I cannot see anything — sweat keeps getting in my eyes, I am breathing heavily and feeling suffocated by my clown mask. My heart is competing with the volume of the pounding music and my lips are moving soundlessly in time with the beat, four counts to go and I turn around, strip off my shirt, swing it over my head and toss it to the side. There they are — my boobs — with no pasties or duct tape, hanging out for the entire world to see.
I am at the dress rehearsal of Tales from the Strypt, a burlesque and drag show being put on by the Sexual Overtones. I am there not as an observer but as a newbie in a cast of regulars, who, through the simple act of shedding clothes are teaching me something I never thought I would be able to do — shed my inhibitions and take off my clothes in front of a crowd. In fact, I am learning, from a fellow performer, that being sexy can be fun.
“Being sexy is a broad spectrum,” says the Brain of the Sexual Overtones duo Kinky and the Brain. “There are a lot of different ways of being sexy — sex is supposed to be fun.”
For the last six weeks I have been exploring my own thresholds of shame and tackling the somewhat awkward way I perceive my body. Or, perhaps more accurately, how others might view my body. It all started quite innocently in a morning editorial meeting. There we were, the three of us — Marcus sitting behind his desk, Luna writing ideas on the white board and me. I was in my usual position, slouching in a chair with a pen in hand and my water bottle near by, my forehead creased in thought and slightly dismayed about the variety of ideas being put forward. Ideas for a series on sex and shame were being thrown around — deviant desires, shame theory and overcoming shame.
It was a discussion where no topic was taboo, and I felt my cheeks turning a deep shade of red as the conversation delved into areas that brought my inner prudishness slap bang to the table — leaving me feeling uncomfortably open, a victim of my own Victorian sensibilities. And like wolves who found their prey, Marcus and Luna caught onto it. Somehow the tide turned, and I became the focus of their editorial eyes — they had found the next story.
I was to venture past the threshold of my internalized shame and try to embrace a sex-positive attitude about my body. In short, I was to join the Sexual Overtones and take part in a burlesque cabaret.
This would be no easy feat. I am a woman in her forties and a mother of two sons. I come from a Catholic upbringing, and I like control in my life. I wear jeans — never, ever dresses — and my only nod to sexual inhibition is that I don’t wear bras.
Each time I go the gym, I just about die when it comes time to change — I wrap a neck-to-knees towel around myself and, if need be, I will latch the towel between my teeth to keep as much of my body covered as possible as I slip into my clothes. I walk through the changeroom with my eyes firmly on the floor and if any naked woman comes near me, I tremble, break into a panic and look anywhere but at her.
Don’t get me wrong — I love women, and I’ll happily watch a burlesque show, especially the Sexual Overtones, who I adore. I have crushes on (each of) the Muffin Tops and I crumble each time Cream Puff talks to me. I love that they’re a group of funky, fun people who, by taking off their clothes, can make members of the audience feel good about themselves, their bodies and all forms of sexuality — I just never imagined joining their act.
But, join I did. And, after exchanging several emails with Cream Puff, I found out that there was a trio in the troupe that was willing to take in a sacrificial reporter. The deal was hammered out in a back-and-forth emailing blitz, and, in a few days, the deed was done. I was in the act, and the first rehearsal was set with the Evil Clowns. Don’t ask, because I cannot tell you.
Days before I met them, I panicked about my ability to go through with the article, well, what was required for the article. My mind was saturated with images of me stripping — I could think of nothing else, and a cloud of anxiety hung over everything I did. As I woke in the morning, I would open my eyes and feel sick. I obsessed about my legs, my stomach and my boobs and, if I was feeling great, all I had to do was think of the word ‘strip’ and the bubble would burst. I would be back to feeling ill.
I thought of pleading insanity and dropping the assignment but there was that one small part of me that was (and still is) curious to see how it felt — would I like stripping? And if I did, would I be able to cope with that?
It was a windy Saturday afternoon when I climbed on my bicycle and headed out to meet my partners in our evil clown act — Kinky, the Brain and Zorba the Greek. All three joined the Sexual Overtones in 2008 after they had seen their first show, Indecent Exposure, but it was the Brain who really wanted to get involved.
“It made me feel good about myself,” says the Brain. “Sometimes you go to strip shows and you end up feeling bad about yourself, but I didn’t feel like that when I was watching their show.”
Our first meeting was not as terrifying as I had imagined. We met in their apartment on the fifth floor, the Brain opened the door and I walked into a rather large room cluttered with furniture, books, computers and shelves full of Seinfeld videos. The Brain led the meeting, taking notes and pushing all of us to be more proactive in the discussion about how the act should look. We were going to be the evil clowns unveiling our sexiness through music, movement and theatrics.
Our costumes would be simple — not much on, save for boxer shorts, tank tops, suspenders and polka dot ties. But we were to have masks, and masks — as you may already know — are great camouflage when your boobs are bare. As I left our first meeting, I clung to the knowledge that the mask would be my saving grace — wearing one, I could be anonymous. After the meeting, I cycled home, downloaded Funhouse by Pink and danced around the room — I didn’t think that I had found my calling but I did feel a sense of elation that maybe, just maybe, it was not going to be as bad as I thought.
However, in the weeks that followed, I found that I could easily swing from elation to a panic attack in a matter of minutes. It also took some hard work; lots of practice with my group and the realization that even a diet of water and salad was not going to banish all my inner doubts and fears.
With the first meeting over, I needed to work out how to tackle the writing part of the assignment. I had given up trying to talk to my partner about it — her enthusiasm was too much to bear, especially when she started inviting anyone and everyone to see the show — from our straight neighbours, our dinner guests, even casual acquaintances and members of our running club (which consists mainly of reserved gay men.)
“Sexy!” she answered when asked by a straight male friend how she would feel about me stripping.
So I stayed away from Tam and I did what I always do — phoned my sister Frances for advice. I told her I was going to perform in a burlesque cabaret. Her response was honest and to the point.
“You are jumping into the deep end from a high diving board,” says Frances. “I actually think for you, it may be good, because you are quite restricted.”
There is nothing like a therapist — even if she is your sister — to tell it like it is. After our initial exchange, Frances walked me through steps of getting in touch with my body. I climbed under the covers as I listened, snuggled up against my pillows, and sipped a glass of bubbly. I listened and occasionally said a few things but, when Frances asked how I actually felt about stripping, I could tell her — it made me feel queasy.
Just talking about it with her made my heart pound faster, my palms sweat and my body temperature rise. It was those physical symptoms that Frances made me focus on, how to look at the way my body was reacting to different situations and, also, to understand one thing; that I had no idea how I was going to feel until I actually stood onstage and stripped.
“You are going into unexplored territory, so you have no idea how you are going to be feeling about this,” says Frances. “Get into your body and start observing it. You want to end up having a really good solid sense of yourself physically.”
So that’s what I did, I confronted my body in all sorts of positions: sitting in the bath (not great with the stomach rolls), in front of the mirror where I can see my one boob struggling under the weight of the nipple ring, and making tea in a towel, which is not a sensible thing to do when the neighbours can see in from every direction and you have a steady stream of teenage boys and girls coming in and out of the house.
The first week passed, and I continued on my rollercoaster ride of simultaneously being terrified and secretly loving the thrill. Once we sorted our costumes out the rehearsals started in earnest, and the talk about stripping intensified — as in, when to start, what to strip off and how far to go. At the beginning of our second rehearsal, the Brain and I went from leaving on our tank tops to deciding to show our boobs — no pasties, no duct tape — a step that made even The Brain feel a little uncomfortable.
I have to admit I had expected The Brain to be an extrovert. In my mind, someone who takes off her clothes should be, or at least would be. Instead I met this quiet woman, who dresses simply, speaks softly and has a warm and very welcoming smile. The Brain is confident in her body and her sex appeal shows through because of it. Little did she know but she had become my sex-positive role model. I wanted to embrace her confidant attitude.
“Being sexy is a broad spectrum. You can be who you are,” says The Brain, “and if you are comfortable with that, you will end up being sexy.”
Over the next few rehearsals, the four of us started to relax with each other — Zorba, Kinky and the Brain getting used to me as an evil clown on a reporting assignment, and me getting used to wearing less and less clothing. Eventually our conversations led into disclosures about body image and sources of shame.
Zorba talked about being self-conscious about his body, having “everything that a guy doesn’t like about himself,” but being onstage, he feels is different.
“First of all, you know they are going to see real people get undressed, perform and have a good time in a less intimate way,” says Zorba. “They are not judging you. They came to see the show, they are really excited and you give them a good time.”
Kinky, on the other hand, is not as happy to be onstage taking his clothes off. Which struck me as strange. He’s an athlete and, of the four of us, he is the one who should be most comfortable stripping, at least by conventional standards. But, for Kinky, it’s the fact that there is an audience out there — an audience who is clothed and who are focussing on exactly what is happening onstage, which makes it more of a challenge.
I began to realize that we all have our own thresholds of shame and weird ideas about our bodies. But, in a show like this, everyone is there for the same reason: to mingle fun and sexiness together.
“It is more about being part of the values of the Sexual Overtones,” says the Brain. “I feel like I help people to be less self-conscious about themselves and to have more fun and be playful around sex.”
In our last rehearsal we were down to the bare minimum and finally the Brain and I got together and stripped. To my surprise, the world did not come crashing down upon us, we were just two women stripping for our Dalmatian, Freya — who was not the least bit interested.
Now there is less than one week to go, and I feel nearer to achieving my goal of experiencing 30 seconds of semi nudity without feeling any shame. Let me rephrase that — without too much shame. On the way to this goal, I have become somewhat of a monster at home — banning biscuits, bread, cheese, chocolates and anything that may harm my training program of getting this body ready for the big unveiling. I cannot do anything about my knobbly knees or my not-so-flat stomach and I swear I still have one boob that is droopier than the other.
The last six weeks have not been easy. On some days I would be walking along enjoying life, having not a care in the world, and then it would happen: I would start to think about the show, wonder what the hell I was doing and I would start to get all the physical signs of a major panic attack.
But I am still committed, still rehearsing and waiting for the big day. Surprisingly I am not totally unhappy with the idea of showing my boobs to the world. Well, to the city. I don’t think I have gotten over the shame factor, but one small part of me thinks I am creeping to an edge of a precipice where, after I have jumped, I will love the thrill of it and will be eager for more. I also know I am not alone — I have realized that everyone is battling their own particular brand of shame.
And The Brain is there too — my assignment has played its part in influencing her as well. We talked about how we came from deciding to wear tank tops to wearing nothing.
“I think because you were writing the article about shame and sex,” says the Brain, “I felt like I had to push — I also wanted to push my boundaries more.”
It’s things like that — that everyone and even people who seem confident in their bodies have a threshold to overcome. So, there we have it. I am in a show, and I’m going to be whipping off my shirt and throwing it to the crowd.
People can see my boobs — but I still have that last card up my sleeve. I am not a columnist — there is no photo of me in the paper. The final step is really ripping off that clown mask, but I guess that will just have to wait for the next show.
Xposé, Noreen’s stage name, will be performing with the Sexual Overtones in Tales from the Strypt, on Dec 5 at St Brigid’s Centre for Arts and Humanities, 314 St Patrick St. $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Tickets are available at Venus Envy at 320 Lisgar, and at Auntie Loo’s Treats at 507 Bronson.