Can I be feminine and sexual, and a successful business woman?

monique aislabie

Article written by: Ruby Skyscraper – (Burlesque Graduate from Lady Lou)
Photo: Maren Michaelis

I recently gave a talk at my coworking space introducing my secret showgirl life to the people who work beside me in on a daily basis. This was a terrifying experience for me because in my day job I am small business owner with a serious profession in a conservative, male-dominated industry. This was not in anything-goes Berlin, but in the very religious and conservative bible belt in the southern United States. 

At first I thought that compared to performing a burlesque act, this wouldn’t be scary at all because I was keeping my clothes on. But as I got closer, I realized that without the burlesque persona and the costume to hide behind, this was a different type of vulnerability but just as scary. To let it be widely known that I enjoy getting on stage and taking my clothes off in sexually suggestive ways in this city of bible thumping religious conservatives with views on women that are – shall we say, different to what one might find in Berlin – is provocative, to say the least. To bring that into a setting where it could impact my business and my career, even just by the fact that these people can now connect my burlesque persona and my business is definitely scary for me. If I present a part of myself that is feminine and sexual, can I continue to be taken seriously as a smart, competent, successful business woman? 

My burlesque journey has been nothing but empowering. It’s allowed me to connect with the feminine and sexual parts of myself that I suppressed being raised in a culture that values nice girls overall and then while survive years working in male-dominated professions. Burlesque has provided a playground where I can explore different female archetypes in a fun sparkly way with no stakes. And through that to explore and unlock parts of myself that I was taught to believe where unacceptable – divas, femme fatales, bombshells, and queens. It has helped me build the confidence to claim these as integral parts of me, to learn how to take up space, and to shift the very posture with which I move through the world. 

Seeing this blossoming in myself and others, its no wonder why the patriarchal institutions in society would be afraid enough of our awakening to teach us that accessing these parts of ourselves is evil and wrong. Here in the southern United States the church has a long history of being particularly aggressive in vilifying sexuality and suppressing female empowerment. It’s such a part of the culture that we’re raised into that we often don’t even know to question it. 

As women we are constantly sexualized, but we are expected to – and even celebrated for passively accepting this. I can walk down the street and I can be catcalled and leered at, and the expectation is that I smile sweetly and politely accept it. On the contrary, when I perform in a burlesque show, I invite people to view me in a sexual way. But I do this on my own terms, where I’m in control, and in a situation where I have all the power. And yet, the reaction to that can be very negative. That act of claiming power over my own body and how I choose to use it, is the thing that really upsets the applecart. It was this context that made me want to give this talk. 

I was almost as nervous before giving my talk as I was the last time I performed, but I decided to just lean into the fear and power through. And so with shaky hands and what felt like a shaky voice, I dove in. And…it went amazingly well. The reception was overwhelmingly positive. I think I literally blew some of the minds of people who only know me in my professional capacity. While I spoke of power and sexuality, I could see the nods of acknowledgement from a number of the women. Many of them came up to me afterwards to tell me how much my words really resonated with them and their experience. Even more expressed an interest in exploring the magic of burlesque for themselves. For me, the greatest win was feeling like I can be a more authentic version of myself in my workspace. Even though I took a professional risk, I was able to share this aspect of who I am while controlling the narrative. 

I do still fear professional consequences. What if my clients, my competitors, my professional licensing board, or potential mentors and business partners find out? There is a very real risk that my business could suffer if these people don’t take me seriously as a result or decide that tassel twirling is discreditable to my profession. As a woman I’m already severely disadvantaged in my ability to find mentors who genuinely care about supporting my business, rather than just pretending to in a pathetic attempt at a creepy sexual conquest. Will I scare off the few good ones by being open about my side gig as a showgirl? Will I invite more of the creeps in by relinquishing control of this information and running the risk of them casually finding out? Or, on the other hand, if I unequivocally claim it and tell my story openly and in my own way as I did at my coworking space, will that project enough power and ownership over it to insulate my business from the negative consequences? I really don’t know and I’m not sure if I’m willing to bet my livelihood on it just yet. 

For now I will just bask in the glory of the applause and overwhelmingly positive response I got for my first foray into sharing the magic of burlesque with a very unsuspecting audience. 

Written by Ruby Skyscraper
photo: Alexander Klien Fotografie