Speaking up in favour of keeping your clothes on

One of the drawbacks to becoming relatively popular as a blogger is that suddenly what I say and write actually gets noticed, and affects people.  When I started this blog I never imagined I’d have more than a couple dozen readers: I just wanted to document my costumes.

Then, gradually, more and more people started reading, and now I meet all sorts of people in real life who say “Oh, I read your blog”, and I thought “Eeek!”  People now have an impression of me without ever meeting me, and (very occasionally) quote my research and opinions.

My first reaction to this was to feel I couldn’t write anything controversial, because I hate arguments and controversy.  Lately though I’m beginning to feel that I have an obligation to say what I believe in, and write what matters to me.  I’ve done it a bit in the past, with my post on ‘real women’ and ‘universally flattering’ looks (that aren’t), and the sky didn’t fall in, and I didn’t get too many virulent comments (oddly, my post on sewing with acrylic, which I thought was quite innocuous, resulted in far more angry emails), and most of you actually agreed with me and thanked me for saying what I was saying.  And if I lost some readers, that’s OK.  I’d rather have the ones that will at least consider my opinion, even if they don’t agree with me (and of course the ones that do agree with me are also awesome!).

So here is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time, and have been attacked for even hinting at in some circles in Wellington, but have finally decided is too important not to say.

I don’t like burlesque.

In fact, I don’t just not like burlesque, I think burlesque is just stripping with better clothes, and that it is horribly detrimental to the ongoing struggle to achieve true gender equality and justice, and to women’s status as a whole.

Before those of you who are burlesque fans start telling me I am wrong, and that I don’t really understand what burlesque is, I think that you should know that my initial introduction to it was quite positive.  I watched a girl who had discovered burlesque go from being quite insecure to quite self confident, and I thought “that’s awesome”.  And friends who taught and took it told me all about how it was about developing poise, and subverting the usual ideas of feminine objectification, and I thought “those are excellent things.”  And, for as much as I knew of it or was exposed to it, I approved of it and thought it was quite worthy.

Unfortunately, the more I saw of burlesque, the less I was able to find these supposed ideals.  Instead, I saw the same old objectification of women: the same old treating women purely as items to be looked at.

The burlesque poses and performances were all the same tropes that you see in Victorian peep-shows and 1950s pin-ups (and, from what I gather, modern lightly-clothed magazines).  You have your choice of A) the child-like female who is surprised and astonished to be caught with her skirt blowing up to reveal her knickers (the big-eyed “Oh!” face), B) the confident, sexually aggressive woman (usually in black or animal print, sometimes with a whip) who enjoys taking off her bits for the sake of the audience, or C) the girl who find that playing with other girls is just a bit more fun than she though (but only if men are looking on).

Yes, the audience at many burlesque shows is mainly women, but I don’t think that women objectifying other women is all that much better (if at all) than men objectifying women.

Finally, after a long and difficult struggle with myself (I have friends who I respect in all other matters who are very involved with burlesque).  I decided that no matter how it was phrased, and how it was dressed up, anything that was primarily about presenting women primarily as objects to be viewed, and to be judged based on their physical attractiveness (even if it allows for a broader range of physical attractiveness) isn’t OK with me.

So I have to say it.  I don’t like burlesque.  Yes, there are the occasional burlesque routines that are witty and clever and not about objectification and do subvert the usual stripping paradigms.  These, however, definitely seem to be more the exception than the rule.  I do acknowledge that there are women who have gained a lot of confidence, and to be comfortable with their own body, because of burlesque, and that’s great.  However, I maintain that there are other ways these women could have gained this confidence, and that on balance, burlesque is hurting women more than it is helping them.

I am appalled that the world is holding up Dita von Teese as  an inspiration to girls, and I certainly don’t think she should be a role model.  Sure, she overcame a drug addiction and went on to have a ‘productive’ life, but plenty of other women have overcome drug addictions and gone on to really help the world.  Sure, she’s built up a successful life, but if you want a female business model, there are many better choices.  When it comes down to it, there is only one big thing that I respect the grande dame of burlesque for, and that is for saying that when it comes down to it, she’s just a stripper.  I respect honesty.

On the same hand, because I dislike burlesque because I see it as objectifying women, and reducing us to primarily physical roles, where we are judged on looks, I dislike extreme modestly, like the all-enveloping ‘wholesome’ swimsuits that Elise posted a few weeks back.  It may be on the opposite end of the spectrum, but it also reduces women to physical objects, with bodies so tempting they must be covered up lest they lead men astray.  They are two sides of the same coin, and neither gives women space to be interacted with as people, not just viewed as objects of desire.

As a woman, as a person, I want to be judged as a person, for my personality and my thoughts.  I may be a woman who thinks a lot about bodies and clothes, but I want the people who I interact with to realise that I really am thinking about bodies and clothes (just as I might think about cars, were I a mechanic, or policy, if I worked for the government, or programming, if I were a computer scientist), not just being a body with clothes that should be shown off or hidden, at the whim of the current (usually male) powers that be.

So, as an occasional seamstress and corseteer for hire, and the someone with friends who do burlesque, what am I actually going to do about it as a person?

Well, I’m not going to take any burlesque commissions, because that involved me in it, but in the end, I do think morality has to be a personal choice.  I’ve chosen not to drink, and to be vegetarian, but those were my personal choices.  I don’t sit at dinner with friends who eat meat and have a glass of wine and condemn them for their choices (but I also won’t buy their alcohol).  I chose to be chaste until marriage, but I don’t look at my unmarried friends and their partners and think “you slut” – that’s not what morality is about.

I firmly believe people have to choose what their own actions are, and what actions they are happy with, and as long as their actions don’t overly impact on others who can’t agree to it, that’s fine (sleeping with whoever you choose, as long as they can reasonably consent = fine, your choice, private.  Sleeping with someone who can’t properly consent because of age, state of inebriation, species = not fine.  Drinking a reasonable amount = fine, your choice, private.  Drinking and driving, or drinking enough that you loose control and might attack someone = not fine).

So I choose not to be involved with or condone burlesque, but if you do, that’s your choice.  However, I do need to speak up.  I just can’t nod and smile and pretend to be OK with it any longer, because in the end, I think it is making it that much harder for me, and for all women, to be judged primarily as a person, for their intellect and personality, rather than as an ornament or a temptation, to be enjoyed or avoided for my body and looks.  If you need to stop reading this blog, or move on from me as a friend, because of this, that’s OK.

But, if like me, you felt that you couldn’t really say “Hey, I don’t think this is so great after all”, please feel its OK to do so.


  1. Tegan says

    I hoping that there have been helpful, supportive comments all along these 99 comments previous. I am currently not reading them 😛

    The only thing that I would like to add is that it probably depends where you are as to what your exposure to burlesque is. My favorite yearly show is the Slutcracker, which is a burlesque rendition of that shitty Tchaik ballet. The troupe that puts it on, Babes in Boinkland, are fun, fabulous women and men (yes, men too!) who go out and have a good time and tell a fun story. The story of Slutcracker is a couple coming to terms with their own sexuality and becoming comfortable in their own skin. This is something that I feel there should be more of (being comfortable in one’s own skin and how sexuality is involved with that).

    The only sense of objectification is that of any sexual partner — the act of enjoying what one sees, and enjoying the experience given by a partner. As a visual person and a sex-positive person, I will easily say that I objectify any partner I have — they are sexy and I can gaze upon their beauty for hours happily. But that is because I take joy in the inherent beauty of the human form.

    I guess where I’m trying to go with this is that the burlesque dancers that I know are DANCERS first — and the arts have always had elements of “whoring oneself out”. Their dances happen to often involve removing clothing in beautiful manners, but the dance and the musical interpretation and story is what is important. I mean, ballerinas are often more undressed than a burlesque dancer.

    I thank you for your honest opinions, and I have no intention of forcing my opinions upon you (I also eat meat, drink and have lots of unmarried sex :-P). I hope that you have not been shamed or hurt by any response to your article. I respect your opinions greatly. I just am curious to see if you feel the same about the burlesque you’ve seen as you would about the works my friends in Boston put on. (I also know a ton of circus performers — that is also a highly exhibitionist art form. What has been your thoughts as to circus arts?)

    • lynn says

      I’ve never seen a ballerina in pasties before 😉

  2. Thanks for taking a stand. I agree with you, and while burlesque can be interesting, pretty, fun, I agree that I don’t want to show all that off for other people that my body is not intended for. Sure, I may feel one way about it if I were to do it, but that doesn’t change the fact that some (if not many) others will objectify me and treat me in a certain way because of those actions.

    Thanks for taking the unpopular route and sticking to what you believe in. That’s really admirable, and it’s really encouraging to me as a fellow (albeit much newer) blogger! Thank you!

    • Star says

      First off no one is asking YOU to be a burlesque performer. You can do whatever you want with your body just as the performers can with theirs. The “intended for” I’m assuming is some biblical b.s. that you feed into/believe in. If there were people who were going to objectify you for doing burlesque they’d be the same people who would judge you for wearing a skirt a smidgen to short or a top a little too low cut. If you know people that would objectify you maybe you should find new friends. While you are at it you need stop being a(ahem) prude. As women we should be uplifting each other instead of continuing to look down our noses at other women for what they choose to do. If women like you didn’t make a big deal out of it maybe the rest of the world wouldn’t either.

      • I’m sorry, if you had read what I wrote at all, you’d clearly see that I’m NOT judging other women, which is why I would never treat one in the way you have just treated me. If your comment was meant to be a defense of burlesque, and of the women who do it, I’m afraid you haven’t made much of a job of it.

  3. Thanks for posting a stance on this. I particularly appreciate your thoughtful insight about excessive modesty – growing up in a community that emphasized aforementioned modesty, it is wise to note that it is just as objectifying! And can be pretty damaging to a girl’s confidence and perception of herself in the long run.

  4. Mary says

    Thanks for being honest.

    Sometimes it takes courage to speak the truths that people need to hear. Bravo!

  5. Lily says

    That’s an interesting take on Burlesque. Have you seen any Boylesque (male Burlesque) do you think it objectifies men?

  6. Glorian says

    An interesting read! Its a shame to me that there is such a divide, and that people with particular feminist objections to burlesque can’t discuss it without getting pounced on (and the same can work in reverse). I am a professional burlesque performer, have been for 6 years. I am also an informed feminist and feminist academic- obviously taking a bit of a different paradigm though. I wish there wasnt such a knee jerk reaction when this topic is brought up (although historically, burlesque always created a knee-jerk on all sides!), I personally would love to engage more with feminists who think a different way about burlesque. I disagree with a lot of what you say, and I agree with some of it too (like the microcosm of society it is, burlesque has an issue with objectification of women, and I think as an industry we could do with acknowledging this more, and as a society too! But its more complex that is suggested here)- on all accounts I see where you are are coming from anyway, and would stand up for your right to say what you think, even if I disagree with it x

  7. Eleanor says

    It’s funny–I probably have even more differing views about sex from you than a lot of people who are objecting–and since I know that absolutely nothing I can say in an internet comment will bring you to my extreme point of view, I’m not even going to try. I really do appreciate the way you’re presenting this as your views and I’m having trouble reading the other comments because a lot of people agreeing with you are using much more extreme & alienating language towards those who disagree.

    If you ever wonder Why Young Women Aren’t Feminists, though, it’s because a lot of us have different views on personhood, bodies, and objectification than you & other mainstream feminists. I personally find it a lot more fun to date guys who were *not* raised by feminist mothers as long as they respect my personhood & modern values . . .

    So: I’m going to keep reading your blog but I’m not going to read many comments about controversial issues. I think it’s very important not to hide what you believe or why, and I appreciate that you didn’t frame this as a rant. You don’t need to hide any part of yourself that doesn’t adhere to community standards or to your past beliefs, and I do think a diversity of viewpoints makes our communities stronger.

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