On my 50th birthday, I took my clothes off in public. More than once. In more than one location.
For over a year I’d been planning to celebrate my birthday with a burlesque performance. I started talking about it before turning 49, and I started talking about it more and more and more until I had teachers and a private coach, an act, a producer/emcee, a cast, a venue, and some (tasteful!) nude photos.
Earlier that day, I found myself at the naked lady spa. Many women I know go there for their birthdays, since they give you 50% off admission. Though I hadn’t planned to take advantage of their gift, I felt a little under the weather and thought I could sweat my way to better health.
Without thinking about it, I’d found the best place to go to prepare for my show, for sharing my body with a roomful of friends, family, and members of “the public” (welcomed in order to lower the cost of venue rental). Naked bodies abounded, and many of them were abundant in ways you don’t see in Playboy or Penthouse.
The first time I went to the naked lady spa, I was nervous about spending hours naked in front of not only strangers but the group of moms I was spending an evening away from family bonds with — until it happened. It took about one minute or less for bare bodies to normalize. The one weird part was that you have to wear these cloth caps over your hair, making your friends hard to recognize, since you don’t usually use their boobs and pubes as identifiers.
And face it, you do look at boobs and pubes. It’s interesting and unusual, so you look. And you look away, not wanting to stare and be rude. Eye contact happens, but mostly when your body is submerged or you’re wearing your robe.
This last time, on my birthday, there was a pair of women I watched intently. One of them was naked and one wore a swimsuit, something I’d never seen in this particular spa. She appeared younger than her friend, and when they walked around, she covered her belly with her hands.
I didn’t know her story, so I kept making it up in my head, offering her silent wishes for opening herself up to the experience and loving her body. I don’t know that she didn’t but it seemed that way. So I loved her body for both of us.
Later, backstage at the burlesque venue, more bodies, covered and uncovered, artfully concealed and revealed, mine and the bodies of three people I’d never met. I put on my pasties and asked if they were too asymmetrical, and the other performers told me nobody would notice a little imbalance. Or, very probably, their design, which had turned out a little disappointing to me. The audience would be seeing the boobs.
I was never as physically nude onstage as I was at the spa, but I was far more naked. I was performing, and I’d rehearsed, and as with any performance of mine, I was exposed to scrutiny, much of it internal. Was the thing I made ready? Was it good, or good enough? Would anything go wrong, and could I deal with disaster?
And what about my people — were they ready for this? Was my husband going to be okay with the whole thing? How about my mother’s 80-year-old ex-boyfriend who had once been a peacenik and was now a Tea Partyer, who was seated front row, center?
When you get nervous waiting to go on, one of the other performers told me, just put more sparkles on your butt. I put sparkles all over my butt, and lovingly sparkled my stretch marks, those battle scars from adolescence and pregnancy that I’d once felt so disgusted and saddened by. It was their day, too, and they were claiming victory.
Viva stretch marks. Viva middle age. Viva new naked friends and strangers.
Now what will I do for 60?
Composition note: As usual, where I thought I was going with this and where I ended up are two different beasts. Here are some threads I had to snip and discard while weaving this particular story: how hard it is for me to make certain phone calls, and how I need more bravery to do that than burlesque; how to bring up the lack of ADA accessibility in venues and whether I can continue to perform in inaccessible ones; the immense and intense support my daughter and I shared in the weeks before the show, one of us reaching out to help the other in her own dark moments. The good news: there’s always more to say, and those threads can always be picked up again.
What is brave for you? What takes courage? What fears stop you from moving forward, and what do you need to support your risks? As always, if you need someone alongside you while expressing your truth, you can call on me. In the meantime, I’d love to have you share your stories in the comments.