Donning red lipstick, a purple feather boa and a rose-printed dress, Lillian Bustle urged a crowded room of eager onlookers to redefine beauty and celebrate their bodies.
Bustle, an award-winning burlesque performer, was always “the fat girl” growing up. Cultural messages and media influences taught her to hate her body, she said. The performer never saw girls with bodies like hers in her favorite TV shows or movies. She grew up feeling isolated from her peers, who teased her about her weight at school.
Bustle’s story is not unique. According to statistics cited by Bustle, only 5 percent of cisgender American women are born with the light-skinned, slender, tall ideal body type found in popular media.
It was only in her adult life that Bustle found her “tribe” among burlesque performers. Channeling lessons she learned from the burlesque community and her psychology studies during college, Bustle spoke to SUNY New Paltz students on Monday, Nov. 2 about strategies she uses to love and celebrate her body. It’s a practice everyone should do, she said, and it doesn’t involve validation from others.
“Beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, sure,” she said. “But that’s not what I’m talking about. When I talk about beauty, I’m talking about inherent value.”
For context, Bustle explained the psychological concept of a heuristic, or a simplified shortcut the brain uses to come to quick, easy conclusions. These shortcuts can come in handy, giving the brain a rest to expend more energy understanding complex problems later. But conclusions aren’t always as simple as these shortcuts lead us to believe.
According to Bustle, one of the most common results of these psychological shortcuts is known as the “halo effect.” The halo effect convinces us that once we observe one trait of another person, we can then judge all of that person’s traits. This is why we tend to believe that conventionally beautiful people are smarter, or better parents, or more successful, Bustle said. And she believes it’s time for a revolution of mental reprogramming.
Enter the burlesque community, where Bustle saw and met women of all sizes and shapes who celebrated their bodies onstage. Burlesque performances allowed Bustle and her colleagues to flaunt their bodies in three to five minute comedic skits or dance sets. Suddenly, the performer was exposed to women of every physical variety imaginable who danced, sang and shook their bodies with no shame or fear of judgment.
Slowly, Bustle began to un-learn and re-learn what beauty meant — a phenomenon she attributed to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s natural ability to grow and change. This was the mentality behind Bustle’s most heartfelt piece of advice.
“We have to look for [more diverse] bodies,” Bustle said, smiling. “We have to seek them out.”
Bustle encouraged audience members to find blogs and websites that celebrate diverse bodies. Consciously exposing ourselves to diversity allows us to appreciate the beauty in others — and in turn, learn to appreciate and celebrate the beauty in ourselves.