Bullying in Belly Dance
Earlier this year Jezebel.com posted an article posted an article entitled Margaret Cho Rightfully Loses her Shit. The article recaps that a facebook poster said that Cho lost a fan because the fan couldn’t condone Cho’s language. Cho explained that she didn’t like losing fans, but if you grow up being told that you are ugly, you might grow up hard and have language like Cho’s.
I am commenting on it here because, as many of you know, Margaret Cho is a belly dancer who came from a difficult background. She was molested, experienced some of the worst bullying imaginable, and felt ugly growing up. I think many of us who found our way into belly dance stayed because it is a place where we experienced healing and were given a way to feel beautiful… sometimes for the first time ever.
I can relate to Cho. I wasn’t bullied because I was ugly. I was bullied because I was too pretty. I had gum thrown into my hair. My hair was cut. I had to find a new way to walk home from school every day or face a gang of girls waiting to beat me up. Few girls who weren’t hateful would speak to me because they didn’t want to be beat up just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You see, being seen with me was enough to get them targeted too. I lost one of my best friends of many years that way. I had a lot of male admirers, but few were bold enough to talk to me because they would also be ostracized by the girls for talking to me. I had enough compassion for the few who tried that I would not allow them to suffer on my account. I had seen how two were viciously punished for it and didn’t want anyone else to feel that pain.
Unlike Cho, I didn’t develop humor to hide behind. I didn’t become hard and combative. I coped by trying to make myself invisible. I thought if you couldn’t see me, you couldn’t hurt me. Unfortunately, glasses, ugly clothes, and staying quiet in the background were not enough to make me invisible- especially because I was always at the top of my class and was involved in so many activities. The hate and bullying continued not matter how much I tried to ugly myself up, stay quiet, and be non-threatening.
The bullying didn’t stop when I grew up. Hate isn’t something you grow out of unfortunately. Girlfriends and wives of men who were neighbors, friends, or even strangers would call or stop by my house accusing me of being with their men- sometimes when I didn’t even know who the men were! I was stalked. I even had one crazy woman try to run me off the road. This was for a guy who was a customer where I worked and had no personal relationship with.
I was passed over for jobs because of how I looked. I was not promoted despite obvious performance for the same reason. For those of you who think you want to be “the fairest of them all,” let me tell you that you don’t. Being an outlier for whatever reason is all it takes to be a target for those with a bullying mentality.
When I started belly dancing, I didn’t know about the sisterhood thing, but I felt it very strongly from some people. I had never indulged my feminine side before- maybe because it wasn’t validated by others. But here, I felt for the first time, what it meant to fully embrace my femininity. I found women that I liked and admired. It took a while before my skirt dropped below my belly button. It was even longer before I dared to wear sparkling, shiny things that invited people to look at me. I didn’t go into belly dance with the desire to be on stage or be seen, but once I saw how happy my Arab audiences were to be “taken home,” I could not deny them the pleasure.
But belly dance was not a safe haven from bullying. Bullying in belly dance is the same as it in outside of belly dance. I won’t go into the details of how ugly some people can be when they feel their light is threatened by someone else letting theirs shine. If you’ve been in belly dance for any length of time, I am sure you have seen it for yourself.
I cannot criticize anyone for doing whatever they do to survive hate and invalidation, but I will ask anyone reading to check themselves. Have you participated in hurting others? Have you been passive while this has happened in your presence? Have you reached out and given acceptance and appreciation to someone who has been targeted? We all participate in creating our community. What happened to Cho, me, and countless others is in the past. It can’t be undone, but if we all do our part to be the love that we want to see from others, it never has to happen again.
Check yourself. It’s not enough to have a “f*ck the haters” attitude. You can’t just protect the ones that don’t threaten you, the ones you feel are unfairly targeted, the ones you like, or the ones you feel are most vulnerable. You can’t look the other way. If we are to be a real sisterhood, we have to band together with EVERYONE.
Hurt people hurt people. If the emotionally ugly ones get true validation for who they are inside, maybe they won’t feel the need to be continue being hurtful. If the bullies are confronted for their behavior, maybe they will be shamed into stopping. We all win when bullying in belly dance stops because Cho is right, nobody deserves to feel ugly and rejected.