I always wished I had a flat stomach.
Be careful what you wish for.
It’s funny how words can get stuck in our psyche and limit our potential. I’ve always been thin. My whole life. I was angular and awkward. In school, I was called “geeky” “scrawny” and “scraggly” and “squirrelly” (those being the nicer among other insults). When I was in college, I once overheard a friend say, “Kyrst would have a perfect body if it wasn’t for that little belly pooch.” Did I take that as a compliment? Like, “Wow! Someone thinks I have an ALMOST perfect body!” (as messed up as the sentiment of that is) Nope. I took the negative part of that sentence and stored it away in my subconscious so it could always be there to taunt and torment me. And I’ve had a stupidly troubled relationship with my tummy ever since.
As a dancer, I’ve spent most of my life in front of mirrors; learning routines, analyzing my body line, scrutinizing my technique. Even though I don’t dance professionally very often anymore, the dancer within just never leaves. The years I spent as a musical theatre performer in New York were made up of classes and auditions. Always in rooms filled with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Self-observation is unavoidable.
Auditioning is a skill that requires a certain temperament. You need to walk into every audition trying to be the best version of yourself that you can be, secure in the knowledge that the casting directors know what they want and you’re either it, or you’re not. People walking in trying DESPERATELY to be what they THINK casting directors want are the ones who get chewed up by the audition machine the quickest. Not taking rejection personally is a huge life lesson that needs to be fully embodied if you want to embark on a career in the performing arts. It’s the skill I feel most performers lack, especially today. But still, you walk into an audition and you’re immediately being measured against everyone else in that room. So, it’s extremely difficult not to start measuring yourself by those same standards.
I remember walking into auditions in NYC and immediately looking around the room to see who else was my “type”. Who else was a redhead? Who else Who had legs as long as mine? Who had tits and who didn’t? Who was my competition? Of course, for auditions we wore leotards and tights. Capezio hold-and-stretch skin-tone tights, to be exact. So my belly was always covered at auditions – in at least two layers of fabric. If I ever felt my belly was visible, I’d also wear a pair of professional Capezio skin-tone fishnets UNDER my tights and leotard to provide a kind-of “control top” effect to my ensemble. But as time went on, the performers on Broadway were getting thinner and thinner. At that time, I was 5’7” and weighed 128 lbs. I’d consider that to be thin. But at auditions, I found myself looking like an Amazonian warrior next to most the other auditionees. Wha’ happened?
I have a theory that the “skinny shift” was partly due to the advent of more bi-coastal talent agencies (Hollywood likes most of their actresses to be a size zero) and the fact that every time a performer had to be replaced in a long-running show, their replacement needed to fit the costume. And since it’s always possible to take a costume IN to make it smaller, but it’s not always possible to let a costume OUT, every subsequent Broadway replacement dancer was smaller and smaller until the cast of 42nd Street started looking like a bunch of tap-dancing skeletons. Which is cool if you’re recreating Walt Disney’s Merrie Melodies’ Skeleton Dance, but in a Broadway musical it’s repugnant.
I was hired as a principal singer by a big production company that did shows on cruise ships. I ended up working five contracts for them. The company required us to report for weekly weigh-ins and if your weight increased, AT ALL, you received a “weight warning”. Three weight warnings, and you were fired. No joke. Was it legal? Probably not. The company’s mentality was that in view of the unlimited buffets onboard, we were meant to maintain our weight in order for the show to retain its look and for our costumes to fit. And at sea, it’s maritime law so you don’t have a lot of legal recourse. In rehearsals for their shows, before you get onboard, each cast member is weighed, and then given their “show weight” which was usually ten pounds less than whatever they weighed in rehearsals. The dancers were scrutinized much more closely than the singers, well except for the MALE singers, shall I say. Women’s bodies – you get it. We all had to report for weigh-ins as scheduled by the company manager. On my first contract, the company manager just didn’t like me. I was replacing another gal who he had been fast friends with, and I just didn’t have the same vocal range or style she’d had. He was constantly giving me vocal notes on how I was meant to “just sing it like she did”. Ugh. Well, one week I gained weight. I believe it was ONE ENTIRE POUND! And the fucker gave me a weight warning. I was LIVID. I mean, I literally could’ve gone to the bathroom, taken a dump, come back and weighed-in again and … voila! But no, it was clearly a real treat for him to report me to the head office.
I’ve always had a huge problem with injustice. I can’t stand it. I used to run around in a denim vest with a big ANARCHY sign on the back yelling, “Capitalist Pigs!” Good times. But I get EXTREMELY furious when it’s aimed directly at me. My stubborn, “I’ll show you, bastards!” streak comes out. So, that’s what I did. I showed them! I started taking Sudafed (you know, the original formula that you can no longer buy without showing your ID) as an appetite suppressant. Every morning, I’d take my giant travel mug upstairs, fill it with coffee and Coffee-mate non-dairy creamer, take a couple of Sudafed, and hit the gym. I drank my giant coffee and rode the stationary bike. I drank my giant coffee and lifted weights. I drank my giant coffee and stretched. Then I’d go to the buffet and eat salad, fruit and a plain hamburger patty. On Fridays I’d treat myself to ten French fries. I also smoked cigarettes during that time. On the ship they were only a buck a pack in the crew store. At those prices you couldn’t afford NOT to smoke! And did I lose weight? Hell yeah. I finally felt comfortable wearing a bikini in public. But at what cost?
I spent the rest of my adult life hyper-conscious of my belly at all times. And I mean ALL times. Driving my car, I sucked in my belly beneath the seat-belt. Flying in a plane, I always brought a pillow or stuffed animal to hold over my belly. Walking around my own house, completely alone, I sucked in my belly. I would cover up with a towel after my shower so I didn’t have to look at my belly. I even sucked in my belly IN the shower. And I knew that all my stress, tension and anxiety manifested itself there in my belly. I could feel it. Was that why I didn’t want to look at it? Because I knew I had some big psychic work to do down there?
In 2005, I was starting to get really frustrated with the professional theatre scene in New York. Aside from my distaste at the bodily shrinkage of the performers, I was finding that the further I made my way up the ladder, the less respect I was finding for the directors I was working with at those levels. I mean, working with someone who has choreographed or directed on Broadway should be a dream. But as I worked my way into more and more prestigious theatres, I found many of those directors and choreographers to be “phoning it in” in a way which they would NEVER have tolerated from their cast members. Frankly, I was insulted by their blatant unpreparedness and “it’s good enough” mentality. The directors I’d worked with earlier in my professional career at smaller theatres still live on in my memory as some of the best. So, I went looking for something else. I did my own cabaret show at Rose’s Turn. I looked for weird performance opportunities on Craigslist. And that’s where I found The New York School of Burlesque. I knew what burlesque was, as I’d played The Prima Donna in the musical “Sugar Babies” which celebrated the golden age of burlesque, originally starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller on Broadway. I just had no idea that burlesque still existed as a performing art. But the burlesque renaissance in NYC was in full swing and I found myself quickly at the heart of it, both locally and globally.
Besides the alluring aspect of creating my own performative art pieces in three-to-five-minute installments, I was looking forward to making peace with my little belly and showing it to the world, uncovered. No tights, no leotard, no one-piece bathing suit, just a bare belly. I remember the anxiety and anticipation of my first performance, and the accomplished relief I felt afterwards. But, as my career as a burlesque artist expanded, I realized quickly that my dancer’s body was a selling point, even in this world which was supposed to represent more body diversity than conventional theatre, and my belly shaming started again in earnest.
I scrutinized every photo or video taken of me in performance. I asked photographers to remove photos or videos from the internet where I felt my belly was pooching out. I learned photo editing so I could retouch my own photos. I scrutinized my body before every gig. But hey, at least I wasn’t smoking any more!
Now that the tumor has been removed from my colon, my stomach is flatter than it has been in my adult life, even WITH the scar. And I wonder if all the stress and anxiety which I’d been building up all these years in that angry little ball of evil has been removed with it. I’d been famous for swallowing strong emotions for years until they EXPLODE unceremoniously. (Hey, don’t judge, it’s a mid-westerner thing!) When I first got my diagnosis, I started looking at chakras and other theories on illness and found that the belly was connected to forgiveness. So, I started doing guided meditation work on forgiveness. (a lot of it is forgiving yourself, BTW) But as I matured and those big outbursts of tangled, frustrated emotion became rare and under my control, I’ll bet they were just collecting in that beast in my colon! Because I certainly don’t feel the same catch in my stomach I used to feel. Those anxious butterflies, the tight fist of tension that was my constant companion – gone. And I stopped sucking it in. In fact, now I breathe into it – filling it up with healing breath and light and forgiveness. Because that’s what I need most; to forgive myself for being imperfect. To forgive myself for being human. To forgive myself for being so judgemental all those years. And if I end up HEALTHY with a big, happy Buddha belly after all this? I’m gonna love it with all my goddamn heart!