Although class is conducted in front of a mirrored wall, my eyes are usually steadily trained on my instructor, not only because I am trying desperately to mimic her dancing, but also because I don’t want to see how awkward I look trying the new movements. After initial timidity, I embraced the mid-section baring “Is Your Belly in Motion?” T-shirt I had purchased for class. But it’s still hard to watch.
Sometimes while dancing, my mind wanders. I think back to the first time I ever wore a bodysuit, those ridiculous snap-at-the-crotch shirts that my friends and I started wearing in the eighth grade. My first bodysuit was purple, and although I had been excited to wear it to school that morning, I lost my confidence when I walked through the doors of my middle school. I made a bee-line for my best friend’s locker and said, “do I look like a slut in this?,” suddenly uncomfortable with the small breasts that the top was made to show off. “No!,” she answered; “you look really nice.” I was relieved, although it was several class periods until I was comfortable enough to take my jacket off. For many girls at that age, there is both a sense of shame and pride at burgeoning sexuality; you’re proud that you (finally) have breasts, but you’re also ashamed at the attention they attract.
In contrast, I’ve been more comfortable with my body in athletic settings. When my high school volleyball team moved to the short, tight, spandex shorts that had become popular for the sport, I didn’t bat an eyelash, even as my teammates bemoaned the way the pants molded to their hips, thighs, and butts. I was proud of my body on the court. I was not a natural athlete, but I had long legs and arms that made me a valuable team member despite my difficulty learning new skills. When I did master a skill, I felt powerful. There was no shame because the attention I attracted was on account of something I had learned to do, unlike my sexuality, the development of and attraction to which seemed largely out of my control.
This love-hate relationship with my body has continued into adulthood. I’m not embarrassed to wear tiny tanks and shorts when playing sports; the activity is less about what my body looks like, and more about what my body can do. In other parts of my life, I’m more conservative. It’s unlikely that I’ll play up my breasts with a low-cleavage shirt, or highlight my behind with a tight dress. My preferred skirt length is right at the knee. A large part of this is just maturity: at my age, I know that some things are best left to the imagination; that classy and sexy are not mutually exclusive. Admittedly, though, a part of it is still a lingering discomfort with this aspect of my sexuality. When my shirt is low-cut, or my skirt a little tight, I become that 13-year old girl again, wondering if I “look like a slut,” proud of my figure, but unable to shake the feeling that my sexuality is on display for others and out of my control. I realize that these conflicting feelings are the result of growing up in a society where women are taught that their bodies normatively belong to men, and the shaming that results when women either fail to perform as expected or choose to control and enjoy their sexuality for themselves.
Bellydancing, however, has been a different experience. Although it is undeniable that the movements celebrate female sexuality, the performance is not necessarily for men. Rather, bellydancing is a folk dance passed down from mothers to daughters, learned in the company of women, and often performed for other women. Bellydancing teaches that a woman’s strength is in her stomach and hips, not because these are the areas that are most attractive to men, but because these are the areas that house miraculous child-bearing abilities possessed only by women. In learning the dance, I am encouraged to embrace my body in a place other than an athletic court. Yes, I am baring my stomach, moving my hips, and rolling my body in ways that connote sexuality. And, people passing by may enjoy it, as the young men who often stop to peer into the classroom on their way to the bathroom do. But I dance for me, and for the women around me. I control this display of sexuality, and for the first time, I like it.
The words of my instructor snap me out of my reverie, and my focus returns to the studio. I steal furtive glances at myself in the mirror, and actually think, “not too bad.” For a second I see that 13-year old girl in the mirror as she confidently smiles at me, totally at ease with her body. Right before my eyes dart back to my instructor, I smile back.