Dear Lillith: Day Job vs. Burlesque

LillithGreyWebLillith 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 for more information.

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Dear Lillith,

I am approaching my one year anniversary as a burlesque performer and I find myself conflicted about whether or not I should continue. I could really use your advice.

Burlesque has been an amazing addition to my life. For the first time I feel creative, talented, and funny. The community that I perform in is filled with amazingly beautiful, fun and supportive people. The scene and the opportunities compares to no other in my life.

That said I am also in school working towards my Masters in Social Work. I am in love with the program, the learning, and the profession. It truly speaks to my professional, spiritual and emotional center and I am grateful to be in the program and to have found my calling. I hope to move on to getting a masters in public health and one day run a holistic clinic that meets both the mental and physical needs of under-served populations.

I am realizing, with the not so desired help from my family, that the two worlds are ever more in conflict with one another. As a result I have stopped having my photograph taken and do my best to keep my burlesque identity separate from my professional one.

Can you help out line the honest risks I face if I continue to perform. Some people in my life tell me the risks are possible yet unlikely, and others believe that I am throwing my career down the drain if it “ever gets out.” I hate that burlesque has to be this dark secret, and I respect your ability to be honest and open about it.

Thank you for your advice.

All the best to you,

Miss Twin Peaks

Dear Miss Peaks

Wow, I’m not sure your letter could have hit any closer to home for me! Having gone through a similar struggle, I was really moved by your story. The fact that you are even thinking about these things is really important – it tells me that you are using professional judgment and being very thoughtful about how you approach your career, and that speaks volumes about how you will function as a clinician.

I think your first task is to try to figure out whether burlesque is a hobby or an identity for you. If it is a hobby, it may be time to find other ways to tap into that creative outlet. Open mic nights, community theater, or dance classes might be enough to fit your needs. If you decide that burlesque is something that speaks to you on a deeper level, it might not be something you can live without. If that’s the case, you need to begin the work of finding a way to blend your two passions.

You mentioned a number of things that burlesque brings to your world, and you clearly have a strong attachment to and love for your work and future career plans. My quick answer to your question is this: the two are NOT mutually exclusive. You can have both, if you want them.

My first piece of advice to you (and it’s what I tell my students and clients as well) is to make your self your work. We are happiest and most fulfilled when we are able to do work that speaks to our deeper sense of self. The things that you mentioned that you love about your work:It truly speaks to my professional, spiritual and emotional center….” align beautifully with what you have discovered in burlesque:“I feel creative, talented, and funny. The community … is filled with amazingly beautiful, fun and supportive people.” Your job as a social worker is to help people find exactly the things you have found! How lucky for your future clients to have an advocate and ally who is so open-minded and open-hearted as to find the joy and beauty you have discovered! Do not be afraid of what you have found – it is a gift not only for yourself, but also for every life you touch.

To put it more succinctly – your profession needs you just the way you are.

So let’s think about this situation in terms of integration. You have two “worlds,” and for you to live happily ever after they need to be integrated. This does not mean that your worlds have to blend externally (not suggesting you wear pasties to work), but for your internal sense of self to be intact, you’ll need to find a way to blend both identities. It becomes easier and more natural over time, but the process of integrating these two parts of your life will be an ongoing process for a long time.


So let’s talk about risk. Unless someone is intimately familiar with your field, they are not qualified to advise you on the realistic risks to your professional life. While your family might have your best interests at heart, they are probably also influenced by “worst case” thinking and a desire to protect you from any chance of harm. Considering worst-case scenarios might be a good idea to a small degree, but it’s more important to pay attention to things that might actually happen.

Here’s an activity to help you assess realistic risk. Make a four column chart on a piece of paper and write down everything you’re afraid might happen. I’m going to guess that somewhere on your list you’ll have written down fears about ethics violations, license boards, intolerant bosses, unwanted media coverage, or angry clients. These and any others you might think of are all very valid concerns and they deserve your attention. You may also have some silly or exaggerated fears – those are okay too. Put them down as well; you can abandon them later.

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Once you’ve written out your list, go back and assign each item a number from one to ten indicating what you think the likelihood of that happening is. If you are unsure, investigate. You can look up ethics boards complaints records and see how many were addressed and why. You can contact other sex-positive professionals (there are lots of us!) and ask them about their experiences. Find a professor or faculty member who you trust to be accepting and non-judgmental and create space for an ongoing dialogue with them. If you aren’t comfortable coming out to them as a burlygirl, tap into your network and find a like-minded mentor from a different school (this is something I can help you with if you need it).

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Once you’ve made the list, it’s time to go back and re-evaluate each item. You’ll have to decide what you are and are not willing to sacrifice to lower that number to a point that feels acceptable to you. Brainstorm ways of reducing that number, then assign a new number based on your potential interventions.

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Now, your list may or may not look anything like this one – that’s okay, it’s just an example. You are going to have to develop your own list based on your unique situation.  Your list may also change based on your context. As a student, you may have less control over your environment than you might once you graduate. Make sure your list fits you in the here and now; you can make a new one later if you need to.

Setting boundaries is a crucial part of risk reduction. It is important that you have carefully considered possible boundary violations and decided in advance how you will deal with them. Remember, a good professional isn’t one who never has an ethical dilemma; in fact, very little of your work will be black and white. A good professional is one who can carefully and responsibly find ways to manage the grey areas.

One of my personal boundaries is that I don’t perform in the city I teach in. It’s a sacrifice, since there are some great shows here, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make because I can get to Dallas fairly easily and there’s a lot to do there. Although it hasn’t happened yet, I know that at some point one of my students will likely recognize me and say something. Because I have already decided that I want to keep a fairly strict boundary between my work and my personal life, I will probably gently inform them that I don’t talk about my personal life at work and ask them to respect that. If it’s a counseling client, it would be important to process the impact of their discovery on the therapeutic relationship, but that doesn’t mean you have to disclose anything. There’s nothing wrong with processing the client’s feelings and beliefs– your job is not to shield them from anything, it’s to help them walk through whatever their current experience is.

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Your boundaries are not only important to protect the best interests of your clients, they also  protect you. You have to decide how far you are willing to bend your sense of self to keep a job. For example, I have come to the realization that I am simply not willing to work in a setting with intolerant policies. I will not work anywhere that requires me to sign a so-called “morality clause” or that cites conservative principles in their administration procedures. This is a two part decision for me – one, I just don’t want to be in an environment where I feel scared to be me, but I also firmly believe in body- and sex-positivity, celebration of creative and free expression, and acceptance of diversity. I am dedicated to creating meaningful work for myself and others, and I don’t want my effort and energy to contribute to intolerance. There are lots of other areas that you may discover are “make or break” for you – pay attention to these and honor them for yourself.

On another note, I want to point out that burlesque is not an all-or-nothing deal. If you’ll think of it on a continuum rather than a dichotomy, you’ll probably have better luck working out where you fit. There are so many ways to be involved in burlesque, and not all of them require you to take your clothes off. If you find that you don’t want to strip, learn a new talent like magic, juggling, tap dancing, or telling bawdy jokes. Stay involved by being a stage kitten, a production assistant, or a crafter. If you do want to show boobies it doesn’t mean you have to be front and center all the time. You may decide that local shows every once in a while are enough to keep you happy. Or, you may feel strongly that you want to be totally invested and pursue festivals or titles or out-of-town gigs, which is okay too. What matters most is that you’re deliberate about your decisions.

I teach undergraduate and graduate coursework in psychology, social work, and women’s studies. This requires me to walk a careful line between my worlds, but they no longer feel in conflict the way they once did. Even though I am not always out about being a performer, I always bring my beliefs about sex positivity, empowerment, and self-love to the classroom. Last year I had the opportunity to teach a workshop about burlesque and body shame to a graduate-level Expressive Arts Therapy class. The students and professor were delighted with the workshop and we spent several hours coming up with ways we could use the principles of burlesque with clients. No, we’re not teaching clients to twirl tassels, but we are modeling radical body acceptance, generous spirit, creativity without judgment, body movement for well-being, and social support and love. We also decided that a little glitter and glue can make a blue day much better, no matter who you are!

I remember when I first started working on integration, I felt like it was too big to handle. I felt like there was this looming disaster right around the corner, and every exciting new opportunity that arose for me also came with a deeper sense of fear. I worked (and continue to work) closely with a therapist who understands my goals and has helped me process each new experience as it comes up. And that’s my final thought for you – don’t tackle this as one giant problem. Take each day at a time, make the best decision you can in each moment, and trust that you will also be able to make the best decisions you can in future moments.

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Value your gifts. Your clients are lucky to have you.


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