I have always been told to follow my gut.
Little did I know my most joyful triumphs, and deepest disappointments, would all somehow resonate around the sacred area between the base of my bra and the band of my jeans.
I’ve been a dancer since the time I could walk. I learned at a very early age to rely on a mirror to tell me the way things should be. It told me about my body and my talent. I learned what looked good and was pleasing, and what was out of place.
I was a natural when it came to dancing. As a kid, I was thin and lanky, with long legs, and feet that arched like dipping swans without a lick of effort. Dancing came naturally, and I felt wonderful in the praise and admiration of the audience.
This was probably the beginning of my torrid love affair with praise and criticism. When I was doing everything right, I was on top of the world. If I received a correction from my instructor, I was devastated, especially when it came to my body.
“Tummy in, Jessica!” I got used to hearing.
Everything is perfect, except...
One of the advantages of having a flexible back was gorgeous extensions and poses. The disadvantage was the tiny sway of my adolescent abdomen that sunk forward like a crescent moon in my leotard. Thus began a deep resentment, and a daily cursing, of my mid-section, which would continue well into the next 20 years.
As I got older, I used to watch myself in class.
In my mind, I would think, “everything is perfect, except my tummy”.
If only I could suck it in harder. Maybe I’d try to do more sit-ups. I could skip dinner. If only I lost a little more weight, maybe it wouldn’t hang forward. I’d hold my stomach in so hard during class it would begin to ache.
Exhausted and breathless, I’d realize most of the time I was also holding my breath.
I was holding everything; holding, wishing, waiting to be happy for the day when my tummy troubles would resolve. I grew to despise my insides that pushed to the outsides. It was easy to believe that this was the one thing holding me back from all of my dreams.
Big belly breath
Near the end of high school, I started working with a voice coach. I knew I needed to sing if I wanted to get cast on Broadway. I opened my mouth, and a short breathy whisper flew, cracked, and fell before me. My voice teacher, looking confused, said, “Big belly breath, before the note.”
I tried again, inhaling all the air I could into my lungs. The note sputtered and stopped short, this time worse than the first.
She smiled, and said, “No, no from here.”
She patted her hand on the little pouch of my stomach, and I doubled back in surprise.
“Let me see this expand” she explained.
I was horrified.
“You want me to show you my stomach?” I said, squirming with discomfort, “I can’t let you see it.”
What I meant was, if I let my stomach go you might figure out that I’m not perfect, you might see my deepest pain, you might understand that my fear and doubts about myself and my self-hatred are all right there, living just south of my belly button.
She laughed and said, “If you are not willing to let go of your stomach, you will never really have a voice.”
I needed to be smaller
How’s that for a fucking metaphor? It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand that that day, by the side of the little church piano, we two women were talking about a lot more than singing.
We were talking about living.
As time went on, I went to great lengths to achieve the perfect physique. I continued my education in dance throughout college and squawked my way through musical auditions.
After I graduated, I was cast in a Las Vegas review. It was a classic Vegas show, with feathers, rhinestones, and scantily-clad goddesses parading around under bright lights. I felt like I had fooled the director into thinking I was worthy of being cast, but when it came time for the costume fittings, I froze.
They asked us to remove all of our clothes. They were going to have to look at our bodies to see how we would fit into the looks. Standing in front of the entire production staff, in nothing but a G-string, I feared their eyes would go straight to my stomach and know I wasn’t enough, that I wasn’t right for the show. I was too fat, too big, and too much. I needed to be smaller, quieter, and pleasing to the eyes.
I was more afraid to show them my naked belly than my bare breasts. What kind of a messed up world had I created, where the most private and vulnerable part of me wasn’t what I had been taught as a women to cover, but rather what I had shamed myself into hiding.
I forgot how to listen to my gut
After a while, it got exhausting hiding from the world. I blamed all of my problems on my weight, particularly my tummy. When there was criticism that endorsed my negative self-talk, I dove deeper into the hatred. I went to any length possible to keep myself chasing the illusion of perfection.
Finally, when I couldn’t pretend anymore, I relaxed and allowed myself to just be me. That season, it was no surprise to me that my contract was not renewed. My stomach had once again come between me and my greatest dream, but I was too tired of pretending to be good enough.
The ache was too deep from constantly shrinking my body, and my confidence, for so many years.
To say I was disappointed in myself, in humanity, and in the dance world, was an understatement. No longer having the identity and validation of being a Showgirl, I spiraled into addiction, bingeing and purging, and depression.
I quit dancing.
I told myself if I could just be “normal”, it wouldn’t matter what I looked like. I tried to navigate the new waters of my body positivity, but my intuition had been broken for a long time. I didn’t know how to trust myself.
In trying to make my “gut” disappear, I literally forgot how to listen to it. I had swirled for years in confusion about my body and my worth, a chaos tornado of my own making.
What she had
One day, I was asked to help out with some choreography for a Burlesque show. I wasn’t really sure what I was in for, so I went to the small black box theater and waited for the performance to begin.
With a sway of the big band, a sultry vixen sashayed onto the stage. She was luminous and sparkling, from head to toe in red feathers. She had a confidence about her which screamed that she was going to perform for us but she really didn’t care what we thought about it.
She was probably a size 16.
She teasingly began to peel back her layers of clothes, and I began to sweat. I was nervous for her, what would the audience think? She was going to get naked and they were going to SEE HER! I mean they were really going to see her, under bright lights and 10 feet from the stage. I began to pity and fear for the woman, anticipating the reaction she was about to get.
About halfway through her routine, someone started to cheer.
She smiled and coaxed the audience to cheer a little more. With every flip of her hip, her glove, her shimmy, her belt, the roars grew louder. When she turned around in all her glory, face beaming, standing nearly naked in a room full of strangers, her joy was radiant.
It was tangible.
I wanted what she had.
I would guess about 90 percent of the audience was looking at her pastie-covered breasts, but I was looking at her stomach. I was in shock. Curvy, tan rolls of flesh hung from her pouch, gracefully kissing the band of the silk panties between her hips.
When the music swelled, she shook all over. She let it all go. She wasn’t holding her breath, she wasn’t holding back.
She wasn’t holding… anything.
The audience could not have adored her more.
I sat there elated, shocked, and pulsing with excitement. It was the first time I had ever seen a woman really loving her body, knowing exactly who she was while standing in her power, tummy and all.
She was living.
Authentic, un-apologizing, and real
After that night, things began to change for me. I stopped looking to ballerinas for inspiration and started looking at real women. REAL women. Women with scars and stories. Women who weren’t hiding behind their spanks but instead, letting it all hang out.
Authentic, un-apologizing, and real.
I looked at divas who sang delicate arias, with big bellies and hips that were wide and broad. I looked at art. Venus di Milo wasn’t sucking it in, neither was Lady Godiva and she was on a horse.
I looked at the people around me. The women I knew had tummies and big asses, little breasts and big breasts, and long legs and short legs, and thighs that rubbed holes on the inside of their jeans.
Here I was, postponing my joy and waiting around to be perfect, before I would allow myself to be loved.
How had I gotten so off track as a woman loving great works of art to become a great work of hate? Hate for my body, and hate for myself.
Maybe it wasn’t my stomach that was standing in the way of my dreams after all.
I had realized, I was the one standing in my own way of my dreams.
A work in progress
It’s still a work in progress for me to find my tummy; to allow myself to just be me and realize I am beautiful this very second, not later, not when I lost the weight or achieving perfection, but right now.
I have come to understand that I am a magnificent woman who deserves to feel joy RIGHT FUCKING NOW.
It’s taken me a long time to get there. At times, I still get lost in the mirror, sucking in my pain and hiding, but mostly I surround myself with people who like and accept me no matter what size my jeans are. More importantly, I have learned how to heal and understand my body, at every stage of the game.
If my dreams don’t allow me to be me, then I don’t want them anymore.
These days, my belly is growing faster than ever. I have been blessed with the miracle of creating a life. I am so grateful for the wonder of my body, and the ability for it to house my new greatest love.
I have committed to myself to welcome change and cherish my body, even when it becomes unrecognizable to me, because I can do all things in LOVE.
The grace of having my child, and the growth I’ve experienced over the years, set the stage for my deepest pain to literally breath life to my greatest bliss.
In finding my body confidence, I have also have found my voice.
I know now that in order to keep it strong, I need to breath deep, trust my glorious gut, and embrace the truth, not just about my tummy… but who I am as a REAL woman.
Jessica Van Valkenburgh is a Body Confidence Coach, Licensed Cosmetologist, Blogger, Speaker, and Choreographer. She is the founder of Brazenly Beautiful LLC, Bodies without Shame, and a grateful KeyHolder of the SheHive. You can learn to love every curve of your body by attending her Brazenly Beautiful Burlesque class.