I was browsing YouTube a few nights ago and a video from a stripper was in my feed. Curious, I clicked on it and watched a “get ready with me” video of a young (maybe 19 year-old) girl, listening as she talked about the darker side of dancing… the things, as she put it, “they don’t tell you about.”
From J-Lo’s recent movie, “Hustlers” to Cardi B’s candid discussions about her past as a dancer, strippers have definitely become more mainstream.
Watching that video about the dark side of stripping caused me to reflect on my own experiences. It may blow some wigs back, but I stripped for several years. Those closest to me know… but many do not.
Did not. Surprise…
While I danced, I kept it *very* quiet because of the not-so-flattering stigma associated with being a stripper. I never felt ashamed, but I didn’t want to be misjudged or inaccurately characterized because of it. In reality, stripping allowed me to create and unleash an alter-ego that benefited me in many ways.
I entered the world of adult entertainment as a naive, straight-laced, 19-year old girl who was embarrassed about sexuality and anything associated with it. I was the good Christian girl. The bookish, straight-A student. I was awkward… pretty (by conventional standards), but unaware of it. I was confident in terms of my intellect, but a really twisted perception of my body had done a number on my self-esteem since the whopping age of 9. I had struggled with disordered eating and overexercising for years.
I didn’t know how to walk in high heels or swing my hips — I thought those were things that only slutty women did. I didn’t know how to flirt. I didn’t even get my first kiss until 17. I had barely lost my virginity before I became a dancer.
Stripping helped me understand the power of femininity and sexuality – to see that these were things to embrace, not to be ashamed of. It also nursed my body image and helped me see that sexy comes in many shapes and sizes – and that attractiveness has to do with much more than just the way a body looks.
I danced between the ages of 19 and 27 – through college, part of grad school, and periodically in between. Although I hung up my heels a decade ago, my experiences as a stripper have continued to influence me. I was fundamentally shaped by the eight years I spent dancing… the good experiences as well as the bad.
Several years ago, not long after I quit dancing, I started another blog with a section devoted to things I learned from stripping. The theme of the blog is “100 life lessons,” and I organized it by lessons I learned from critical experiences that molded me as a woman. Not ready for the world to know about my stripper days, I kept the blog password-protected and only shared it with a couple of my closest friends. It’s still live, and it’s still password-protected, but I’d like to migrate some of that content over to this blog…because it’s good.
How it all started…
Okay, let’s take a step back so you can understand how this good girl became a stripper.
I didn’t want to depend on anyone to take care of me. When I began college, I was working as a personal trainer at Bally’s (remember Bally’s??). At the time, I was very fit and hyper focused on lifting heavy and building muscle. At 5’4″, I wore a size 4 and weighed 138 pounds… a far cry from the 90-100 pound frame I had starved myself to achieve for a long time. That was (and still is) the heaviest I had ever been, but I felt good about the way I looked. For the first time since adolescence, it was freeing to not feel so critical and hateful toward my body.
Unfortunately, I worked under a misogynistic asshole of a training manager at Bally’s. His name was Ian, and he regularly made comments about women’s bodies in the gym (including my own). One time, Ian commented that he thought it should be a law that all women get breast implants, because “they look so much better than real boobs.” Ian would regularly snarl his nose and talk about how gross women looked if they did not fit his view of the perfect, sub-12% body fat frame. A couple times, Ian pinched my side and asked “when you gonna lose this, Jessica?” He questioned how many calories I ate and regularly chastised me for lifting heavy.
And it wasn’t just me – Ian did this to all of the female trainers (there were three of us… all very fit, young women).
I put up with this for about four months. Slowly, I felt my self-esteem being chipped away at. I started feeling insecure about my body again, picking it apart… and eventually, once again, hating my reflection in the mirror.
I walked into the gym one evening to get ready for my 5 o’clock client. Naturally, this was rush hour and a bunch of members were standing around the front desk and greeted me as I entered. Ian stood behind the counter and I watched him zero in on me as I approached. His eyes glanced up and down my body as he crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head.
“Jessica,” he said loudly, “how MUCH do you weigh now?”
I could feel everyone’s eyes turn to me. I felt approximately 2 centimeters tall.
Truthfully, I had not been weighing myself. I was trying to escape the neurosis that the scale had induced in me for so many years. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t weigh myself.”
With that, Ian came out from behind the counter and said, “we’re going to change that.” He picked me up, hoisted me over his shoulder in front of everyone, and carried me to the scale on the main floor of the gym.
The scale that nobody ever weighed themselves on because it was in the middle of the gym.
I could feel panic. I wanted to die… in that moment, I literally wanted to die.
Ian set me down on the scale and watched as the digital reading popped up. 138.0
“One hundred thirty-eight pounds, Jessica?!” Ian exclaimed. “Are you serious!? You shouldn’t weigh a pound over 120!”
I could feel tears welling up but refused to let Ian have the satisfaction of seeing me cry. For someone who had so fiercely battled body image issues and eating disorders, this was one of the most painful experiences imaginable.
I remember stepping off the scale. Ian was still talking to me but everything had fallen silent. All I could hear was my own racing heartbeat. I bit the inside of my cheek and promised myself I could break down once I got to my truck, but not a moment before then.
I walked to the front desk, picked up by gym bag, clipboard, and car keys, and walked out. I heard Ian say something like “where’s she think she’s going?” but I didn’t turn back. I got in my truck, drove to the neighboring parking lot so nobody in the gym could see, and sobbed.
I never stepped foot in that gym again. I didn’t even go back to collect my last paycheck. It’s not like I was making anything more than just enough change to scrape by anyways.
Picking up the pieces
After that experience, I lost 20 pounds in a month. I basically stopped eating and spent all my free time on a treadmill. I gave up lifting weights completely.
And I needed a job.
I went out to a dance club one night in my much smaller body and met a guy. We ended up dating briefly, and he once made a comment about how I should try stripping.
At first, the idea was so far out from anything I could possibly consider. Me? Strip? That was insane. But as I interviewed for more minimum wage jobs and couldn’t bear the idea of asking my parents for money (who, by the way, would have gladly helped me)…I slowly warmed to the idea.
I summoned the guts to give it a shot one night, and so began the next several years of navigating between my daytime life as a student and professional, and my nighttime life as a stripper.
I’ll save the experience of my first night for another post…
Now, perhaps, it all makes a little more sense… especially the part about how stripping actually helped repair my self-esteem after that crippling experience at Bally’s.
So why am I suddenly okay with blowing back my own cover?
Well, there are two reasons.
First, it’s been a decade. Time has distanced me from stripping. And in that decade, I’ve accomplished a lot. I’m educated. I have a successful business. I’m wildly independent. I’ve made a lot of good decisions and I live life on my terms.
It would be difficult to assign a lot of negative stripper stereotypes to me because I defied them. I treated stripping as a business. I used it to get where I wanted to go. I came from a good family. I never did drugs or “extras.” And I had an exit strategy.
I’m proud of where I’m at and the woman I’ve become. I owe a lot of both to dancing, especially my boldness and confidence.
The second thing is that authenticity is incredibly important to me. At 37, I’m very comfortable being raw and honest about who I am. Except for this one, taped-off chapter, my life has been an open book.
For as much as I grew from stripping, the experience was definitely NOT all rainbows and unicorns. Strip clubs are part of an underworld, and not all the people in that world are good (I guess that could be said for just about anything, though). I want to talk about the good and the bad. I want to share some cautionary tales for girls who are thinking about venturing into the world of adult entertainment. There are so many misnomers about stripping, thanks to its glamorization by pop culture. But it’s not all about partying and counting stacks of cash at the end of a night. A girl can be smart and use stripping as a stepping stone… or she can end up chewed up and spit out by it. From my experience, most fall into the latter category.
So now that that’s aired, future posts related to stripping won’t come as such as surprise. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the aim of this blog – and my life – is not to please everyone. Mostly, I think there’s a lot of beneficial things I can talk about by being transparent in this.
I’m currently reading a book called “The alter ego effect,” by Todd Herman. It’s a fascinating look at how we can create alter egos to help us overcome blocks, become more confident, and grow in the various playing fields of life. Naturally, the book has caused me to think back on my stripper persona, Belle – the confident, sultry alter ego of the Jessica who sometimes trolls herself. I think all people (especially women) can create and take on alter egos that not only foster growth and success… but can also be a lot of fun.
Stay tuned for the next post…