The belly dancer and scars
Scar (noun): A mark left on the skin or within body tissue where a wound, burn, or sore has not healed completely and the fibrous connective tissue has developed. (Oxford English Dictionary)
It seems like such a simple definition for such a loaded word. If only the Oxford folks could elaborate on what we already know…that scars are so much more than just connective tissue.
For the past year or so I have been struggling to come to terms with a topic that is often fraught with controversy: scars. Everybody seems to have an opinion and it is a highly emotional topic because many of us have gained our scars through life events with significant meaning to them. Each scar has its own baggage attached to it. When I am staring down at my stretch mark covered belly before a show wondering whether or not to wear a sparkly net, in my brain there are two camps at war with each other. Not really an angel or a devil on my shoulder, because neither is wrong…just one shoulder monkey firmly in the camp that says, “Flaunt ‘em if you got ‘em!” and “Leave the body stocking at home.” The other shoulder monkey says “Scars are not a part of the professional belly dancer image, cover ‘em and you are good to go!” whether that means using makeup or costuming.
In reality the subject is not as black and white as it seems. There are belly stocking burners and belly stocking lovers (this reminds me of an article written by Andalee a while back on the “Sausage Casing” debate, a great read!) but it seems that a lot of us fall in the in gray areas. I will use myself as a personal example. When I was pregnant with my daughter I discovered much to my dismay that my skin is not as stretchy as I had hoped. As my stomach swelled; angry red lines appeared slowly but surely all over the place. I tried everything, but no lotion or potion would do the trick. As a medical professional, I knew that resistance was futile and that genetics are the predictor, but against my better judgement I tried everything…seriously you name it and I tried it, but to no avail. The red marks grew longer and wider every day. The damage was done.
After my daughter was born I lost the baby weight and the marks faded to silver, but they are deep and trace over the pooch of my stomach, the curve of my hips, and even around my back. It has been over a year and a half since she was born and the texture under my fingers still feels foreign to me as I expect to feel my old smooth skin under my fingertips. Early on while the marks were still red, I chose to wear a stomach cover during performances. It was an easy choice for me, I just wasn’t comfortable showing off the crazy tiger stripes on the still wiggly jiggly mommy tummy. I felt much like contributor Disa did in her article about validation. (I highly suggest reading this article if you have the same feelings!) Moving forward, as I started to feel more like myself and the marks started to fade, I began to question how I felt about whether to flaunt or hide them. I was still somewhat uncomfortable with how my skin looked, but I wasn’t ashamed of how it became that way. I felt like I had one foot in the “flaunt ‘em” camp and the other foot in the “hide ‘em” camp. Slowly I became more adventurous and for different performances I would forgo the tummy cover and dance with my scars a blazing. I would feel more empowered when I saw other girls doing the same thing. They were like kindred spirits to me, and watching them dance gave me confidence. If they could do it so could I!
Today I find that I still reside very much in the in between area. Some days I feel like covering up my scars with a sparkly mesh cover. I love the look of different colored mesh middles with costumes and think they can be really pretty. I like to pretend I am sophisticated and elegant like Soheir Zaki. For gigs that have more of a public audience this is still my go to option. However, for other audiences that include more dancers I am much happier to dance sans cover. I am starting to become comfortable with what my body looks like nowadays and the more I do it the better I feel. My scars are a part of my life history and sometimes I just want to be myself in the raw.
I think it is important to understand that many of us fall in this grey area where some days we feel like covering up our scars, but other days we feel like showing them off to the world. And maybe even then we aren’t quite sure of our decision. It is a very natural thing to have an ebb and flow in terms of how we feel about our bodies. My message is that nobody is wrong in how they feel about whether to show off their scars or cover them up. Everybody is entitled to be comfortable in their own skin. For the belly stocking burners: if someone chooses to cover up that does not mean that she is ashamed of her body. For those who would prefer that someone with a scarred area tastefully cover herself: know that she is proud of her history from and has probably struggled with the decision to dance sans camouflage herself…and when she performs she may be inspiring someone else with scars to dance too!
When I set out to write this article I wondered if other members of the dance community felt like I did and asked for some personal contributions about their own scar stories so that I could share with Belly Dance at Any Size. I was very moved by the personal accounts of dancers far and wide who are dealing with the same uncertainties and questions that I am. We are not alone! I have encountered stories ranging from pregnancy and c-section scars, to scars from accidents, scars from surgeries, scars from growth spurts, and scars from personal harm. Each and every story is a beautiful reflection of how scars shape a dancer. Not only do they show us that we are not alone, they also show how irreplaceable a supportive belly dance community is. With much thanks and respect to the contributors I would like to share a few of the personal accounts I received about scars. Our scars make us unique and each and every one of them has an important story to tell. I think these stories help to highlight the uniqueness of our scar stories and the similarities in our feelings and experiences.
I have a noticeable scar on my ribcage, but I got it when I was probably 4 and so I never even notice it until someone asks about it. Contrast that to a scar on my knee I got at 16 and hid that thing for years! For me I guess it is just about time. Now the scar on my knee I don’t even care about.
That said, I am trying to use Mederma on my stretch marks that I got during puberty. I’ve danced with them for years and you can see them on my hips. Doesn’t stop me, but I wonder what it would be like to not have them, so for a $30 bottle of stretch mark cream, I figured I’ll try. I do fear if I ever have children that I’ll get insane stretch marks on my stomach, if I have them on my hips and thighs. And I wonder if it will affect how restaurant owners might book me. It’s probably nothing, but I do wonder about it.
I have a spinal fusion scar that runs down from the base of my neck to my tailbone. I have scoliosis, and about 10 years ago I had surgery (when I was 17). I had horrible self-esteem as a teen, and was so self-conscious about my scar and my spine deformity, which also meant that my rib cage was deformed and one hip sits higher than the other. It wasn’t until I started belly dance that I became comfortable with revealing my scar. When I started performing at a restaurant last year, my scar popped back into my mind after years of not caring about it…because with such a small, intimate venue I thought that the customers would notice. And then I realized…so what? My scar shows that I overcame a lot of physical and mental adversity with my scoliosis to be where I am today. And I love it! If someone asks me about it, that actually leads into a conversation about belly dance because it has been through belly dance that I am able to manage a lot of my every day back pain.
My ENTIRE midsection is stretch marks from my first pregnancy; from my ribs down, all scars and loose skin. I also had my gallbladder removed and got more scars from that. I consider myself very body positive and I feel I have made peace with my scarring for the most part. However I often wear costuming that covers my belly when I dance out in public because I’ve been in the crowds when women like me, or larger women dance, and I know the cruel things people say. I fight with myself a lot about this, about letting strangers take my confidence away, and sometimes I win and I dance bare bellied and brave. But I’d be lying if I said I always won the internal battle. The only time I have no battle to fight is when I dance for my sisters, other belly dancers. There isn’t a more body-positive community in the world than us.
I started belly dancing after losing 150 pounds and having gastric bypass surgery. My scar runs from breastbone to pelvis. The first couple years I danced were terrifying. I was used to covering up, I was used to hiding, I was used to baggy clothes. Revealing my scar was proof of what I was: overweight. So I wore very conservative clothing even while dancing. But the amazing community encouraged me. The sisterhood told me I was beautiful no matter what. Eventually, after several years, I was at peace with my scar. Not one of the girls I have ever danced with was perfect, and neither was I. The scar was just another part of me.
I began belly dancing in the late 60s, and this fall I’m hitting the 48 years mark in the business. I can tell you that “in my day” the body and “the look” was critical to getting and keeping a job. Even a sunburn or an uneven tan could result in being laid off until the skin was more evenly toned. We were experts at body makeup, and covered any scars, freckles, and birthmarks.
That said, I’ve also seen many rounds of evolution in the dance during my nearly one half of a century in the field. I have seen pregnant dancers, off-tanned dancers, legless dancers in wheelchairs and blind dancers. I’ve seen both males and females displaying their bodies proudly, regardless of shape, size, age and condition of the body. In the western world, the body has become more celebrated in belly dance than any other dance field.
As for me, I’m a three time cancer survivor, and I do work on my costuming to cover scars for my personal comfort. After all, I am not the scars or the cancer—I am the dancer!
I have scars on various parts of my body. All my own doing, and a 10 year habit taking years of therapy to control. Most of it due to the concept of a statement “no one can hurt me as much as I can hurt myself” rendering my nonconsensual sexual partners powerless. Or at least, this was the logic at the time.
As a lefty, they are up and down my right arm. When I ran out of room, I moved to my back, my stomach, and my upper and lower legs. I’m a firm believer in having no regrets, what I have done to myself was my own personal journey and has made me a better person.
I started getting creative. I dealt with my scars with prescription creams that made the swelling go down, and then used lots of make up to cover them up or sometimes henna. I don’t think anyone noticed while I was dancing, but there came a point where I had to stop dancing because I could not wear certain costumes. No one wants to see a dancer with injuries that clearly show a history of baggage. So I stopped dancing altogether.
When I was not hurting myself, I was having huge issues with putting things in my mouth and still go to therapy on and off for this such as when I stop brushing my teeth, or stop eating, using spoons etc. I think it’s something I will deal with forever, and I’m at peace with that challenge. I like to use my dance as a challenge. You MUST brush your teeth because you’re going on stage. Or, you CAN’T do this anymore or else you can’t wear that costume. I try and use this as my motivation. However, just because you’ve stopped doing something doesn’t mean you’re “cured,” but the tactic certainly helps. I started dancing again, I formed a troupe of friends, and was being creative with people I was comfortable taking my shirt off with. Having non-judgmental dance partners was a huge help for me.
It’s addictive, and a hard habit to kick when it becomes the first resort to problems instead of the last resort. But in the end, I’m proud to say that I survived those people, and more importantly I survived myself all because I wanted to continue dancing.
Again, many thanks to those who contributed their unique personal stories about how their scars play into their lives as belly dancers. It can be scary to open up about how our bodies really make us feel. It is an emotional and confusing adventure when it comes down to facing the physical baggage of our lives. Some days I can’t even begin to decide how I feel about my body that day, let alone how to costume it! We are all bound to have good days and bad days even when trying to keep our most body positive foot forward. I am very grateful for how belly dance helps us come to terms with this vulnerability. The most important thing is that we support one another in our decisions about how we personally wear our scars—in class, on stage, and beyond. There are no wrong choices when it comes to how to wear your scars, all that matters is that you are true to yourself in that moment. Feel like showing ‘em off? Awesome! Feel like throwing on a load of fringe to distract the eye of the audience? That is A-OK too! Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you should be ashamed of your choice, whatever that may be. You are beautiful.