Content warning: This story discusses eating disorders and body image.
College was an easy place for me to have an eating disorder. For years, I ducked into single stall bathrooms to purge after meals. My bulimia was as endemic to my campus experience as theme parties and my thesis. Therapy helped me stop purging, but even after I was in recovery by most objective measures, my body — and everyone else’s — was constantly at the forefront of my mind. I felt trapped in an endless cycle of comparison to both the women around me and the girl I used to be, reflected back to me in drunken Facebook photo albums.
After graduation, I moved to New York to pursue an acting career. Five years later, feeling burned out, I followed my boyfriend to Chicago. I didn’t want to act full time anymore, but doing shows was always how I’d made friends. Surely, I could find something that was just for fun. Scouring audition listings, I stumbled across one for a burlesque parody of the Oregon Trail video game at a “nerdlesque” theater that specialized in pop culture parodies (but with boobs). I loved the idea of it, but I knew I’d never be cast — or be bold enough to take it all off. I told myself I was only going to audition as a joke.
In all the years I’d been working, every audition room had been filled with thinner versions of me. But in this dingy black box theater, there were women of every size and shape. Most of them seemed to know each other, joyously cackling with the same dialed-up energy you’d find at a slumber party at 2 a.m. It was exactly the kind of sorority-in-sweatpants situation I’d dreamed of finding.
Although I’d worried about my lack of formal dance training, the choreography for the audition wasn’t complicated; it was similar to the type of dancing I’d done as a college cheerleader. The actual strip itself was an improvised 16-count at the end of the combination. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and shucked off my clothes like I was about to put on a pair of pajamas. I can’t imagine either my dancing or my decidedly unglamorous choice of underwear (a navy pair that said LOVE on the butt in shiny gold foil) was particularly impressive, but I could tell I’d nailed the acting part of the audition. I left the theater with a sneaking suspicion that I’d gotten the part, and it turned out I was right.
As I walked to the first read-through, I planned to quit. I couldn’t be nearly naked onstage! I’d been the only one of my friends to opt out of skinny-dipping or streaking on multiple occasions, terrified of anyone seeing and judging my body, and that had all happened under cover of night. People couldn’t see my body lit by stage lights. I was convinced that if I went through with it, I’d take off my bra and my B-cups would be met with disappointed silence, or I’d whip off my pants to a chorus of “Boo! Cellulite!”
But the energy at the read-through was infectious. I’d missed being part of a cast, and after years of self-important seriousness in off-off-Broadway basements, I loved doing a show where silliness was encouraged. Sure, it was great to look good while dancing, but I was surprised to find that burlesque can highlight humor just as much as sex appeal. Busy having fun, I kept pushing the actual stripping out of my mind, which was easy to do while we rehearsed in a poorly heated garage in the dead of winter, bundled up in puffer jackets and snow boots.
Of course, I had to strip down eventually. At our first fitting, the costume designer handed me pink rhinestone-covered pasties the size of quarters. I begged her for something full-coverage, more like the clamshells Ariel wore, and she laughed off my request. The smaller the tit, she told me, the smaller the pastie. You wanted them to just barely cover the nipple. She showed me how to use double-sided wig tape to keep them in place. I winced when it was time to take them off—like ripping off a Band-Aid in the worst way. One of the other girls laughed, saying it wouldn’t be long before I could barely feel it. Hopefully, my nipples wouldn’t be the only thing that toughened up.
Because I wanted to be just like the other dancers. Looking back, I’m sure they all had moments of insecurity, or that it had taken them time to become so confident, but to me, they seemed invincible. Everyone was gorgeous, and all of their bodies were different — the only thing they had in common was how profoundly, blissfully comfortable they seemed. On nights the heater worked in the garage, no one seemed to think anything of rehearsing naked. No one worried about being bloated from what they had eaten, they only placed bets on who’d have the most lethal onstage fart. Some nights, I’d walk into the dressing room to find the next show’s dancers joyfully gluing rhinestones onto their ass cheeks while eating burritos in the nude. I kept waiting for backstage chatter about needing to lose weight before the show, ready to restrict if that’s what everyone else was doing, but it never happened. These women were totally, completely free, finding joy in the way their bodies transformed music into an entirely new form of art.
It snuck up on me, too, that sense of freedom. It was infectious. Three months ago, when we’d started rehearsing, I’d been hiding behind costume racks to avoid changing in front of my castmates, but days away from opening, I looked down, astonished to find I was rehearsing in nothing but a pink lace thong and a pair of Uggs. Nudity and bodies had become so normalized that I was having a hard time remembering why I’d cared so much about people seeing mine.
On opening night, when I lifted my ostrich-feather fans to reveal my rhinestone pasties, no one booed my tiny tits. Blinded by the stage lights, I could barely see the audience, but it wasn’t about them. It was about me, finally realizing my body was just a body. That everyone deserves cheers and rhinestones, me included. It was about the women dancing alongside me, who had taught me so much more than how to slide my pants off for maximum ass reveal. They’d taught me how to just be.
When I got home that night, I peed glitter. It felt hilariously fitting, equal parts glamorous and gross. Clearly, burlesque had worked its way into my body, and even now, years after my final curtain call, it’s still here.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.