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Protecting my Self-Esteem as a Burlesque Performer

I just got video of my performance back from Jeezy's Juke Joint. It's sitting in my inbox because of all the self-loathing that will come from seeing myself perform.

To be honest, I have almost no clue what people see in me! When people compliment my performances, it sounds like they are speaking a foreign language. I say thank you, but I don't understand. When I see performers who are praised for being "good," I do not see how I compare or am in the same category. And yet, I too sometimes get praised for being "good" at burlesque.

When I debuted, I promised myself not to give a flying fuck what most people thought of me -- that's how I had the confidence to get up there in the first place. Now that I know all the good and amazing things people think of me, how can I work on seeing what my fans see?

I lose myself when I am onstage performing. It's exhilarating and I don't think about my "self-esteem" or "self-care" or any of that shit while I'm up there. Every smile you see is real, every caress is authentic because I love what I do. In those moments onstage, I love my body.

However, watching myself perform gives me the willies. Offstage, I end up hating myself by the time the video is done. "God, you have zero sex appeal. Your body is non-remarkable and forgettable, and quite weird. You look like a pre-teen, which is gross." These are real things I have said to myself while watching videos of my acts. After I say all this, I also say to myself, "I ain't got time for your shade, bitch! Get a grip!" And then I click off the video, never to watch again. Nobody has time for negative self-talk!

This week, I've spoken with four different performer friends who are battling self-esteem issues and negative self-talk almost directly related to burlesque.

Got into a festival? Here comes the pressure to perform, bitch, to look your best the whole weekend, to network your ass off, to pay for flight and hotel and food and transportation even though you only make $50-$100 per gig, to IMPRESS.

Didn't get into the festival? Here comes the self-loathing and feelings of abandonment and rejection. Couldn't even apply to the festival? Here comes the FOMO, the imposter syndrome, the am-I-even-a-real-performer feels. It's like a cycle that never ends, and our self-esteem is always the punching bag.

Years ago, I retired from roller derby because of what I saw the sport doing to my own self-esteem and that of my friends and other players. Roller derby was intense - we practiced for 4+ hours three or four times a week doing drill after drill, hit after hit, scrimmage after scrimmage.

I wasn't necessarily bad at roller derby, but I wasn't that great either. I just loved skating! And I love my derby family. But at one of those last practices, I distinctly remember the moment I knew I didn't love the sport anymore. We were running a complicated drill for the millionth time, and one of the newer players began to get frustrated. We'll call her Wounded Warrior.

"Fuck this!" Wounded Warrior screamed, ripping off her helmet and skating away.

A couple of us skated over to talk, but she didn't wanna talk. She was staring at the other girls successfully completing the drill. She was beating herself up. Ironically enough, this skater was one of the best in the entire league -- she had passion, she had skills, and she (usually) had a really positive attitude. But I watched over the months as her confidence in herself eroded, even though she was technically improving as a skater. It was uncanny.

"Well, fuck. If you can't get the drill, then I know I can't," another player said. "You're a way better player than me. I've been riding the bench all season." And on and on it went, a group of bad-ass derby players bitching about our shortcomings and misgivings on the sidelines.

I had enough. "Hey y'all... look down at our feet. We're a bunch of grown ass women wearing fucking skates," I said. "Skates! Screw the drill... let's just focus on feeling comfortable on wheels and having fun." I twirled around and around, laughing like an idiot. "This is supposed to be FUN!"

By the time I stopped twirling and laughing, I noticed they were staring at me with the universal "shut-the-fuck-up" silent stare. Wounded Warrior glared at me and said, "Some of us actually care, Bebe!"

And then I watched this tough-as-nails, bad-ass roller derby rock star queen start to cry (edit: ok, maybe she didn't exactly cry, but she was clearly upset, pacing and whatnot -- this is "crying" to an Aries, I guess :-p). We didn't stop her; we just put our helmets back on and returned to running drills. We just kind of accepted that part of being a "good" roller derby player meant being occasionally broken down mentally and physically. Now, I know that shit ain't right.

As burlesque performers, we struggle daily with not feeling good enough for this gig or that gig. Just like derby players have to balance the growing pains that come with learning a new skill while also maintaining the strength to keep playing and running drills... we have to balance the glamorous portrayal of our lifestyle with the reality that we're really not getting paid as we should, and we're also dealing with completely normal body image and self esteem issues. And we gotta twirl through it all.

There are a ton of little stories just like this that I could tell -- stories of otherwise amazing people being broken down by tough sports or competitive environments. I've seen it happen in cheerleading, roller derby, pageants, law school, corporate work environments, etc.

I think my (failed) pep talk to Wounded Warrior was on the right track. If I can hold on to why I do burlesque, it's easier to combat the negative self talk that comes along with going though self-esteem issues. I do burlesque because it's fun, independent, and it sets me free onstage. I don't do it to look good in videos, perform at festivals, or make friends. I perform because it's my escape. My burlesque retirement will come the minute I am so overwhelmed with pressure that I no longer enjoy my stage time.

Life is too fucking short to spend it on things or people that make you feel like shit.

Quitting roller derby was hard -- one of the hardest things I've ever done. I felt like I was abandoning my family. But once I quit, I fell back in love with skating again! After I stripped away all the bullshit pressure, I was able to get back to doing what I love.

Me, in my happy place, rollerskating with no pressure to "win" or "be the best". Just enjoying life!
Me, in my happy place, rollerskating with no pressure to "win" or "be the best". Just enjoying life!

That was the real reason why I started playing: not to get "good" at drills or win bouts, but because I just fucking wanted to skate and have fun. Wounded Warrior was crying because she was doing derby to "win" -- no tea, no shade, but that's a journey with much too little pay-off to risk my mental well-being and health. I feel similarly about burlesque.

A lot of thoughts here, and it's a bit unorganized, but I just wanted to share my feelings.

Until next time,


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