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The entirety of my wardrobe hangs on a clothes rack occupying one wall of our bedroom. I go through the items rapidly, pulling candidates o? the rack and laying them out on the bed, which is a double futon on milk crates. The crates serve the dual function of keeping the bed o? the floor and organizing jeans, sweaters, and books. It's college chic.
My boyfriend looks on, sitting on the bed sorting hosiery. He's looking for my garter belt, which has to be mixed in somewhere with the fishnets and thigh-high witch stockings.
"What about this?" I hold up a minidress that zips down the front. One side is black and the other side is white.
"With these." He holds up a pair of black and white striped stockings.
"Those don't match," I say.
"They don't?" He looks at them quizzically.
"No. The stripes are different widths."
"I kind of like that."
"I don't think strippers are supposed to be edgy."
"Well, I'd tip you." He goes back to the pile.
Audrey is picking me up in an hour. My makeup kit is already packed; now I just have to figure out what clothes to take. I have lots of hot pants, miniskirts, and catsuits, but it all looks like club wear to me, something to wear to a rave.
"Ah, ha!" Triumphantly he holds up a garter belt and another striped stocking.
"Add those to that pile." I point to a small collection of clothing that I think will be suitable. I only have one pair of shoes, white sandals with clunky heels that I bought on sale at Wal-Mart for $10. Everything I take tonight has to match and most of my clothes are black.
I put everything in a duffel bag and add my makeup and a curling iron. I throw in a single black velvet thong that I had been able to afford ($5 at Wal-Mart) along with the shoes.
I am not nervous, only worried about making money. The idea of being naked in front of strangers doesn't concern me, but I do feel a twinge about my appearance. Loads of people, both men and women, have told me how beautiful I am and intellectually I know that I fit the current social standards for beauty: tall, thin, blond. But my skin isn't perfect, my teeth are crooked, and I worry that my thighs are too thick. Am I good enough to actually earn money at this? I need money badly.
During the 45-minute drive to the club, Audrey coaches me. "Don't call me by my real name," she tells me. "Remember to call me Sierra. Don't steal a customer from another girl. Don't sit at the dressing table until I show you where you can. Never take your top off until the second song. If you're on stage two, don't take your top off until after the girl on stage one takes hers off. You tip out 10% to the bar, 10% to the DJ, and the bouncers get four or five bucks apiece. Don't touch the customers and remember that they can't touch you. Take the money in your G-string; don't let them do it for you."
My head buzzes with all the rules. That's a lot of "don'ts."
"Did you bring a lock?"
"A lock? Um ... no."
She shakes her head disparagingly. "Well, there's an empty locker. Just hope your stuff doesn't get stolen. Did you bring a purse?"
"No." I'm still stuck on stolen.
"I think I have one I can loan you. Never leave your money in your locker unless it's locked."
"Where do I put it?"
"When you're on stage you can set it next to the stairs. Just keep an eye on it. Some bitches will steal all your shit."
This information conforms to the stereotypes I've picked up from society about women who strip their clothes off for money. In films and television shows, strippers are drug addled, uneducated, trafficked, manipulative, and scorned. Audrey is a year ahead of me in college and is none of those things. But she speaks of her co-workers in ways that seem to confirm the stereotypes.
I don't know what I expect of the club, but I'm surprised when we pull into the parking lot of a strip mall. The club is nestled between a dry-cleaning place and a burger joint. The air smells like grease.
"This the new girl?"
The bouncer looks friendly enough and he smiles at me warmly. "I'm Ken," he says, holding out a hand. "Welcome."
I don't hesitate. "Desire." I had chosen the name from The Sandman comics after the androgynous hermaphrodite, sibling to the Dream King.
Ken doesn't even blink. "Welcome. If you need anything please ask."
He seems nice enough. "Thank you," I reply and Sierra pulls me into the club.
Again, not what I expected. The floor is polished concrete. A hardwood bar faces the door. It's shaped like a horseshoe and the portly, balding bartender gives me an unsmiling once-over. Three of the barstools are occupied and the men look at us with more friendly expressions.
"Hey, Sierra," one says. "Who's your friend?"
"Fresh meat," she says with a laugh.
This is not the last time I will be referred to as meat in this industry.
She leads me between a row of high-top tables and then through a maze of small, round tables. They are fake wood veneer and each has two chairs of the vinyl metal frame variety. There's the DJ booth on the left, basically a nook with a high counter. The DJ sits in shadow, lit only by the soft glow of a soundboard. She controls the stage lights as well, as I will learn.
The stage is long and wide against a mirrored wall. There is a brass pole at one end. Chairs line it in a single row against a low ledge for drinks. Two customers sit at the stage watching a dark-skinned girl with waist-length dreadlocks slowly gyrate. Her nipples are covered with crosses of black electrical tape. I stare while trying not to stare. She is beautiful, sensuous, under the lights flashing blue on her dark skin. Black lights line the stage, hidden under the lip at the edge, and they make her G-string glow electric pink.
"Come on." Sierra leads me through the tables and past the stage to a black door hidden in the shadows of a black wall. She opens it onto more blackness, but my eyes adjust and I see light spilling around a heavy curtain. We step into musty darkness between the door and the fabric and then on through into a long, narrow room.
Battered lockers line one wall and a wide counter runs opposite. Above the counter the wall is mirrored, tube fluorescents making the room very bright. At the opposite end of the room is another door, and the near wall opens into a tiny bathroom: toilet, rust-stained sink. The floor is thin grey carpet. It is a battered, shabby room but it is also fairly clean. The mirrors gleam spotlessly and the worn carpet is stain free. Dust coats the corners of the bathroom but the toilet is new and shining. The room smells of sweat and competing aromas of body spray. Some of the lockers spill swills of fabric and tangles of shoes with very high heels.
A girl with waist-length brown hair relines her eyes with black kohl. She glances at me in the mirror. "Fresh meat?" she asks Sierra, going back to her delicate work. She wears tiny black hot pants and nothing else. Her nipples are covered in silver glitter.
"I'm Desire," I say, the name still unfamiliar on my tongue.
"Yeah, you are." She turns away disinterestedly.
"You can put your stuff here," Sierra says and opens a locker. A child's clothes hanger falls from the rod at the top with a clatter. "And you can put your makeup here next to mine." She scoots over a Caboodles makeup case to create a little more space on the counter. I set my case next to hers and sit down on one of the straight-backed chairs. I am not nervous, exactly.
Sierra pulls her shirt off and unclasps her bra with brisk efficiency. "Let me help with the pasties." She opens her kit and removes an adhesive bra. It is made from basically the same material as Band-Aids and comes in a variety of skin tones.
Laws governing public nudity vary from state to state. In this state women cannot show the pubic region, pubic hair, or nipples in public. G-strings and shaving or waxing take care of the lower bits and a variety of adhesives are used on the top. Tape, thick glitter paint, glue-on pasties, and adhesive bras are all used. Sierra explains to me that men like to think that they're seeing the real deal and thus she finds the adhesive bra is best because it looks natural from a distance.
"Let me see your nips," she instructs and I pull my shirt off. Her glance is clinical. The other women in the room glance, too, checking out the goods, then return to whatever they are doing.
"Same size as mine." She removes a circle of cardboard from her case and uses it as a stencil to cut four rounds of the adhesive with small scissors. She then slices along the radius. "Like this," she shows me, creating a cone shape by overlapping the radial edges. Removing the backing to expose the sticky, she pinches her nipple to make it erect. Then she expertly sticks the adhesive over her nipple in a small cone, creating the illusion of bare flesh. "Now watch." She removes a compact of powder that exactly matches the tan adhesive and brushes it over the edges of the tape, blending it with her skin. "Now you."
I go more slowly but manage to replicate her technique. My skin is lighter but the tan tape looks natural enough. I blend a bit of concealer along the edges.
Sierra has stripped off the rest of her clothes and stands naked before the mirror. The light is brutally bright. She looks her body over carefully, tweezing a stray underarm hair and popping a small whitehead on her shoulder. She covers the red mark with a dab of concealer.
I take a deep breath and remove the rest of my clothing, folding it to fit in the bottom of my locker. I pull on the velvet thong and zip up the black and white dress.
"You need to get a T-bar," Sierra says.
She pulls a scrap of fabric out of her locker. It's smaller than any G-string I've seen. She holds it up. "T-bar."
I learn that a T-bar is named because of the shape it makes in the back: a T of straps around the hips and between the legs. Strippers layer them to create different colors that glow in the lights and wear them as a second set of undies to ensure that nothing pops out. They're also worn so that a girl can strip off the top set of underwear during a private dance, adding to the illusion that she's showing more.
I jump when a curtain between two sets of lockers flies back and the beautiful black girl who had been on stage steps into the room. I hadn't realized that the entrance to the stage opens directly into the dressing room. The girl with long brown hair leaves through the curtain and I hear hands clapping.
The new arrival appraises me with jet eyes. "Look at the baby stripper shoes," she says with a laugh.
I flush, though there is no maliciousness in her voice. The sandals I hold in my hands look like church shoes compared to the 7-inch pink platforms strapped to the other girl's feet. They match her G-string. T-bar, I mentally correct myself.
Sierra takes no notice. "You ready?" she asks me. I strap on my shoes. "Yes."
We exit back into the club and Sierra leads me to the DJ booth. On duty is a woman who appears to be in her forties, her hair, bleached within an inch of its life, piled in complicated rockabilly whorls on top of her head.
"She's auditioning." Sierra jerks her chin at me.
The DJ looks at me over the top of her clipboard. "What's your name, honey?"
"What kind of music do you like?"
I list off a bunch of bands, mostly of the goth/industrial/dance variety. She nods.
She writes down my name on her clipboard and then adds Sierra's name underneath. "You're up after Heaven."
"Who's Heaven?" I ask.
"Her." She points at the girl with the long brown hair on stage.
"Okay." Still I feel no nervousness, only the tightness of excitement. I see the bills appearing along the stage as Heaven dances. "I'm gonna sit and watch."
Sierra shrugs and leaves me at a table, making her way to the bar where she greets the men there more extensively with hugs and smiles.
I watch Heaven dance. The music is heavy and fast but she moves slowly, her hips keeping the beat while the rest of her moves languidly. She is petals floating on a fast-moving stream. One part of her always keeps the beat: a tapping toe, snapping fingers, pulsing posterior. I see how she uses the music to create a sensual counterpoint of stillness against movement.
I look at her body with a critical eye. She is not perfect like in a magazine, I see with relief. A bit of cellulite on her ass that dimples when she flexes, and she's a bit thick through the waist. Her breasts hang heavy and full. I think that she's gorgeous but she is not airbrushed. She just looks like a young, human female. Judging by the bills bulging in her underwear — T-bar, I correct myself — the men think she's hot, too.
I can do this, I think and feel a thrill of elation. As Heaven's second song winds down I go backstage and step into the shadowed recess between the curtain and the stage. I feel my heartbeat pulsing in my chest. My skin begins to tingle.
"Good luck, new girl," Heaven says, breezing past me in a cloud of floral scent.
I recognize the song immediately and let the music build toward the opening crescendo before stepping out, taking a cue from Heaven and moving slowly, only my footsteps in time with the beat. I want to unleash every part of my body, but I keep myself in check, knowing that if I let the music take me I will only be frenetic, not sexy. This is not a dance club. This is a strip joint. And I am a stripper.
Three men sit along the stage and four more watch from the first row of tables. I ignore them for the moment, facing the mirrored wall at the back of the stage, admiring the way the black lights make the white dress glow, lighting my skin with purple. My blond hair, hanging in curls past my shoulders, catches the overhead lights in staccato pulses of red and green.
Slowly, only my head moving to the music, I lean forward toward the glass and my reflection. I am doubled, Desire times two. The short dress rides up on my thighs, revealing the thin strip of black fabric hiding my vulva. I smile and the girl in the mirror smiles back, all red lips and tumbling curls. It feels taboo, forbidden, exciting.
I turn my back on the mirror and slide down it, keeping my feet flat on the floor and my knees together. When my butt hits the stage, I pop my knees apart, flashing that thin strip of fabric. Dollars appear on the tip rail.
I lean forward into a crawl and slink toward the first customer. He tips his head back to see me more clearly, the bill of his baseball cap shadowing his face. All I can see is the glitter of his eyes.
"Now on stage one!" The DJ's voice booms through the sound system. "Desire." She draws my name out into a hiss. "Auditioning right now, she's never danced before! Come see her naked for the very first time."
I feel a twinge of irritation at the attention called to this being my first time on stage. It makes me more nervous. But two of the men sitting at tables get up and take seats at the stage. Apparently watching a woman take her clothes off "for the very first time" has appeal. I flash on the references to "fresh meat." Men seeing a woman naked for the first time is analogous to the value placed on female virginity. In our puritanical culture, sexuality pollutes a woman and we love nothing so much as to see her dirtied.
These thoughts do not show on my face. I smile slightly at the man in the baseball cap and put my knees on the padded tip rail, stretching my arms over my head. Slowly I run the zipper on the front of the dress down, revealing the bikini top I wear underneath. His eyes skim down my body hungrily. Mimicking what I had watched Heaven do, I pull out the strap of my G-string. He places the dollar into the strap, careful not to touch my skin. This club is strictly no touching and he knows the rules.
"Thank you," I mouth at him and move along the tip rail to the next customer, still on hands and knees. I stretch out on my back in front of him, feet on the floor. From this new vantage point I see up past the lights into rafters. The dropped ceiling stops at the stage, and the lights are fixed to metal girders attached to the roof. The pole on the stage rises past the sight line of someone sitting in the first row and is also attached to the roof beams. The wall above the mirrors along the back of the stage is painted black and so are the rafters and ceiling beyond so it all just looks like shadow. But from stage I can see it all. This place is illusion and I wonder if I will become unreal.
I gyrate my hips slowly and the customer watches my belly undulate. "You're beautiful," he says, and I hold out the strap for his dollar.
The first song blends into the second. It's time to take my top off. I stand, back to the audience, facing myself in the mirrors. The black lights that line the tip rail glow purple on the long stretch of my legs, and the lights above flash off my hair and skin. I reach up and slowly pull the tie of my bikini top. The men shift forward in their seats. I let the top drop, keeping one arm across my breasts. This is not due to anxiety; I'm only heightening the anticipation. It works: more money appears on the stage.
Excerpted from "Strip: The Making of a Feminist"
Copyright © 2017 Catlyn Ladd.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Section I: Into the Abyss, 1,
Chapter 1: The Beginning, 2,
Chapter 2: Stripper Barbie, 13,
Chapter 3: A Bad Night, 18,
Chapter 4: Material Girl, 27,
Chapter 5: Body Property, 31,
Chapter 6: Fetish, 36,
Chapter 7: Object of the Gaze I Become, 42,
Section II: The Dialectic of the Abyss, 49,
Chapter 8: Fast and Loud, 50,
Chapter 9: In Love, 57,
Chapter 10: Skin, 65,
Chapter 11: Creep Show, 70,
Chapter 12: The Virgin, 85,
Chapter 13: Couple's Therapy, 92,
Chapter 14: Black and Blue, 100,
Chapter 15: The Addict, 104,
Chapter 16: The Female Gaze, 115,
Section III: The Abyss Gazes Back, 123,
Chapter 17: The Cross-Dresser, 124,
Chapter 18: Rain, 133,
Chapter 19: Pretty Boy, 141,
Chapter 20: The Renaissance Man, 149,
Chapter 21: This Is My Body Moving Electric, 164,
Chapter 22: Athena, Stripped, 166,
Chapter 23: Into the Deep, 172,
Reading Questions, 177,