straighten up and sing

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.

(me, performing one of my own songs for a friend)

*  *  *

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.



Kate on April 13th 2011 in body, perfection

12 Responses to “straighten up and sing”

  1. Tempest responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Good timing, I needed that, thank you. In a week, I’m filming my 2nd instructional dance DVD, and while I’m excited about the project (especially since I’m self-producing it and have total control over it), what I’m dreading most is having to watch and hear myself on video. I’ve taught hundreds of workshops and classes, performed all over the world, but yet I hate having to watch myself talk/dance.

    Un-roast: I love that I talk with my hands and make funny faces while explaining things.

  2. Valerie responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    You know, sometimes you really look like Regina Spektor and the both of you are amazing.

  3. Kate responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    Regina is definitely amazing.

  4. Christin@purplebirdblog responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    That last picture of you is magical and sweet… pure bliss. :)

  5. Emily responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    you do look like regina spektor.. especially on video

  6. Jen responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    Based on your remarks about arms, I was expecting to see upper arms as puffy as rising dough in that tank top.

    You must have been all bone before because those are NOT “big” arms.

  7. zoe (and the beatles) responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    i think you’re so beautiful, kate! i love that you found the confidence to stand up straight and proud :) !

  8. Jak responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    I’ve been a performer in several ways; I’ve sang, I’ve played violin, and I’ve given presentations. The hardest has to be the singing, as everyone is looking at you and there’s nothing to really do with your body. When playing I could be completely in the piece and the movement and ignore everything else. When giving a presentation I can gesture and love the thought of teaching others. Singing is something so different.

    This is beautifully inspirational.

  9. Kate responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    Well, that photo is from a long time ago, for one thing. I think I’m nineteen or so there. I’ve gained weight since then, but don’t have any other available photos of myself performing and smiling

    But it’s definitely also true that people’s self-perception can be really, really off. Which is part of why I write this blog! :)

  10. Kate responded on 13 Apr 2011 at 11:58 pm #

    SO true! I felt different when I acted. Also, when you take voice lessons (which I did only briefly), they always tell you to stand really still. And then you feel awkward when you move. I never liked that part.

  11. San D responded on 14 Apr 2011 at 12:40 am #

    When I taught, there were times I would have to be videotaped. I would always say that what I did couldn’t be captured on tape, and what that would mean is that the connection, spark, etc, wouldn’t be translated on the screen. True enough, when I looked at the tape, there would be someone I couldn’t recognize, teaching. I would be fixated on my physical “self” with all of the self conscious flaws that I couldn’t see what was actually transpiring between myself and my students. Thank goodness in real life, my students were connected to me in ways that transcended my physical self.

  12. Zoran Nesic responded on 14 Apr 2011 at 3:47 am #

    For me it’s funny how I never thought of public speaking until I was offered a lecturing position, and then just started without thinking. I guess that’s why I could never really understand the public speaking anxiety. Seems to me the best way to beat nervousness is to not think about anything but your speech, just stand up and do it. Never had to sing solo though, and it’s probably for the greater good :)
    BTW I think your writing style is really distinct and refreshingly honest, perhaps you should consider writing a book. Seriously. A story collection, something like The Lemon Table or A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes (read both of them many times, love them).
    My favourite sentence today: “…poking out from between curtains of long brown hair.”