CLOSE UP … OPINION
I cried at a Dita von Teese show
by CORA FORBES
I have always had a complicated relationship with my body. Growing up, I was always the chubby girl, despite pursuing four to five different sports per week. It’s not a new or shocking story. Growing up chubby means chances are high you’ll be the ‘fat funny friend’ while everybody else is dating. It means, even as you get older and you learn your lessons, you’ll be the overlooked friend in clubs, the one approached by men only to get closer to your conventionally attractive friends. It likely means that you are instilled with an eating disorder from a young age that nevertheless won’t succeed in making you skinny. But it will ruin your relationship with your body and food for the rest of your life.
I’ve been called all sorts of names, even by those who meant well. Against a backdrop of twisted psychology, my family’s insults were meant to help me lose weight. I recall an incident—I must have been about 14—when, through an unfortunate chain of events, a classmate found out that I had a crush on him. That day, on my way to the bus, he and his friends stalked me, laughing at my stretch marks and sneering that my belly reminded them of a pig. Their stares burned into my back even as I plugged headphones into my ears, and the tension in the air wrapped around me until I couldn’t breathe. I don’t think I took a breath until I got home. I am sure millions can relate to my experiences.
From the hate and rejection I received from other people, to fighting through an eating disorder and repeatedly being told that I am worthless solely because of my weight, it did not take long for me to internalise that equation. From there, it was just moments for my severe body dysmorphia to develop. She’s been around since I’ve been at least seventeen, and I am trying to come to terms with her to this very day. She is highly resistant to any and all outside impact. Neither therapy nor laborious rethinking, being surrounded by fat-positive influences, nor digging deep into feminism touched her in any way. People affected by body dysmorphia also know that she isn’t bound to weight—rather, my own body feels alien, wrong, completely disformed. However, she briefly went quiet when, for other reasons, I tried an antidepressant—which, ironically, I had to discontinue because it was making my weight skyrocket and caused further health problems.
My inner child means a lot to me, and hardly anything compares to the pain I experience when I let her down, because I fail at becoming better for her. The way I saw it, there were two ways. Either I would get rid of the weight or the body dysmorphia. The former added a second eating disorder on top of the already existing one. In the past year alone, I have gone through eight diet attempts. My friends of the past ten years would hear me say “I’m sorry, I’m on a diet again” on every second occasion that we’d hang out. The second path was hence more intuitive, but I knew it would require radical self-love on my part. And so I fail(ed) yet again. That feeling of failure lingers on my skin. It’s legible in my eyes. In the way I dress in summer. In the self-inflicted isolation out of social anxiety. In the inability to dress as confidently as other plus-size women who, at my age, seem to all have mastered this issue.
“Can’t help but go where I’m loved”
A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. This diagnosis is much more complex than it is commonly portrayed in the media. At the heart of it is trauma, intense impulsive emotion and an unstable sense of self. I often feel like, while I have a personality, I do not have a core. I often seek outside validation in an attempt to learn who I am, and what I am worth. The task of defining my own self-worth without somebody else who affirms it is nearly impossible. I rely on constant ‘proof’ of love, assuming everybody secretly rejects me. I read abandonment into every detail. At the heart of this is also my little inner child, locked in a constant state of fear and insecurity. A part of myself who never learned who she was when nobody looked at her. This desire to be looked at conflicted not only with my body dysmorphia and the terror of people perceiving my body, but it also made me question if it was possible to possess narcissistic traits as someone with BPD even if narcissism is commonly looked at as the exact opposite of BPD. Although I recently learned (due to the infamous Depp-Heard defamation trial) that the comorbidity rate of Histrionic Personality Disorder and BPD is at about 10%, introspection makes it clear that my need to be seen is born out of a diffuse self, which lacks definition and the ability to ascribe inherent worth.
When I grew older, my desire to be seen extended to sexuality and resulted in a form of hypersexuality as a self-destructive external source of validation. Consequently, if that external validation was directed towards someone else within my space—partners acknowledging the beauty of other women in my presence or following them on social media—I perceive(d) it as a threat which would spiral me into a hellish cycle of intense self-hate and self-rejection. Which, in turn, initiated a punishment process, often including starving, self-harm such as biting myself till I was bleeding or jumping head first into risky situations which would provide external validation from people who meant nothing to me. “I go where I am loved,” I once wrote as a caption on an Instagram post of mine. All else feels like captivity.
To soothe this enduring stress and take some pressure off my frail mental health until I was strong enough to work through it without help, I decided a couple of years ago that I would remove all influence in my life which would trigger that part of my BPD. The issue wasn’t that beautiful people existed. Rather, by looking at them or seeing a partner looking at them, I devalue(d) myself, calling myself all sorts of slurs, punishing myself until I believed I was nothing but waste. Waste doesn’t need protection, so I’d let myself enter all sorts of problematic and intense situations, which were more often than not dangerous to my well-being. I felt like I failed as a feminist too. Because, while I was able to identify that the problem I had emerged from my BPD, I still felt like my feminism should have me knowing better. To say it with Fleabag, I felt like a bad feminist. Nonetheless, I deleted most people off my Instagram who would fall into the triggering category. I stayed away from dating people who would trigger these symptoms. I radically blocked anyone who’d show up on my socials that wasn’t plus-sized, or in other words: in whom I couldn’t recognise my body shape and be inspired by, who’d help me see my own beauty instead of nullifying it. So when my friend—the wonderful editor of this text—invited me to a Dita von Teese show, I hesitated at first. The thought of watching beautiful women on a stage who looked nothing like me, with perfect bodies in jaw-dropping lingerie, felt like a threatening, familiar notion which immediately made my self-hate flare up. Why can’t I look like them? Why is there no plus-size Dita? Can I handle looking at what I’ll never be without falling back into self-punishment the second I’d get home? This trauma in me remains clearly unresolved, but for once I chose not to keep it out. So I decided to go to the show, ready to let myself fall into a major trigger. Confrontation therapy, am I right? Well, little did I know.
Fearfully distant at first, trying to stop my brain from thinking and evaluating anything, the first performance came and passed and I was in awe. As was expected, Dita was incredibly beautiful. The most perfect woman, carved out of marble, she looked like art. So did the other performers, women and men alike. I was in awe, and I understood that if I saw these performances as something done for me and not something taking away from me—namely my worth—I could enjoy it for the time being, even if I would not be able to resolve the underlying borderline fear.
My expectations for the night were set, and I felt comfortable. I had lots of fun in a space clearly not all too straight. Somehow, I had expected the show to be directed at the straight male gaze, and to find that it wasn’t made me feel very welcomed by it. Goosebumps all over, my inner child marvelled at the spectacle taking place in front of her very eyes. Did I mention I assumed my expectations were set? Well, I was proven wrong the second “burlexpert” Dirty Martini set foot on stage.
A few seconds of Martini’s performance went by, and my brain had problems processing what it was seeing. After a few moments, I whispered to my friend, “is she really plus-size?” I thought I was hallucinating, given I would have never expected to see the unconventionally attractive at a show I thought was catering to straight men. I got the shivers, and I could feel tears creep up. I tried to contain myself, but when she got a standing ovation lasting several minutes, I cried in the darkness of the audience. And I couldn’t hold it back, not really. Martini’s standing ovation felt like for the first time society applauded my constantly rejected body.
Martini took up the space of the entire stage, and with barely a scrap of fabric on her body, she exuded pure, rushing freedom. I could no longer avert my eyes, although my vision was quite blurred by my tears. The floor vibrated beneath me. My emotions rolled over me, and the applause felt like love.
When the show was over, this feeling of empowerment quickly reverted back to feeling uncomfortable in my skin, but it was not because of Glamonatrix, it was despite it. For a brief moment I had felt the ecstasy of what it would be like to be truly free. Not because I stayed away from my triggers, but because I could feel truly of value, erasing what feels like a threat, erasing the pain of the past, and finding my way back to me. As someone with BPD, it is unlikely this moment will ever happen for me outside of the occasional euphoric episodes incited by positive assertion. Nonetheless, I was the woman who cried at a Dita von Teese show and it might just have become a core memory.