This all continued into college. I’d shy away from parties where I knew girls were expected to wear less than a napkin, I only let a handful of my friends see me in a bathing suit, and, regretfully, I let my low self-esteem wreck my relationship with the first boy I was really into. Bad stuff, I know.
But things started to turn around senior year. I had to take a P.E. elective (ugghhh) and the only thing that jumped out at me was Middle Eastern Dance—Belly Dancing! My roommate and I thought it would be a fun (if silly) way to complete our requirement, so we signed up. It was definitely fun–I still have the tacky coin belts to prove it–but what I realized in taking the class is that the dance form isn’t ridiculous at all. It’s an art form full of sick muscle isolations, musicality, poise, and stage presence. It’s also an art form that made me finally start to appreciate my own body: belly and all.As I kept taking more dance classes, I was struck by the modern belly dance culture of tolerance and acceptance. I found myself surrounded by people of all walks of life, all ages, and all body types. I was no longer the biggest girl in the room – and even when I was, no one cared. We were all there to learn and to foster our love for dance. I finally found a supportive community where I could be productive and start to express myself without worrying about how I looked. Slowly, I started to leave my insecurities at the door.
Now, when you tell people you belly dance you get a range of reactions. From women, there’s cautious curiosity, a lot of “oh, I could never show my stomach like that”, and nervous laughter. From men, there are a lot of raised eyebrows, terrible terrible jokes, and . . . nervous laughter. I know what they’re thinking: “oooh, sexy.” That perception isn’t totally off-base, but it isn’t exactly right, either. What I’ve come to understand about belly dance is that it is actually really sexy, but it’s not because of girls with perfect figures in tiny costumes shaking it for men with their tongues hanging out. It’s sexy because a good belly dancer, whatever her appearance, can take a song and artfully translate it into something physical.With the snap of a hip (plus some awesome, meaty reverb) and a knowing smile, that belly dancer can captivate a room full of people. She can’t contain her love for music and movement, she’s confident in her ability, and most of all, she’s comfortable in her own skin – whatever that skin happens to look like. This is what’s sexy about belly dance and this is what I’m learning to embody every day I dance.
I can’t say my self-image is golden or that I’m completely healed, but these days I carry myself a little differently. I actually have the capacity to express myself to others, I don’t worry so much about what other people think, and I spend a lot less time picking apart my appearance in the mirror and a lot more time relaxing and enjoying myself. This behavior is all becoming more ingrained in me, and I know that it’s because every now and then I get to be on a stage with music thumping, my hips ablaze in a shimmy, and onlookers hollering, and I think to myself, “hell yeah.”
Have you struggled with body image issues? Do you have a friend who needs a good dose of body confidence? Tell me all about it in the comments!