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Living with Curves

These Hips Don’t Lie!

 

by Titanya Monique Dahlin

Mae West

I do not consider myself obese or fat by any means, but in my belly dance costume it might appear to some people think that I don’t work out or diet.  The truth is that I AM CURVY!!!!

 

As Mae West put it, “The Curve is more powerful than the Sword.”

Women in my family have always had curves, large breasts and voluptuous figures.  It is in our genetics.  All my life, I have had an obvious “ belly”. When I was a teenager and working in a day care facility, children would ask me when my baby was coming.  At airports, officials still warn me not to go through the turn styles and x-ray machines, because they assume that I am pregnant.  Throughout my life, it became an embarrassment and shame to me that might not have happened if our society didn’t have such an unreal expectation of “the female body image”.   If it weren’t for other people responding to my curves with their own assumptions and ignorant comments, I would feel very comfortable with my weight.  I am a full-figured belly dancer and I also love watching a full-figured woman belly dance. To see a curvy woman dance in her shining glory brings a satisfaction to my soul.  It is Earthy. It is ancient.  It is what this dance is all about.  Perhaps it is why I gravitated towards the dances of the Polynesian Islands, while growing up with my sister, Dondi.  As a child, I was never comfortable with my ballet classes. I felt like a robot with all the other little girls, never being able to express my own individuality.  My “ballet robot” had a few parts missing, like the “skinny gene”, so to do those same movements were not quite the same as the other girls. My leg would lift onto the bar and I knew that it was not the same long and slim leg as the girl next to me. How about leaping through the air?  I loved the joyful feeling, but my body would come down with a louder thud than “Ballerina Betty” just before me. The teacher would shout, “Jump lighter Tanya, more like an angel rather than an elephant.”  I felt clumsy and didn’t think I could dance.  I began to compare myself, early on.  Were you one of these women too?

When I was young, I was fortunate that my family loved to travel and spent many years traveling back and forth to the South Pacific.  The first time I saw an island dancer, I stood transfixed, watching her swaying grass skirt on her full hips, dancing to the rhythmical Tahitian drums; she made the motions look so natural and easy.  Stories were told through hand and hip gestures to the sounds of the ukulele and her movements made me feel comforted and safe. Yes, this was the dance I felt I was meant to do and at nine years of age.  This feeling brought me back to my joy of dance.

 

Later, in high school, the Middle Eastern dance was equally celebratory and joyous.  I felt freedom when I danced.  I quickly became aware that the more flesh I had, the better my hips were going to move! This is one word of comfort that I still pass onto my curvy students. This is especially reassuring when our culture moves into an era where “Thin is in!”  So many Middle Eastern movements are simply articulated better with some extra “meat” on the body.

Betty Boop

How many of us were aware of this self confident feeling when first coming into the world of belly dance? We rejoiced and found a new excitement from our bodies. It might have been the first time some of you felt comfortable with your large hips and belly.  For me, it was the first time in my life that I was not judging myself or comparing myself to the woman next to me.  Perhaps you too, were not judging yourself either, you stopped seeing the flaws, the fat, the cellulite, the wrinkles.  I, like others, found my own strength and became confident in my body.  Here we were in class surrounded by all different shapes and sizes, ages and we celebrated those differences together and these differences made each one of us express ourselves, uniquely individual through

the dance.

 

Many women that entered into belly dance in the 70-80’s, were full bodied women because it was the first time they found a dance venue in which they were accepted in.  Yes, it was our time. We began to find a tribe that we clicked with.  We discovered that we could be quite awesome, sensuous and skilled dancers, despite our curves which would not have been allowed in many other professional dance forms. Sometimes because of our curves, we found we excelled in moves better than the thin ballerinas who came to try in to try our belly dance classes. And so we began to accept our bodies through the dance.

 

Throughout the 80’s & 90’s, I noticed a change.  The belly Dance industry started becoming more competitive, more popular and more mainstream.  When this “homogenization” of the dance occurred, women started dancing similar (“Hello, ‘Egyptian Cabaret’ Style”) and looking similar (“Hello, skinny, young girls”). By the 2000’s, American restaurant owners who wanted to hire us for restaurant entertainment, no longer thought curves were attractive (unless they came with a flat stomach and breast implants).  

 

When I first came onto the belly dance scene, Arab men in nightclubs would say that the women were too skinny; they needed more meat on their bodies.  “This makes a woman beautiful”, they would say. Then it changed.  Club owners in California began wanting buxom blondes with long legs, flat abs and no hips. They began hiring young girls on the edge of their own sexuality, who were using it for their advantage, rather than talented, seasoned belly dancers with experience.   Yes, women today have a very difficult time being accepted in their “natural” form.  If you have small breasts, you are made to feel like you should get implants.  If you have large hips, you must diet.  If you have a “tummy”, you must be pregnant – not simply a woman in her most beautiful and natural form.

Twiggy

Of course, the media has fed us the images of the times. Fashion has always been a leading force in which many women follow. The 1960’s gave us the half dressed “flower children” and baring skin was in! The skinny image of the model Twiggy in the 1960’s with rail thin models, small hips and breasts, boyish bodies balancing on the edge of starvation. I rejoiced in the 80’s, when Madonna made curves come back, with her sexy little outfits that showed off her “not-so-flat” belly. We had the hit song by Queen, “Fat Bottom girls you make the Rockin World go round.” The “Skinny Goddess” came back in the late 90’s with Kate Moss, Calista Flockhart, and Iman now in the 2000’s, with Nicole Ritchie, Lindsay Lohan, Kate Bosworth, and Mary Kate Olson. although the curvy women are also competing to reign with Kate Winslet, Queen Latifah, Nia Vardalos, Catherine Zeta Jones.

 

In Sept, 2006, in Spain, the first ban on skinny models has caused outrage through the modeling agencies and ‘cat-walk’ runways. Last year in Brazil, a model actually died from anorexia.  Madrid’s regional government said, “ The fashion industry had a responsibility to portray healthy body images.”  The modeling industry builds an illusion and the average woman cannot live up to an illusion. Carolyn Costin, director of the Monte Nido Treatment Center in Malibu quoted in another article I found, “young girls see celebrities loosing weight and the more famous they are, the more weight they lose.”  It creates a climate that says it’s unnatural to be a natural size.  Still statistics have shown that if you stick a skinny girl on the cover of a magazine, you will sell copies. The industry is making small changes by providing healthy snacks backstage and raising the models BMI(body mass index) of 18 or higher instead of the prior 16 or below.

Marilyn Monroe

Do you realize that today the average American woman today is size 14-16? One of the most photographed and idolized women of our century, was Marilyn Monroe and she was a size 14.   It is great that stores catering to the more voluptuous woman have sprung about, like Torrid, Lane Bryant, Baby Phat. Even advertisers are gracing magazine ads with fuller models such as Dove and Levi’s.  A campaign for Slim Fast recently began to focus on real body image that fits your own reality of family genetics, claiming “Find your own Slim”.  Words like “Bootiliscious” and “Bodascious” have come into being, and now we have a way to positively describe what we’ve always struggled with. Beyonce’ Knowles 2001 song, “Bootyliscious”, gave us a whole new esteem to describe being confident with your curves.  The movie, Real Women Have Curves graced the big screen and announced “Real women take chances, have flaws, embrace life and above all, have curves!”   Still, the media shows us the way. We look at the magazines.  We idolize the movie stars and models.  We want to buy their clothes, see what the latest fashion craze is or how they dropped the baby weight.

In an article of May 20, 1999, in the New York Times, stated that when T.V and gossip magazines were introduced into the Fijian islands for the first time, Fijian women were whipped into a frenzy of eating disorders, wanting to be like the women of Melrose Place or 90210. These beautiful, exotic, full hipped Fijian women are quoted as “being the happiest and friendliest people on Earth”.  For the first time in history, they are now experiencing depression,  thinking that they have to be like the women in the magazines, skinny, petite and young. Eating disorders have occurred for the first time in the islands among young teenage girls.  How sad! They do not know that most of these models are completely retouched, being almost hand painted and airbrushed beyond recognition. There is so much retouching that is done in the business,  it would shock most of us. But still, the photograph began with a skinny girl. I feel that America continues to cling to false standards of youth and beauty.  I see so many other cultures have more realistic standards of what’s healthy and beautiful. They honor the wisdom and experience of age more than we do, such as the Fijian women who do not focus on body image but rather the roles women play throughout their lives and how it affects their self esteem.

 

If you are reading this article and you are a skinny woman, I understand that the world looks a lot different from your point of view. But the truth is, you will always be considered more beautiful and accepted in society if you are thin. You might argue some of my comments.  I know that you have your woes too, that for certain body types, it is difficult to put weight on and this is a struggle, too.   In our Belly dance communities, thin belly dancers get more dancing jobs, they don’t have to alter their costumes when they buy the; they are the ones chosen for CD and DVD covers.  For the “fat girl” in our industry, there is little glamour or acceptance.  It has always been easier for the skinny woman in Belly Dance, and, for that matter, in any career.

 

There are millions of women in America who struggle each day with weight issues, feelings of shame and inadequacy about their bodies. We are constantly pushed to an unattainable ideal.    In History, women have been taught to view their bodies as objects of beauty, whereas men view theirs as instruments of action.  Let’s talk about the “Double Standard” in our media. If a male belly dancer (or actor/performer) were a little overweight, there wouldn’t be any talk of his curves…but a fat roll on a woman, look out! No one is talking about Vince Vaughn’s weight gain in the last few years and what about Jack Black and his sexy male physique?

Titanya's sister Dondi as Marilyn

My sister was a “Belly Dance Superstar”.  Dondi was the one who danced the comical piece of Marilyn Monroe.  She was controversial for a lot of reasons – one being that she was the “curviest” dancer on the tour.  Many women rejoiced that Dondi was the “Saving Grace” on the tour since the other dancers seemed so thin.  But being “the token fat girl” at a whopping size 8 has its heartaches.  Chat rooms filled with talk about Dondi’s weight.  The “Belly Dance Superstars” are beautiful and talented yes, and I love watching the show, but they represent a myth – an impossible ideal for most women and don’t represent the different body images that create this art form.   I was amazed when young chubby little girls would come up to my sister and tell her that they wanted to be a “Belly Dance Superstar” when they grew up.   I thought to myself, what ideals are these women aspiring up to within their little minds and will they be in for a huge shock when they don’t come true.

 

What is Beautiful?  Is it what the media is going to feed us? If so, then we will probably continue to hate our bodies if we aren’t exactly what we see in the tabloids or in our own professional dancers we look up to.  The media teaches us that we aren’t good enough if we aren’t thin, young, or rich. For too long, the patriarchy has led us to believe in “the ideal beauty”. We diet, we snip and tuck, we pluck and pick, we pierce, we cut, we wax and shave, we starve, in order to fit in and be accepted.  In fact, studies have shown that the majority of American women don’t like what they see looking back at them in the mirror and are unhappy with their bodies.   Fat or Skinny or ‘Perfect” in another’s eyes, we are all dissatisfied with our body in some way. It can truly be a daily addiction. People who are unhappy or depressed tend to distort their body image even further.

 

While writing this article, Tyra Banks has “come out of the closet” with her curvy 161 lb. body on her talk show, targeting the critics who called her “fat”. She shed her outer garments down to her underwear on daytime T.V, challenging her audience members to do the same.  “You call this Fat!” she shouted to the cameras as if addressing directly to the critics who splashed her photo in a bathing suit in the tabloids calling her “America’s Next Top Waddle”. Tackling body issues on her show was one way to reach the next generation of young girls whom see these models and want to emulate them and look like them, to the point of liposuction, starvation, breast implants, etc.  She also runs a teen camp of disadvantaged girls called TZONE in which she finds ways to raise these young girl’s self esteem.

 

During her modeling career, Tyra was one of the first African American models to land a cosmetics contract. When Tyra was walking down the “cat walk”, she was usually bigger than the other models, but asked whom was the fans favorite, it was Tyra Banks for her “Curvascious” figure.  Yet, she too lost jobs being “curvy” while her sister models ran away with the high-paying jobs.  Now since retiring from modeling in 2005, her weight has fluctuated from 148-162 lbs.

 

At the core of body image issues is our self-esteem.  In a world where we are constantly being bombarded by the message to be perfect, it takes a lot of courage, love and acceptance to rise above this and realize that you are unique in your body and your dance.  Your dance is your story, so no matter what you look like, let your dance express your pride of who you are. Have you ever heard of the words, “Fake it till you Make it!”  When you change your attitude, your life tends to follow.  It is a constant struggle, but you can choose to look as good as you feel.  When your self esteem improves, there will be a shift as how you feel on the inside too.  You will be concentrating more on your dance than the way your body looks.  You will become more confident and that will make you look and feel better within your own skin. You can never be empowered hating your body so don’t make hateful comments to yourself or others. Treat your body and soul as your best friend.  You would never say to your best friend what you say to your body, would you? Restructure your negative self talk to a positive form of self acceptance.  Real self esteem comes from finding out what your strengths are and playing them up!

  

So, next time you obsess about the parts of your body you hate. Try this, think back 10 years ago, and remember what your body was like then. Was it different than it is now?  Were you hating your body then? Was it better, in your eyes, than it is now?  Well, chances are that in the next 10 years, it will change again, and you will be wishing that it was where it is now.  So, love what you have now.  Right now, take a deep breath and obsess about the parts of your body that you love and appreciate, and write it down and pin it on your mirror.  Look at that list and say it out loud every day; eventually your body will hear and accept this and believe it.  That love will spread throughout your entire body.  Same thing goes with dance, perhaps you are not the world’s greatest dancer at every little move, but acknowledge those movements you can do well and relish in them. If you are in a rut, remember the joy of what it was that brought you to the dance in the first place.

 

While reading this article, I hope you have come to realize that most of us share the same weight struggles and issues whether it is about genetics, hormones or eating disorders.  Love who you are and not who you think you should be.  You only have one body.  You only have one life. Love it. We have to take back our power as women.  We have got to learn in anyway you can, to honor and love our bodies, because if we don’t, no one else will.

 

Titanya Monique Dahlin

Titanya Monique Dahlin has danced and taught throughout U.S, Europe, Canada, Mexico,Australia and beyond. In the past, She has been Nominated as Best Kept Secret in Zaghareet Magazine, and won First place in the Scarab Category at the Double Crown Competition in Oregon.      Also a professional actress, Titanya has written and produced plays that have received rave reviews. Always striving to bring peace and healing to our ever-changing world, profound messages always abound in her programs. She is most notably known for her Mythological Dance/Dramas and one woman shows Scheherazade -The Veil Behind the Blade and The Trancendance of Inanna.