The minute we land in Austin, we meet with Big Star, a plus size burlesque troupe. Here are the ladies:
Raine (left), 22, was born in Austin, has been doing burlesque for a year and is the head seamstress in soft goods for SewSister.com (a lingerie company). She lives with her husband in the house we have all gathered in, and also dabbles in phone sex for extra money on the side. She thinks of herself as a “modern, hip feminist,” one who got married when she was 20 because she wanted to, not because she was “pregnant or pressured.”
Cait, 18, is from Michigan, and after dropping out of high school, moved to Austin for a month and works with Raine at the soft goods manufacturer. She fell in love with Austin after a visit in July. She’s a feminist--“not an extreme feminist, but what Raine said…a modern one.”
Florinda (right), 29, is a “playwright, artist, activist, singer, educator” and a through-and-through Texas girl, raised outside of Houston. She works for the non-profit the Theater Action Project. She is a self-proclaimed feminist (although not an equalist: “I would fight in solidarity for women to do anything, but that doesn’t mean I would want to go fight in the war.”)
Rebecca, 22, is originally from California and has been in Austin for two years. She is a corporate recruiter by day—“every other day is a struggle to the top”—but doesn’t want to stereotype herself as a feminist.
Originally from Queens, Stephanie (left), 29, is the founder and “mother hen” of Big Star burlesque. She had the idea a year ago. Always interested in pin-ups but, as a larger woman, she had to find a venue for it. Now she runs a full variety show and is a telephone dominatrix—“the best-paid acting job I ever had”—where she can make upwards of $2 a minute.
Stephanie started the troupe because she wanted plus size ladies to feel a sort of “freedom in their own skin.” Her family never made her ashamed of her size, but she always felt like she had to remind herself, ‘Be careful, keep covered.’ Stephanie tells us that Big Star has more of a feminist slant than other troupes because it presents big women as “normal, beautiful, sensual, bold…campy, smart, sexy and entertaining,” without having to be merely “sassy ladies or comedic fodder.”
Most of the women seemed to have had a “lightbulb” moment when they realized they wanted to do burlesque. Rebecca (right) saw it as a chance to “get her femininity back,” being raised in an environment where women were the breadwinners. Florinda saw it as a way to make other bigger women feel sexy. Very thin once upon a time, Florinda gained weight later in life and realized how embarrassed other big women felt. She wanted to somehow tell them, ‘You ain’t seen a big girl like this before.’ Cait (below) adds, “Burlesque was a huge feminist step. It seemed to be a stab at the status quo."
I ask Stephanie and the other women why burlesque is often more considered “feminist” than, say, stripping. The consensus is that it’s a more female-run industry and concept, and a conscious decision to participate rather than having to strip for a living. The ladies make a distinction between class and education at this point. With the exception of Stephanie, none of the women in the troupe have a college degree, but all make enough money to sacrifice a Sunday to practice burlesque. “We’re all here by choice and don’t have to be working that third job,” Stephanie says. Florinda agrees. “We get to practice art. And I’ve always recognized art as a privilege.” All the women agree that living in Austin gives them easy access to an intellectual, liberal environment. Cait, when she explains to her friends what she’s doing, they react by saying, ‘Wait, so you’re a stripper who works at a factory?’ But in a community like this, those pursuits can take on a whole new meaning. They can not only be a way to make a living, but also a way to feel empowered, independent, and sexy, regardless of size or interest.