J.Alison Hilber, creator of Change How You See, Not How You Look body celebration workshops for Women, and Joslyn Jordan, creator of Sisters of the Shawl tribal style bellydance, were blessedly and gratefully drawn together (thanks to their articles in past issues of Planet Vermont Quarterly) to present a one-day workshop on the combined themes of body image and bellydance called Love me, Love my Belly! While this article is based on our upcoming event, its true purpose is to inform, intrigue, and entice women into contemplatingand loving!their bellies.
How does the word belly make you feel? Happy? Anxious? Sad? Guilty? Loving? Shameful? Inferior? Powerful? Frankly, after many years of the anxious, guilty, shameful feelings, it has now become one of my favorite words. Now I think of things like soft, circular, safe, comforting, touchable, even romantic.
Our belly is a place of power; the home of our breath; the giver of new life into the Universe; the center of our being. So, why does our culture make it seem shameful to have one? Suck it, tuck it, make it flat and hardthese seem to be the only acceptable ways of treating our bellies. No matter that sucking it in limits our breathing, tucking it requires cutting it open, and making it flat and hard pretty much defies the natural curves that women were created with in the first place.
Still, we are encouraged to tamper with our spiritual center just so we can fit the media-driven societal ideal of what a belly should be. Even more dangerous than the physical torture of trying to be belly-free is the lasting emotional and spiritual damage that comes from constantly feeling that this precious, nurturing place is of no value if it doesnt meet the strict cultural standard of what is beautiful. The more energy, time and money women spend changing our own natural, beautiful selves into what someone else wants, the more damage is done to our spirits. Our self-esteem dwindles and our self-love melts into self-loathing.
My work through the Change How You See, Not How You Look Body Celebration workshops is about trying to create a different scenario. I want to assist women in freeing themselves from this web of wasted resources, and help them remember that they are intrinsically and inherently worthy and valuable. We can work together to create a new cultural paradigm that values all bodies and all people as the divine beings we are!
Why do so many of us hate our bellies? After two children, with stretch marks and bread dough for stomach muscles, I can answer that question with just a raised eyebrow. But for some others, who might have perfect stomachs, the answer is not so easy. While this society markets thin as the only cool way to be, I have found tribal style bellydance to be an incredible avenue toward re-claiming my body. It is cool to be flawed! It keeps things interesting and organic. For me, loving my body, seeing its worth, and expressing its beauty through movement amongst a community of women, is ultimately the coolest way to be. This is the heart and soul of American Tribal Style bellydance.
More and more women are throwing out their Slimfast shakes and instead are shaking their hips in a defiant Love me, love my belly! kind of way. There is a cost however: bellydance brings up some powerful issues. In our culture, it is acceptable to wear a bathing suit that covers parts of the body as small as an envelope, leaving very little to the imagination. Yet put the same woman in a tribal bellydance costume and all of a sudden, she is looked at with either admiration or terror.
What is it about bellydancing that evokes such strong emotion? Perhaps it is because the belly is paradoxicalboth powerful and vulnerable. As women, we grow and give birth to human beings from within our bellies. Thats pretty powerful stuff. But our bellies are also soft, yielding and unprotected by skeletal armor. From the moment a women walks into class, she is confronted with these issues, some she might be aware of, some not: self-esteem, body image, age, sensuality, intimacy, sexuality and sexual abuseall the classic female issues.
I have found that thin women tend to have just as difficult a time with the issues bellydance brings up as larger women, sometimes more so. Larger women often seem to be blessed with the sense of humor a woman needs when she is learning this dance form. Thin women tend to be uncomfortable as they first learn to shimmy and feel all that flesh jiggling in reckless abandon!
Tribal style bellydance celebrates being a woman. It is about reclaiming our femalenessbellies, breasts, hips and all, and freeing our bodies to move in decidedly unmasculine ways. Tribal bellydance puts the feminine back in feminism, something Jane Fonda and the others rejected along with their aprons and pantyhose. Yet rather than the suggestive come-on quality of other forms of bellydance, the energy of Tribal style is of a proud, dont mess with me kind. It is about creating a safe, nurturing space for women of all sizes, shapes, ages, races, sexual orientations and experience (or lack thereof). The cooperation and trust necessary for the tribe to function challenges conventional Western belief systems that pit women against each other. This concept of cooperation v. competition can be uncomfortable and challenging. But I say its about time!
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