I am a burlesque performer. I have been taking my clothes off for a crowd pretty regularly for about three years. I was drawn to burlesque because it offered complete creative freedom, and I was also pretty stoked on the body-positivism it inspired – in me, in my fellow performers, and in the audience. Bodies are accepted and celebrated as they are, and also as they aren’t—I get the chance to explore and express a constructed gender identity with wigs, perilously high heels, and metric tons of glitter, and other times, I’ve appeared onstage with my real hair cut short, barefoot, with my every cellulite dimple and 34 A breasts shaking wildly, to the audience’s delight (or disgust, depending on what I’m going for). I love that burlesque makes bodies visible in spite of a culture that all too often tries to hide or shame them.
So I started feeling some complicated emotions when I was looking through some recent show photos and saw that a photographer had removed my underarm hair from live shots using Photoshop.
I’ll start by saying that I respect all personal grooming decisions. I happen to not shave my underarms for a number of reasons, including that I have very sensitive skin that breaks out into painful rashes when I fuss with it too much, and because I like having two little sweat traps that keep the perspiration from sliding down my torso, and because hair removal can be expensive and I’m poor and would rather spend money on limited edition Haagen Dazs flavors than razorblades or waxing or whatever. For the most part, nobody cares. I don't think twice about my hair on a day-to-day basis. However, it has become a conscious decision on my part to have and to show my body hair in the context of burlesque. I don’t think I’m some sort of hairy crusader, but I do think it is important for people to see a woman who has made that choice. I’m aware of the way that many people in our society feel about body hair, and I’m definitely aware of the impact my hair has visually, too—when I raise my arms, like I was doing in the aforementioned shot*, I know what I’m doing. In the case of this photo, my pits were sort of a sight gag—an intentional contrast to the exaggeratedly sexy and feminine way I looked otherwise (for reference, it was a Baywatch-inspired act). I was disappointed with the digital depilation mainly because I thought my armpit hair would have made the photo more interesting; I also couldn’t help but feel like the edit reinforced the message that body hair on females is unacceptable. I was bummed, but the incident (which I jokingly dubbed “Pitgate”) raised some thought-provoking points in a discourse which I, as a feminist and an artist, am always down to engage in.
I accept that ultimately, though the body belongs to me, the photos belong to the photographer, and he can do whatever he wants with them (even if I think he’s wrong). As a person who is photographed pretty often, I understand that it’s not always about me—it’s about the photo which I just happen to be an element of. If I was a model for a shoot and a photographer asked me to shave or told me that being bare was an important part of the desired aesthetic for the photo, I would be cool with that, because I respect the art form and the artist’s vision. In fact, if I don’t think that my body hair is appropriate for an act, or if it makes a character less believable, I’ll remove it. I also totally get retouching to make a photo the most awesome it can be; I would remove an element of a photo if it was visually confusing, or use Photoshop to enhance or correct lighting, composition, etc.
However, I am not a professional photographer, so I asked a few of my photog friends to weigh in on Pitgate. One of my favorite burlesque photographers told me that, although he has nothing against body hair, he has “cleaned up a few pits in his day;” he clarified that he wouldn’t do it if it was enough hair to register as hair in the photo, but would fix stubble that looked more like a pronounced smudge in a picture than it did on stage (which is apparently pretty common). He also told me that since he often has to shoot from below the stage, he ends up doing some liquefy edits on “looming thighs” and other unnatural or awkward shapes created by odd angles. He sent me an example—a photo he had taken of one of my troupemates where, since her upper thighs were so close to the lens, he took them in a little to make them more proportional with her torso and the background. I would have never guessed that the photo was edited, and although I was momentarily miffed at the thought of my own thighs being slimmed, I had to admit—his use of Photoshop was successful because no one, not even the lady in the picture, would have noticed, and the photo was all the better for it. I definitely appreciated hearing about his process, and he promised to run any future edits by me to show me how they were done (lest I write a scathing blog entry about him for BUST). And honestly, though I tend to avoid photoshoots because I hate them, I've sat through more than a few-- always with the hope that the finished product would be better than what I saw in the mirror. I'm not naive enough to think that no technological magic was involved in most of my favorite photos. Sometimes I feel like a jerk or a "bad feminist" (one of my least favorite, most-groan-worthy phrases) for hoping my acne or my mustache or my acne mustache get the Photoshop treatment. But after years of crushing insecurity about my skin/nose/lips/cheeks/etc., it is a relief when I see a photo and don't hate what I look like; I try to be grateful for that, regardless of how it happened.
In the end, I decided that the Pitgate photo wasn’t good enough to bother fighting for—the composition was poor, and the shot wasn’t particularly flattering before or after the not-so-thoughtful edit. In fact, I’ve had weirder Photoshop experiences, like the time a photographer added pearl earrings onto my lobes when I definitely didn’t have pierced ears (WHAT?!). If I had captured the Pitgate shot, it probably would have made its way into my trash folder rather than onto Flickr, but, as I said before, photos are the property of the photographer and it was his choice to post them—just like it’s my choice to be a hirsute stripper. I’m proud of my body, even the parts that don’t see the light of day or of flashbulbs very often, and ultimately, that pride stems from what my body can do rather than what it looks like. Maybe next time, though, I’ll shade my pits in with makeup (or glitter!) so that the photographers in the audience can be damn sure that they’re as much a part of my act as the rest of me is.
*I chose not to include the offending photograph because, like I said, it wasn't very good. Also, the photographer's name is watermarked on the image and he's kind of a creep, so instead, here's a photo of myself looking very un-glam and pleased with my pits.