These Male Burlesque Dancers Are Making an Important Statement About Body Positivity
If you're in the market for a good male striptease performance (and who isn't, really?) but want to be treated to some eye candy that's a little more realistic-looking than the Channing Tatums and Joe Manganiellos of the world, you may want to put down that Blu-Ray copy of Magic Mike, head to the nearest big city and familiarize yourself with the body-positive world of male burlesque.
Or as it is often called, "boylesque."
A burlesque act is typically a short performance routine in which the dancer gradually strips down from a themed costume. The specifics — the character portrayed, the degree of nudity, the story that is told — vary by performer and act.
"What I do are essentially three-to-five minute humorous routines," Jonny Porkpie, creator of burlesque company Porkpie International and self-billed Burlesque Mayor of New York City, told Mic. "I love storylines, so they tend to have an arc."
Toronto boylesque performer James & the Giant Pasty, who is the founder and director of the performance troupe Boylesque T.O., told Mic that everyone in his troupe approaches his act a little differently. "At the heart of it, you are going up onstage and you're trying to entertain in some way," he said, adding that "there's a remarkable amount of stuff you can do within the framework — you can tell a story to make people cry, turn someone on, make people laugh."
What also varies by performer is body type — something that stands in stark contrast to the conventions of boylesque's distant cousin straight-on male stripping, which typically features the conventionally ripped physiques that we're all used to seeing sexualized everywhere from cologne ads to primetime TV shows to music videos. Jonny, for instance, described himself as the antithesis of a typical male stripper. "I'm not large, but I'm not muscular. I'm probably average looking," he said.
James said body image is less important in burlesque than overall attitude. "In burlesque," he told Mic, "what's sexy or attractive or interesting is not one particular type of body, but rather the confidence in displaying that body."
"You can tell a story to make people cry, turn someone on, make people laugh."
James said that he was first drawn to the art form because he loved how it celebrated a diverse range of bodies and sexualities. But he found himself frustrated with the lack of men represented on burlesque stages, an art form that anyone who's ever seen Moulin Rouge or the Christina Aguilera film Burlesque knows is typically associated with female performers. (He told Mic that while there is a large boylesque community in Toronto, the term is relative; he guessed they might number in the twenties.)
Jonny Porkpie got his start as a self-described "burlesque boyfriend" over 10 years ago (his wife at the time was a performer), but said that he eventually started to wonder why there weren't more men willing to embrace their bodies in the same way the women of burlesque did. "Back then, there weren't a lot of men doing burlesque," he told Mic. "So I got integrated into a couple of acts."
Today, he participates in and produces a number of boylesque events, including a hosting gig at the recurring "Shocks and Cocks," an all-male revue in New York City.
While the nature of any given boylesque act may vary by dancer, one thing you can typically expect is male nudity. Whether it's full frontal or not ultimately depends on the performer and the nature of the show. For some performers, this means having to build up a certain degree of confidence and DGAF-ness about the conventional male body standards — muscles, flat stomach and chest, defined arms, etc. — that society loves to impose on dudes who take their clothes off in public. (Looking at you, men's health magazines and basically every movie ever.)
Brotherhood of Burlesque told Mic that sometimes, the very act of doing burlesque can result in an increased amount of body-acceptance. "There's something very profound about taking your clothes off for people and hearing them cheer for you," said the Colorado-based group, which is comprised of performers Mr. Valdez, Mustang Monroe and Damian Wunderluv.
"It's a very strong antidote to all the negative self-talk that happens when looking at your body by yourself."
"There's something very profound about taking your clothes off for people and hearing them cheer for you."
James & the Giant Pasty added that this has been true for members of his troupe as well. "Some guys in the troupe got into it specifically to deal with body confidence issues," he told Mic. "Burlesque in general is known for being a body-positive thing. We embrace bodies of different types — at the end of the day it's about performing and having a good act."
Indeed, tabbing over to Boylesque T.O.'s website reveals a group photo of the troupe in which no two body types are the same.
Jonny Porkpie agreed that the burlesque community itself is notable for celebrating male bodies of all types, but did share that there are occasional audience members who don't quite get it.
"As with everything, we're subject to the mores we've been raised with," he said. "People sometimes come to shows and expect us to be taking off our clothes to reveal Playgirl-fit bodies."
All performers agreed that what ultimately matters in putting on a quality burlesque show has less to do with body type and more to do with the performance itself. "The truth is, if you're entertaining enough, [body type] shouldn't matter [in burlesque]," Porkpie said.
Still, the fact that burlesque encourages a body-diverse group of performers to disrobe onstage is very much a refreshing antidote to what our culture tells us male bodies look like. It may even be a powerful medicine, given how pervasive yet underreported male eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder are in our culture. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, up to 43% of today's men report being "dissatisfied with their bodies."
While it may seem like a few nude male revues might not be any match for a culture that is dominated by unrealistic male beauty standards, they certainly represent a small, positive step forward.
"We hope to be an inspiration to people who deal with body image issues," the Brotherhood of Boylesque told Mic. "It's not often talked about from a male perspective, but there is that pressure to look like the men in advertisements who have the perfect six-packs and well defined bodies.
"Not that we're shaming them, but that body type isn't every guy out there."
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