Who is considered a plus size belly dancer?
I recently saw a post in a Facebook group asking what constitutes someone as a plus size belly dancer. This subject is about as subjective as someone’s personal dance style, but it is one to consider none the less. We’ve often talked about how us belly dancers are lucky to have a larger acceptable range of sizes in our community, even among professional performers. However, one thing that you will notice is that among the belly dancers who have “made it big,” is that they are all either petite or on the slender side (Rachel Brice, Jillina, Aziza of Montreal, etc). Often curvy, yes, but truly plus size, nope. I’m not aware of one belly dance star who is actually plus size. Sa’diyya of Texas, a new up and coming dancer and winner of season 2 of Project Belly Dance, comes close, but I doubt she is larger than a size 12 or 14.
But let’s start here…What is considered plus size? Some of you may think that a 12 or 14 is plus size, and it’s true that many plus size models are that size or smaller. However, my recent experiences have led me to a different understanding of the term plus size. In the past year or so I have put on a considerable amount of weight for unknown reasons. As a result, I have transitioned from being able to shop in most stores at a size L or XL and pants at 16-18 (for now I am forgetting about the stores like J. Crew or Banana Republic who stop at a size 12 or 14), to having to buy clothes made exclusively for the plus size market. Sure, I can still squeeze into my old 18s, but a 16W or 18W fits me much better. I technically wear a 0X, but those are hard to find, so I often buy the larger 1X. Now I realize that even sharing my size here shows my privilege, I am still smaller than a lot of plus size women. It is easier for me to buy clothes than say someone who wears a 26 or 28, often the largest sizes available at plus size stores. But this shift has allowed me to see for the first time how horribly degraded and shafted larger women are in the clothing market are made to feel.
Another shocking shift has occurred. I am no longer able to fit in all chairs comfortably. The first time this happened to me, I was sort of in shock. I mean I had started to notice being a little bit less comfortable in airplanes and in tight seating arrangements, but to actually sit down in a chair and have it hurt your butt and thighs because it is too small is an experience that bowled me over. Some people would be tempted to start dieting right away (I was at a burger joint), but we know that the majority of clinical research shows that dieting doesn’t work. Other women would be so ashamed that they would not say a word and suffer in silence, internalizing their own pain and shame. I decided to stand up for myself and make myself comfortable. I asked my husband to switch chairs with me and his chair wasn’t much better. Luckily this restaurant had a variety of different chairs available and we just had to wait for a table to clear before switching to a table that had chairs without arms and a wider seat.
Other little instances like this are happening everywhere I turn it seems. My new office chair at work is barely wide enough for my hips and while I am sitting on it I feel my thighs pushing along the chair arms. While this isn’t uncomfortable yet, a little extra weight gain and it’s time to go chair shopping. I’ve also recently found a brand new stretch mark on my belly. This is my first belly stretch mark and my first stretch mark from high school. I went through a range of emotions when I found it (again, a temptation to diet) and I learned that body acceptance is a journey, not a destination. A little set back here and there is to be expected.
Anyway, why am I sharing all of this? I am sharing this because now, for the first time, I finally understand what it means to truly be plus size. I now feel that plus size is any size where you have to shop in a plus size store to purchase your clothing. Sure women who are sizes 10-14 may feel plus size, and certain industries, like the beauty and modeling industries, work really hard to tell women that they must get into single digits to be small enough. I don’t want to demean or argue with anyone’s point of view, especially if they feel discriminated against; as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, size categories can be very subjective. But I would prefer a different adjective for women who stop a little short of full-on plus size…curvy and full-figured seem to be nice descriptors. I’d like to keep plus size to the ones of us who are, in my opinion, actually plus size.
OK, but what does this have to do with belly dance? Now that my definition of plus size is defined, I can apply it to belly dancers. I feel that a plus size belly dancer is one who has to shop in special clothing stores (or sub-stores) to buy their clothing. A dancer who has to custom order or make her costumes to fit her, often paying more for doing so. In the gigging world, I feel that a plus size dancer is someone who stops getting considered for gigs where a curvy or full-figured dancer would still be on the short list (however, I do realize the curvier dancers are often overlooked for gigs as well). As someone who has been gigging since I was a size 12…there is a big difference in the way people treat me then versus now and how often I get selected for gigs. I know older dancers experience similar bias.
Truth: There are a lot of us plus size belly dancers out there and we can’t let things like the current status quo get us down. We can’t look at pictures of Rachel Brice and lament that we will never be that slender. We can’t be down on ourselves because we don’t qualify to audition for a troupe spot because we can’t fit into the standard costume sizes. We can’t continue to put looks before technique, skill and knowledge.
There are solutions to this problem and it takes all of us to participate. We need to end weight stigma and shame. We need to learn that weight and health are not as intertwined as we are led to believe. We need to support belly dancers because of their skill and talent as opposed to their size or marketability. We need to share our voice and point of view with friends, family, students and other dancers. We need to keep pursing opportunities that will make us better. We need to accept ourselves as we are right now, and not let things like our size hold us back from reaching our goals. We need to stop comparing ourselves to others. Take up space and declare your value in the community.
So what are your thoughts? What do you consider plus size? How do you think plus size dancers can be more included in the community?