How Burlesque Taught Us To Love Our Bodies

Body confidence and self-love – or at least accepting our s0-called "flaws" – is having a moment. Thanks to the plethora of body-positive Instagrammers and the rise of publications like ours (and many independent feminist zines), which stick a middle finger up at the mainstream media's impossible beauty standards, it's never been easier to see a wide range of bodies represented.
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Nevertheless, when it comes to our bodies, it's not always easy to practise what we preach. We all have off days – but those niggling insecurities don't mean we're letting the side down. We're human and shit happens. Thankfully, there are tried-and-tested methods and sources of inspiration that can help us pull ourselves out of an episode of negative navel-gazing. And that's where burlesque comes in. You probably already have an idea of what it is – sexy, semi-naked women dripping in diamanté and vague memories of Dita Von Teese bathing in a giant martini glass – but there's quite a lot more to it.
While as a feminist you may have reservations about the lack of clothes and the idea of nudity being used to satisfy the male gaze, many performers say burlesque provides a major confidence boost, encouraging them to shed their inhibitions and embrace every inch of themselves. Two such fierce-AF women are cabaret and burlesque star Miss Polly Rae and Lilly SnatchDragon, both of whom currently star in Between The Sheets, a whimsical and suitably risqué late-night show on London's South Bank fusing contemporary burlesque, circus and dance.
Rae, 36, has been performing for 12 years and is famed for bringing burlesque to London’s West End, while SnatchDragon, a neo-burlesque drag queen, has been in the industry for five years. We caught up with the pair to find out how burlesque has transformed their approach to their bodies – and how mere mortals like us can get a piece of the pie.

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Hi ladies. What's a typical outfit that you might wear for a show, to give us some inspiration?
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Polly: A corset with rhinestones, rhinestone boots, a bra and panties with rhinestone embellishment and a bit of extra rhinestone on the side.
Lilly: Something fabulous and southeast Asian-inspired – and always covered in rhinestones.
How did you feel about your body before you became a burlesque performer? Was it mostly positive or negative? Were there any particular bits you didn't like?
P: Growing up, it was mostly positive but I hated my small chest. I had a lot of friends who had developed really young so I felt like an outsider and not particularly sexy. All the boys called me “pancakes”.
L: Before burlesque, I very much felt that you "had" to be a size nothing to perform. My body and I were not friends. We didn't like each other. At all. I had a very negative view on myself. I hated – yes, a very strong word – my stomach, arms, thighs and especially my breasts.
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How do you feel about your body now?
P: Like everyone, I have my off days but for the most part I accept and love my body. I don’t really care what people think any more, so in your face "pancake" boys! Ha ha.
L: My body and I are still not best friends. We still argue. But we are learning to accept and love each other. I still have many demons that I'm trying to face, but at least "hate" is no longer part of my vocabulary when it comes to describing my body. We have each other and I'm doing my best to keep her safe and healthy.
Has your job as a burlesque performer played a part in changing your attitude towards your body, or anything else?
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P: I would say maturity has been the biggest influence in changing my attitude, but a huge aspect of burlesque is the celebration of the body in all its shapes and sizes. It has had a very positive impact on my attitude towards myself and my appearance.
L: Being a burlesque performer has definitely changed my attitude! In a lot of ways really. I'm not as scared to speak my mind or stand up for myself and others. Burlesque has given me the confidence to speak up and speak out. It's made me a stronger feminist. It's given me courage and a lot more hope. I have oodles of it now.

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What can normal women like us, who may be lacking in body confidence and have no experience of burlesque, learn from performers like yourselves about body positivity?
P: Many people are inspired by burlesque artists because we choose to fully express ourselves how we want and when we want. There's great power in owning yourself, your sensuality and your sexuality. You don't need to be a burlesque artist to have this power – you just need to access it. It’s about accepting your imperfections and insecurities, but leaving them at the door, embracing the fabulousness that you have and the fabulous being that you are.
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L: I don't think it's about "learning". I perform in the hope of inspiring people – and not just women. I'm constantly being told that I'm "brave" for performing because of my size. I hate that. For me, it's about inspiring others to try to stop caring about wobbles and start living for the wiggles and the freedom to express yourself unapologetically.
Do you have any specific tips for women wanting to become more body confident using the techniques of burlesque?
P: Burlesque dancing helps you to connect with your body in a way that builds body confidence because the movements accentuate and draw attention to your "best bits". These bits are down to the individual, but it allows you to fully focus on what you like about yourself and show it off! The movements such as the "wiggle" – figure eight with your hips from side to side – and the "grind" – circle with your hips – are just as relevant today as they were back in the day. Stick on your favourite sexy track and have a wiggle in the kitchen – it feels great!
I highly recommend going along to a burlesque class to explore this and to have the opportunity to connect with yourself and see yourself in a light that you may never have seen before. I began with Jo King at the London Academy of Burlesque. Meeting her changed my life and she has changed the lives of many others. I couldn’t recommend her work more – one of her main focuses is how to achieve body confidence through movement and mindset.
L: I feel that burlesque allows you to "let go" in some sense. I've always been told to keep my sensuality and confidence to a minimum. Apparently, no one likes a woman who's "over-confident" in her body and mind. Burlesque has shown me that it's OK to embrace myself. Every inch.
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Between The Sheets is on at the Underbelly Festival on London's South Bank until 29th September.
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