Lillian Bustle's burlesque résumé might read something like this: Well-versed in nipple tassels. Expert corset unraveler. Audience charmer. Fat.
Yes: Fat. Bustle identifies as such, viewing it not as an insult but as a physical description—one that people ought to get more comfortable with. Indeed, the socially conscious burlesquer strips, shakes, and shimmies in the name of body image reform, insisting that beauty is a personal choice. And according to Bustle, the more we see diversity among bodies, the more we'll see diverse bodies as beautiful. In a TEDx talk earlier this year, Bustle discussed controlling our "visual diets"—what we eat with our eyes. "Want to get all of your visual food groups in?" she asked. "Burlesque is a pretty great way to do that." Fat, thin, tall, short, white, black, bejeweled, or nude: The new burlesque movement is revolutionizing the way that we see other bodies—and teaching us to be more accepting of our own. Bustle will talk on "Stripping Away Negative Body Image" at SUNY New Paltz's Lecture Center Room 108 on November 2 at 8pm. (845) 257-3025; Newpaltz.edu/events.
You embrace the word "fat" as a self-descriptor. How come?
There's no doubt that a lot of times when people say that word that they're trying to hurt somebody. I spent a lot of my time living in a body that I was afraid somebody would describe to my face. The implication was, "You're fat and you're worthless; you're fat and I have control over the way you feel right now; you're fat and therefore I think you'll be alone all your life." Being able to own the word allowed me to strip away all of the "fat and," so instead of "You're fat and bad," it was just "You're fat." It's just one aspect of who I am; it's not my entire identity. But being able to accept it and embrace it and not let it be a hurtful word sucked the poison out of it, and now I don't walk around afraid that someone will notice something that is clear and obvious and that I was trying to hide.
Our society struggles with female sexuality—the madonna-whore complex comes to mind. How does burlesque respond to these labels and expectations?
There is something about the new burlesque movement that's allowing people to reclaim their sexuality in a way that's empowering to them that is hard to come by in other forms of expression. The art form is different for everybody. There are people who identify as trans or genderqueer or gay or bi or anything along the spectrum. Everyone who gets up on stage is doing it to bust through certain expectations and to redefine what that performance means and what sexuality means. The more that we see these tired clichés on TV or stereotypes in movies, the more we believe them. To be part of an art form that forces people to take a different look at women or people that are stereotyped is incredibly rewarding.
What are your thoughts on recent decisions to feature plus-size models in the media?
It is really great that we're starting to see more body diversity, but I think where it gets problematic is that I see a lot of plus-size models but the general shape seems to be one shape of fat, which is an hourglass shape. My body isn't that. I'm glad that we're working toward it, but we're still not there—as evidenced by Tess Holliday. She was the first over-250-pound model to sign with a major agency. People just freaked out. And I don't mind that people are freaking out because people are talking about it. But unfortunately, I think it's kicking up a very deep self-loathing in people that's coming out as anger and aggression. I'm happy for visibility, but as far as "All Women, All Bodies," I'm not seeing all bodies. I don't want to sound bitter—all of it is good, but it shouldn't be something that's unusual. But until people get used to seeing different kinds of bodies, any aberration is going to feel radical.
Do you think burlesque is for everyone?
It's less important to me that people go see burlesque and more important to me that people challenge themselves to find ways to see different bodies portrayed in a positive light. I think that burlesque is a good jumping-off point, but obviously there are a lot of people who do not have that comfort level or just don't think it's fun. I respect that! But there are so many other ways. Tumblr and Instagram are amazing resources full of body-positive blogs. The Adipositivity Project is a wonderful activism project whose mission is to show fat bodies in a positive light. It's a low-risk way to expose yourself to different styles of bodies—folks that don't fit this thin, white, able-bodied standard. Only about five percent of people even have bodies that are predisposed to be anything like the bodies that we see in the media. There are benefits about burlesque that are very unique to that art form, but I don't think that's the only way that people can get good stuff from this visual diet.
What should people expect from your SUNY New Paltz event?
My main goal is to get people to rethink the entire concept of beauty. To get into the idea that happiness is not a size. I'm going to be talking about my own personal journey, and specific lessons that burlesque has taught me and actual things that you can do without taking a class to bring body diversity into your own life. And there will definitely be a Q&A session—the dialogue for this is so important to me. I can stand on my soapbox and say anything I want, but we really listen when we actually have a discussion.
Ways to expose yourself to body diversity without going to burlesque:Adipositivity Project: Photoactivisim project headed up by Substantia Jones.
Another great body positive video, also curated by Substantia Jones.
Allison Tate's "Mom Stays in the Picture" movement: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allison-tate/mom-pictures-with-kids_b_1926073.html
The Style Like U "What's Underneath" project covers an incredibly diverse range of people and I have watched a ton of them. Again, I feel that personal stories are so important in the journey to body love! http://stylelikeu.com/the-whats-underneath-project-2/