I cried at a Dita von Teese show

This May, my friend took me to a Dita von Teese show. As a plus-sized per­son diag­nosed with Bor­der­line Per­son­al­i­ty Dis­or­der, I was hes­i­tant at first, fear­ing my com­plex and shat­tered rela­tion­ship to my own body and self worth would stand in the way of enjoy­ing the art of bur­lesque. But Gla­m­ona­trix held a sur­prise which touched a trau­ma that lay bot­tled up deep in my core: I was the woman who cried at a Dita Von Teese show.

TEXT Cora Forbes LEKTORAT Lara Helena FOTO Manuel Bonadeo

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.

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