From Eating Disorder To Burlesque Dancer: BUST True Story

by Susan O’Brien


Red lights of the EXIT sign cast a shadow on my shoulder blades, the only light I can find that isn’t already taken by another. The pulsating, thunderous bass of Def Leppard’s hair metal anthem “Pour Some Sugar On Me” hangs on the walls like old gum too fossilized to ever fade away. I look at the other girls, each with something wild within us.

The double-sided sticky tape finally releases onto my pointer finger. The same finger that wears my mother’s old engagement ring. I place the pastie onto my nipple, rosy from the illuminating sign. Tease a little more. Pull off your robe. Easy operator Remember to pull down your gloves inch by inch. Sugar me sweet. The pinch marks still there in my inner thighs. Little Miss Innocent. And how true that lyric was.


I remember being in the car with my mom when I was sixteen years old, back when I was just getting over my first heartbreak and my hair was tight in a bun from ballet class. We were laughing about the previous evening’s saga of me attempting to use tampons for the first time, something till this day I have not mastered. 

“It hurt so bad. It felt like I was ripping out my insides.”

Its not supposed to feel that way.

“I’m never going to try it again.”

I think youll change your mind.

“Oh god, I pray for the guy that will have sex with me for the first time because I will be so obnoxious.”

Although my mom never had a formal talk with me about the birds and the bees, we have always been open about discussing sexuality and romance; two things normally that are kept in the forbidden Rolodex of child/parent relationships. But as I said the words, I wasn’t thinking then about my mother’s reaction. As the words fell out in syncopation as if a rehearsed prophecy, I wasn’t thinking that it would mean waiting seven more years, three more boyfriends, and only one more tampon attempt to still be a virgin. But then again, I didn’t know what tribulations my body was about to go through in the journey.


Four years later and my hands are shaking, my forehead is drenched in sweat and my bones hurt. I look into the eyes of the 14th doctor to tell me  that no, nothing is in fact the matter with me. But my eyes, dark, dipped violet, and my skin, an odd off shade of Venetian lace, tell a different story. I try to carry my body, though 20 pounds less than my normal 5’7’’ 130-pound frame, feels elephantine, chastened.

Over months of constant sweating, anxiety, and fear, an eating disorder developed. Something I never imagined would happen to me. But here I was, fetus-like, a shadow of the routine of my life. I thought constantly of the parties I would not go to, the diploma I would not receive, the boys who would not turn their heads to look in my direction.

It would take three more months to find out the cause, PSOS and hyperthyroid; a therapist to help with the severe anxiety, eating disorder and depression; a boyfriend to fall in love with who was even more broken than I was only to quickly and predictably fall apart. Two years to finally feel okay again.

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I remember looking into my ex-boyfriend’s eyes. Midnight. On the floor with my red dress being lifted up. I remember thinking about what my body looked like in the mirror that morning. You could count my bones. Exhibiting my anatomy. My cheekbones felt fractured sharp. I remember him wanting me then, being ready, and me feeling shame for my pitiful femininity. We didn’t do it and we never did. I remember a year later, beginning to feel like myself again. My cheeks full, soft, newborn pink. My stomach toned from Pilates classes. Healthy. Another boy, but newfound fears left by the one previous one. And I wasn’t ready again.


I am now 23 years old. It is dark backstage with, only the cast of American Rose eerily resting on my lips. I put on my black tights, with a slight rip from overuse. They go up all the way to my thighs, where I secure them with a lacy pink garter belt. My eyes cat-like, drinking the night, and my hair done like Rita Hayworth. I don’t have a mirror as I get ready, but I can feel my breasts bounce in my bra as I rehearse my routine one last time. My breasts that were not there once, then went through puberty sooner than my friends, and were hated, celebrated, disappeared with my neglect for them, and then nurtured relentlessly back. These same breasts that have been felt and kissed by others. My thighs are full and ivory, punctured with little nail marks from a tick I developed with my eating disorder. My legs are bruised from dance practice and mundane clumsiness, stretching secure in the ground even with 4-inch heels. I feel my body, the scars and internal wounds. I know it so well.

My name is announced. Lady Noir. I hear the cheering from behind me as I sit on my chair facing the back of the stage. A song from an Alfred Hitchcock film plays. My arms raise up mimicking the beats of the music and I imagine the plane skidding off into the cornfields as Cary Grant runs for cover. Off goes my robe, off goes my glove, off goes my bra, off goes my garter belt, off goes my shoes and tights.

Im bare.

I think of my body, hurt by its own calamity and by the neglect of others. The boys of the past that would never get to experience all of it, and how beautiful that now seemed. My sexuality once based on fear but now glowing in pink at The Slipper Room with people shouting my name, and it all seemed like it was leading up to this moment. Proudly, I give my last flirtatious wave to the audience who still clap even with the close of the vaudevillian curtain. And I am left with my heart racing with the adrenaline that comes with realizing a new beginning.

More from BUST

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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