard anyone say anything negative about another person’s body. I rarely heard people disparage their own bodies. Those who did were rebutted with a chorus of love and approval.
When I’d been out of college for six months and still living in Gainesville, Florida, a friend told me an acquaintance of his was starting a vaudeville troupe and looking for performers. Salivating at the thought of being back in the world of live performance, I sent an email and was told the slate for the first show was full, but I could stage-manage the inaugural show at a local hippie bar. From the restroom door at the side of the stage about a month later, I watched the troupe leader’s second-ever burlesque performance: A nervous, lanky woman with breasts as small as mine (!) speed-stripped out of a corset and an 80s-era black velvet prom dress to the song “Tijuana Taxi.” It was the first live burlesque act I’d ever seen, and it was terrible. I was transfixed.
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The same night, although essentially all I knew about burlesque was what I’d just seen, I told her I also wanted to take my clothes off on stage. She told me about another all-burlesque troupe that was getting off the ground. I sent another email.
The manager of that troupe hired me as a stage kitten for the next show, meaning I’d dress up in a sexy maid outfit and pick up unmentionables between acts. I went to a rehearsal and watched in awe as women who looked just like me—women with imperfect bodies—strutted around the stage of the smoky bar with the self-confidence I’d thought was reserved for movie stars and CrossFit practitioners. Two days before the show, the manager asked me to do a surprise burlesque act as the finale. I said yes, called my best friend over to my house, and the two of us got hammered as I tried to choreograph an act from nothing. I practiced with knee-high socks on my hands and feet because I didn’t own a pair of gloves or stockings. It was a mess.
For the uninitiated: “Burlesque” today generally means removing one’s costume for the enjoyment of an audience. It doesn’t have to be sexy or beautiful, and is often meant to be humorous or political, but the end of the act usually finds the performer nude except for some legally required adornment covering the nipples and undercarriage. It is not what you’ve seen in the movie with Cher and Christina Aguilera. It’s stripping—no way around that.
If I had more time to consider what I was doing, I might not have done it. I’d spent most of the last decade hating the sight of my own body in the mirror. An impending trip to the beach would send me into a three-day fast, usually followed by a fit of tears. Now I was supposed to get nearly naked in front of 100 strangers. It didn’t make sense, but I was so desperate to perform that I went along with it.
The night of the show came. I did my makeup with shaking hands at the home of another woman in the troupe, who graciously plied me with whiskey and assured me that it was going to be OK. A few hours later, I watched her slip out of a sailor outfit, dripping confidence, and I nearly threw up from nerves. I heard the emcee calling me to the stage. This is it, I thought. I have no tits and no sex appeal. Everyone is going to laugh. After almost 15 years of performing, I’m finally going to pass out from stage fright.
In the time it took me to walk to the front of the stage, a small miracle happened. My nightmare of a public death by embarrassment started to disappear, and my eyes opened on the people in the audience, who were pressed up against the stage, hollering happily. I wiggled my body. They hollered louder. There were whoops as I peeled first one, then both gloves off my hands.
Now I was supposed to get nearly naked in front of 100 strangers. It didn’t make sense, but I was so desperate to perform that I went along with it.
In retrospect, they were all so drunk by that point in the night that they would’ve yelled as loud for a band, a stand-up comic, a clown, or a dog wearing a hat. It didn’t matter to me. I had bared my body, and the outcome was positive. It was a major turning point.
I did another show, and then dozens more, and the feeling wasn’t a fluke. I met women, men, trans and nonbinary performers of many forms and figures who used their bodies for all kinds of wonderful purposes—not just the bump and grind of classic burlesque, but sword swallowing, fire breathing, trapeze flying, and stilt walking. In every dressing room I sat in, I heard plenty of constructive criticism and even a fair bit of sh*t talking, but I never heard anyone say anything negative about another person’s body. I rarely heard people disparage their own bodies. Those who did were rebutted with a chorus of love and approval. This was the part that made the deepest impression on me.
Later, my therapist told me I was able to recover from my eating disorder as quickly as I did because of the positive influence of burlesque. A licensed professional taught me to stop treating carbs like the enemy, but a gang of foul-mouthed strippers taught me to stop hating my body.
There’s more to it, of course. Burlesque isn’t for everyone hoping to overcome body anxiety or work out their issues with sexuality in front of a live audience. Like all show business, it’s a ton of hard work that requires ingenuity and a thick skin. But this isn’t a story about how burlesque isn’t for the faint of heart. This is the story of how burlesque saved my life.
I thought I’d failed at becoming a professional dancer, yet here I am, getting paid to perform slinkier versions of the Black Swan and the Sugar Plum Fairy as north Florida’s Burlesque Ballerina. My first year of burlesque actually did more to develop my identity as a performer than 12 years of dance training, because I was able to experiment with what felt true to me, and because so many things went wrong. When you make your own costumes, sometimes they don’t come off when you want them to, and other times they just fall apart onstage. You don’t know real panic until you’re stuck in a corset at your first burlesque festival and have to run offstage to get a friend to bust you out of it. Never let it show.
I spend less time than ever worrying about how much I weigh or what other people might think of my body. And I quit my newspaper job to work in the costume shop of a regional theater, because I realized a life in the arts would make me happier than any reporting job ever would.
In the three years I’ve been parading my bare body all over Florida, I’ve learned it’s not only acceptable to adjust my expectations regularly—it’s essential. Just remember to pack a backup costume.
This story originally appeared on Cropped, a site that shares personal essays from 20-somethings that explore the experiences often left out of perfectly filtered and curated social media posts. Check out a great story, Growing Pain by Grace Rojek, from their November issue.
Erin Jester performs burlesque and creates costumes for theatrical productions in Gainesville, Florida.