My friend’s brother filmed my friend and I once, acting out a scene we’d made up. It was something dramatic, destined for a blockbuster movie that we would make when we were fourteen, or some other distant, grown-up age. After, he put the tape in the VCR and we watched ourselves. My friend looked like herself, cute and bouncy. I didn’t recognize myself for a second, and then my heart sank. From profile, I was just a nose, poking out from between curtains of long brown hair. Like a shaggy afghan hound. I looked melancholy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I wanted to curl forward around my own body and hide myself from the world. I wanted to be a ball.
There was the guest post from Madeline over in Hollywood, and then a reader sent me an email in which she mentioned being a performer and her struggles with body image. It made me think about my back. And about standing up in front of people and singing.
This is me, in a suit I sometimes wore while performing:
I have been standing up in front of large groups of people and singing since I was fifteen, when my synagogue started to pay me to do just that.
There is nowhere to hide, up there. Everyone looks at me. I feel their eyes, and when I look up, I see them looking back. There is no convenient television screen to distract them. There aren’t any special effects. I look down at my prayer book, collecting myself. I look up again, they’re still there. All of them. Automatically, I curl forward, protecting myself.
It is hard for me to stand up straight in front of all these people who are watching me. For years, I hunched forward, shielding myself. I wondered what they were thinking when they looked at me, and I didn’t want to know the answer. Sometimes I sang so well that I was empowered, but I still didn’t trust them to think I looked good. And not feeling that you look good when so many people are looking at you is almost physically painful. It becomes physically painful when you stay curved in.
(This is what it looked like, standing up there. That’s my podium.)
Being a performer is a special, privileged torture for women with body image issues. We are confident enough to get up there in the first place. We trust ourselves enough to be there, to keep coming back. We want more. And at the same time, we are constantly being looked at in a way that other people aren’t. And on our bad days, we feel judgment behind every gaze.
A little over a year ago, I stood up straight. It hurt. I made myself. It wasn’t a natural evolution; it was a conscious decision. I was done hiding. I stepped back from the podium and dropped my hands from where I’d grown accustomed to clutching the lip. I closed my eyes and sang, back straight, feet planted. I opened my eyes and looked out at the people. They looked back, the same as always. Maybe they weren’t really even thinking about my hair or my nose or my outfit or the funny shape my face takes when I sing. Maybe they were, but whatever.
I slouch automatically. I catch myself when I’m nervous, at a party, or meeting someone new I’d like to impress. My shoulders round forward. I am trying to hide a little. I am trying to protect myself from their eyes and their opinions.
But I am a performer. I know how good it feels to entertain and lead and inspire a crowd. Or even one other person. I want that, even as I am scared and even as I am self-conscious and even as I struggle with my images of myself.
So shoulders back. Chin up. And sing.
* * *
Un-roast: Today I love how my face keeps changing a little. Who knows what will come next. Sometimes it changes forward, sometimes it seems to change back.