Award-winning burlesque dancer Lillian Bustle is fat, and she knows it.
"I happen to use this word as a self-descriptor," Bustle says in a powerful TEDxJerseyCity Talk. "And I don't say it to put myself down." Bustle goes on to identify exactly why using the word "fat" as a dirty word is so damaging — and reveals her secret to body acceptance.
"We as women are programmed to tell each other that we're not fat because to many people — both men and women — fat is the worst thing that you can be," she says.
"I'm five foot three, so I call myself short. I'm married, so I call myself a wife. I weigh 240 pounds, so I call myself fat. And I am beautiful, so I call myself beautiful. And I'm all of those things at once."
People often feel that accepting themselves is outside of their control, but Bustle argues embracing body positivity is a choice. "Being beautiful is a decision that you make," she says in the video. "Most of us sit around waiting for permission, for affirmation, for some other [person] to swoop in and tell us that we're worthy, that we're beautiful. It doesn't have to be like that ... you get to wake up one day and decide that you're beautiful."
Women must find a "courage reference": Bustle wasn't always so confident, but she managed to overcome the influence of our society's pervasive fatphobia in part by finding what she calls a "courage reference." This means "doing something brave and keeping that feeling in your pocket for times when you're not feeling so brave anymore." Bustle's courage reference is performing burlesque, which others have previously noted can be an empowering, body positive experience.
After seeing her first burlesque performance, Bustle says she was inspired by the "daring, creative, funny women of all shapes and sizes [who looked] like they could walk through fire," and began to perform herself. Bustle says proudly displaying her body reminds her that she's "strong and courageous and that I do great things. ... We can all have that."
Burlesque isn't a perfect space, she continues, acknowledging that burlesque performers are often still expected to maintain an idealized "showgirl" body type. But Bustle found a burlesque community that bucked this standard and discovered "a band of wonderfully diverse people gleefully celebrating their bodies on stage."
Once empowered, others must witness this courage. While it's important to find alternative spaces that generate confidence, Bustle presses others to challenge mainstream notions of self-acceptance, too. She cites a study showing that the more we're exposed to diverse body types, the more we accept diverse bodies. When people embrace the qualities that make their bodies different, they also proudly expose others to that body type and therefore broaden society's ability to accept an array of body types — including their own. "The more that body diversity is normalized in our minds," Bustle summarizes, "the kinder we can be to ourselves and to our bodies."
While body positivity and fatphobia alike are often dismissed as superficial topics, they have great impact on the lives of countless women. Learning to love oneself is not only challenging, but it's a true act of bravery — a reality Bustle acknowledges.
When the No. 1 wish of girls aged 11 to 17 is to be thinner, Bustle says, publicly stating "I'm fat, and I'm beautiful, and not only am I not afraid to be seen, I'm worth looking at," is not only an act of bravery, but is "socially significant." And it's a socially significant act of bravery Bustle will continue to perform. Hopefully, countless other women will follow her lead and find their own courage reference — whatever that might be.