Flashing Flesh

5 Mar
Photographer unknown.

Photographer unknown.

It is perhaps simply a symptom of my upbringing, but I have always been a little uncomfortable in situations of nakedness or near-nakedness. An infinite number of films, lunches with actresses whom I have previously seen in the nip upon a screen, and a genuine belief that there is nothing inherently wrong with the human body in its natural state have failed to quieten my obvious discomfort.

As I approach my 33rd birthday I am aware that the only female bodies I have watched undress are those belonging to women I have been involved with romantically.

That changed on Friday night.

I’d popped down to the Black Box for the quarterly 8 To The Bar club night, run by my dear friends and former dance tutors The Bellehoppers. Not being either a dancer or a clubber, I relish the atmosphere, the sharp threads, nifty footwork, and collection of jazz, swing and rockabilly music that provides the background to the evening.

Towards the end of the evening the music stopped and the impending presentations of two burlesque dancers was announced. Burlesque. As in stipping. Oh lord, where shall I look?

The whole thing played out in front of me in an eerie slow-motion. The crowd (predominantly female I might point out) shouted out their support as Teezy Overeazy stomped forward, her lips glistening with green glittery gloss, and she rode a green white and orange feather boa… Is possibly says a great deal about my discomfort that I recall little of her outfit. As the music blasted, Ms Overeazy teased the audience with a carefully timed removal of her clothing (aided by the wonders of velcro), discarding her detachable garments around stage and toying with some gentlemen to my right. I found myself watching as this young woman stood before us, dressed only in her knickers and a hand carefully placed in front of her breasts until the big reveal.

Its a strange ritual. Eroticism is maintained by maintaining a sense of dress not unfamiliar from a visit to a continental beach. I feel like a uncomfortable voyeur, watching but feeling guilty. Previously this ritual has only been played out within the parameters of  a partner. This is normally a charged situation, but that potential for interactivity is removed and so my reference shifts.

Overeazy is followed by Mia Amore, who plays out her routine adorned in a khaki ensemble (and quite probably a pith helmet). Amore makes eye contact with me during her routine and I remain stoney-faced. I want to laugh out at the surrealism of the moment, but to do so would single me out and may offend. I really don’t have a personal reference point for this scenario before this instant.

Both women have considered, engaging routines.  Their bodies are on display without hindrance. They reap the applause of the spectator. These are not women being sexually exploited. And yet, society has taught me to regard burlesque and stripping as part of the sex industry, a term which in itself suggest something seedy. Years of academic study have made me acutely aware of the “male gaze” and the positioning of women within the arts as the passive objects of desire for male viewers. Coming face to face with a burlesque performer mid-act seems to epitomise that kind of male.

Is this kind of stripping debasing or empowering to women? Are they simply playing to male fantasy stereotypes, or is there something more interesting and all-encompassing going on? And where does this leave me the unwitting spectator? What is the appropriate way to respond?

All I know for sure is that I felt like I was crossing a line, and that’s as much to do with my education as it is to my personal feelings.  Just when you think there’s no new experiences or transgressions to be made, something as simple as this happens.

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