With my husband’s blessing, I have been dancing Burlesque for just over three years. We have two wonderful boys together, ages 11 and 8.A couple years ago I finally came out of the Burlesque closet to my mom, who, of course, wasn’t too pleased about the whole situation. Her concern is how my lifestyle will reflect her (which I’ve explained to her my performance lifestyle has nothing to do with her) and – and here is what my question centers around – my kids.
My children are very brilliant, and figure things out. My oldest son is going to be in middle school this upcoming year, and he accesses the internet fairly frequently during the school year. After I told my mom about my Burlesque lifestyle, she brought up the kids, in particular my oldest son. “What about when your boys find out? What are you going to tell them?” Her concern comes from the fact that I strip my clothes off as a performer. So the question has plagues me – what DO I tell my boys about me performing Burlesque? When should I talk to them about it? And how do I bring it up, or should I let them bring it up?
Up until this point all they know is “Mom has a show to do.” I don’t talk about my Burlesque side in front of them, and they have never seen a video of any of my performances. I’ve rehearsed with them at home in full clothes only, and they have seen me making costumes and accessories. The only dance style they have seen me do away from my home is Belly Dance.
My goal is for them to see Burlesque as an art form, but again I don’t even know how to begin to explain this to them. When they are of age I want them to go see Burlesque shows, and if they are comfortable with it, be a part of the Burlesque community.
Your help and advice is greatly appreciated.
Dear Miss Chevious
Let me first assure you that you are not alone –many parents struggle with how to teach their kids sex- and body-positivity in an age-appropriate and healthy way. It is no easy feat, especially in a culture that tends to shame and silence children when it comes to matters of the body. My hope in this brief response is to give you both some practical tips for sex-positive childrearing as well as a broader contextual framework to consider as you continue to seek out information and support in the coming years.
Before getting into the details of your question, let me explain what I mean when I use the phrase “sex-positive.” The sex-positive movement is a philosophy that seeks to shift the way our societyperceives sexuality, moving it from secrecy and shame to a more open and comfortable dialogue.
The sex-positive community is made up of scholars, researchers, students, artists, performers, bloggers, sex workers, parents, teachers, young people, activists, authors, and probably a million other types of people – including you! There is a mass movement of people around the world who are asking the same questions you are and having these conversations in really creative and dynamic ways, so my first suggestion would be for you to become familiar with the dialogue and ideas and find support from others who have had similar experiences. There are conferences and support groups and chat rooms and Facebook groups and even in-person discussion groups – and hell, if there isn’t a meet-up in your area, maybe you should start one!
You may have noticed that I’m focusing more on the broader topic rather than just answering your question about burlesque. I get the sense from your letter that you want your children to grow into adults who have a healthy appreciation for real women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes, so I am going to take it a step further and guess that you might also want them to be empowered about their own bodies, their relationships, and their sexuality, rather than being shamed and silenced. Creative expression, sexual freedom, and women’s empowerment are big issues made of up of lots of different threads. Imagine a rubber band ball – you can’t pick at one rubber band without pulling at other rubber bands. Burlesque is just one of the rubber bands in a much bigger ball of social and culture theory.
It’s important for you to realize that you are immersed in a culture that may not be terribly supportive of a parenting style that teaches radical body acceptance and sexual literacy. Your mother is probably not going to be the only person to express disagreement with your choices. When the time comes for you to talk to your sons (or anyone, really) about your creative work, you’ll have to be ready to talk to them about what it truly means to you, and that’s something that is intensely personal. Above all else, the biggest piece of advice I have for you is for you to really explore what your values and ideals are and be prepared to talk about them openly.
There is a clear double standard in our culture: models and athletes and other celebrities use their bodies to make money and entertain people all the time but are not judged the way burlesque is. Burlesque has way more history and class and cultural significance than over-sexualized, stereotypical, and sexist music videos, but for some reason people who make those videos are culturally celebrated, while our type of performance art is vilified.
Don’t let your mother or anyone else minimize what you do – it’s good and important work, and teaching your kids the value of creative expression will have a positive impact on their life in all kids of ways.You mentioned you want your sons to view burlesque as an “art form,” but that’s pretty simplistic. What is it about art that makes it special? What does it signify to you? Burlesque is more than just taking clothes off, it’s a political statement every time you do it.
Tips for Burlesque-Positive Parenting
Find teachable moments. Don’t worry too much about when to bring it up. If you think of the conversation as an “IT,” you’ll miss the bigger picture of immersing your kids in a body-positive environment. The dialogue about burlesque doesn’t have to be a singular event, but a progression of conversations. They know you are involved in a creative performance process, and at this point, that’s probably all they need to know. As they get older, you can talk about it the same way you talk about R-rated movies or getting a tattoo: that’s something adults get to do that kids don’t get to do. Don’t forget, though, that you have a right to a private life! Don’t avoid it, but don’t feel like you have to talk it to death.
Don’t have “the talk,” have many talks.Conversations about issues related to sex, sexuality, relationships, and identities should be an ongoing occurrence. When things come up don’t react with silence or embarrassment – create a space that’s comfortable and open for dialogue. Also, don’t forget your kids have a lot more access to images and information than you did at that age, so be prepared for some surprises. Check out Planned Parenthood’s parent resources for some ideas.
Pay attention to the messages your kids get. They’ll be exposed to a lot of different ideas from friends, friends’ parents, teachers, coaches, media sources, and so on. Strive to create an environment that is welcoming and non-judgmental so you can be sure your kids will feel at ease talking about things. Also, find out what kind of sexuality education occurs in their school. Most people think abstinence-only curricula issimplyan absence of education about sexuality, but that’s not the case. A House of Representatives investigation found that many ab-only programs contain significant amounts of erroneous information. If your sons’ school does any sort of sex education, ask for a copy of the materials so you can make sure they’re getting accurate information. If it’s not accurate, don’t be afraid to challenge the school.
Be aware of woman-shaming. This can take all kinds of forms, including body shaming, emotion shaming, menstrual shaming, intelligence shaming, and sexual shaming. You’ll see it everywhere, so teach them to notice it and provide more positive, accurate information (teachable moments!). Help them become advocates for women. Jackson Katz is a really wonderful educator who focuses on anti-sexist masculinity. Check out his YouTube videos for some of his lectures, and check his tour calendar – if he’s coming to your area, I highly recommend attending his workshops.
Teach them about the creative process of performance. As the dialogue unfolds, you can show them pictures of burlesque queens in their gowns and boas. You can talk about the amount of work and effort and creativity and flexibility it takes to be a dancer. You can talk about all the components of the art form and the history behind it. Encourage them to learn magic tricks or learn to juggle. Take them to see musicals and plays. Enroll them in summer theater workshops. If they know how complex performance art is, they’ll realize the “taking clothes off” part is only a small piece of a huge and varied art form.
Be consistent. Make sure you and your husband are sending consistent messages. If you decide that avalue stance is “human bodies are beautiful and not shameful,” make sure you’re both sending that message all the time. For instance, if making negative comments about people’s bodies is acceptable in your family, but you’re simultaneously trying to teach that burlesque is okay because it celebrates and empowers the human body, you’re sending a pretty mixed message. You and your husband need to decide what values are represented in your creative expression and make sure those values are upheld in other parts of your life.
Teach your kids what to expect from others. Talk about other people’s beliefs, and practice ways to respond to those who express different beliefs. Role-playing can be very helpful: for instance, you might talk about how your son is going to respond when grandma makes a negative comment about you, or how he will answer if someone says something at school. Help them to develop their own voices and ways of saying what they believe;teachthem not to avoid judgment but to confront it respectfully and confidently. Michelle Borba offers comprehensive and practical guidance for raising morally strong children.
Cultivate positive masculinity. In our culture, boys are exposed to an enormous amount of media influence regarding what it means to be a “real man.” In most movies, TV shows, video games, and comic books, men are expected to be large, powerful, strong, and commanding. They aren’t supposed to cry or show emotion, and they are supposed to view women as objects to be possessed, and either protected or hurt. It’s up to you and your community to combat those messages with healthy ones: the truth is, “real men” take many shapes and forms, and the healthier ones acknowledge their emotional experiences, view women as worthy and equal and self-sufficient, and value real women’s bodies. The Good Men project has some outstanding resources, including the Tough Guise documentary about masculinity.
Pay attention to developmental needs. Not all kids develop social and emotional skills at the same rate, so what might be appropriate for one child might not be the same for another. The one-size-fits-all approach to parenting (i.e. “you have to be sixteen to date”) does not align with the varied ways adolescents develop. Kids develop differently, so you have to make decisions about what is age-appropriate on an individual basis. One of the ways to decide how ready your children are for more challenging ideas is by gauging their emotional intelligence. In addition to what’s on his website,John Gottman, a highly respected psychologist, has an excellent book on this topic.
Some other resources to help you continue exploring:
Scarleteen is an absolutely phenomenal website that provides straightforward, accurate and comprehensive information about sexuality. It’s geared toward teens and young adults, so it can be both a resource you provide to your children as well as a guide for how to talk about certain topics.
Lasara Allen has some interesting thoughts about the difference between sexual permissiveness and sex-positive parenting.
The Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance is an outstanding activist group that addresses legislative issues, among other things. As a member of their advisory council, I have had the chance to be personally involved with some really cool projects.
I am a big fan of Catalyst Con and Momentum Con, and there are a variety of other conferences and workshops in different niches (this year OpenSF did a workshop on parenting in polyamorous relationships). Keep an eye out for a conference that fits you.
These are just a few of the variety of resources out there, so I hope you’ll treat this as a starting point and not a comprehensive answer. I encourage you and your family to continue exploring these topics together; seek support, gain knowledge, and explore your own values and identities. The more you learn and the more prepared you are, the better you’ll feel as you move through the coming years.
Lillith Grey has been lighting up the stage for over five years as a burlesque and fetish performer, musician, and emcee, and can frequently be found performing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She holds a master’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education, and is currently completing her Ph.D. in psychology. She has worked as a psychotherapist, educator, and social justice advocate, and currently teaches at a local university while working on her research. She travels extensively, teaching classes and workshops on a variety of subjects including relationships, communication, trauma, body image, sexuality and gender, and diversity issues. Lillith is also active in the Leather community, serving on the NLA-International Writing Awards committee and as a co-chair for the Women’s International LeatherFest. Visit her at www.LillithGrey.comfor more information.
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