I recently endured my first journalistic lambasting in response to the below piece I wrote for the About.face. It is par for the course in any opined endeavors and with the Internet everyone is a qualified critic. (Myself included!)
The comments section on About-face was awash with ardent aficionados and dedicated defenders, supporting the practice of pole-dancing, or what they would like me to refer to as “pole fitness”.
Many critics of the my piece dubbed my research “lazy” and ignorant, which incidentally, I did spent a large chunk of time researching various studios, course offerings and trends AND – gasp- received information from direct sources!
There were a handful of species rebuttals about the upper body strength and stamina of the exercise being a great energy expeller for kids, citing the climbing and bending beneficial.
While many opinions were expressed and alternate points raised, I feel that my point was largely misinterpreted. I was not attacking the pole-dancing practice. Nor was I was disputing the physical rigors or even the athletic merit of the activity. I was simply exposing the studios that were allowing egregiously underage youth to take part in their very adult-themed classes and calling into question the appropriate age for participation.
My argument is not that the practice itself is exclusively erotic – but that it could be. There is a sexual subtext and symbolism in pole dancing that is deeply embedded and often inextricably linked in the fabric of our society. I cannot be blamed or held responsible for giving voice to an unquestionable correlation. It is a fact. Whether we as members of a society continue to perpetuate the stimga is not up for discussion. The debate that is on the table is not whether or not this link is just. Right or wrong it exists.
Some commentator so aptly compared the issue to thong underwear. There is nothing inherently immoral (yes, undoubtedly some would refute this) about it; it simply is not suitable for young children. I would find few who could dispute that.
While performing my indolent investigation I discovered that these classes are in fact surprisingly progressive and lauded as a sport in many circles. My daily Groupon’s inform me of many local course offerings and I was hardly lacking in the a availability of studios or impressive websites that often courted women with tag lines promising to make one “feel sexy at any age”. Of course not all employed this approach, but a large majority did have this advertising approach. And I’m not surprised by this. The inference of pole-dancing is that in many forms it is sexually explicit. It would stand to reason that feeling sexy would be par for the course, and thus a marketable angle for these classes. Feeling sexy for a consenting adult is fine by me. But for children and even pre-teens, it’s criminal, let along egregiously inappropriate. Teenage participation, is at best, problematic.
I am neither in support or against this choice of a fitness regimen for adult men or women. I consider myself to be a sex positive feminist. I have no problem or issue with sex workers who choose to be employed in their industry. I DO think that poledancing/fitness is a legitimate, physically demanding endeavor. I think it does have credibility as an activity for age appropriate adults and am not questioning its efficacy. The legitimacy or fairness of the stigma is not the topic of this particular post or the inspiration for my article, so I feel it is best left of out of this debate.
Teaching young girls or boys moves that in our culture have sexually explicit messages and connotations inextricably tied to it is the issue at hand. This is never a good idea for youngsters who are trying to develop their individual sexuality and forming relationships with their bodies. I know at that age I was trying to make sense of the tangle of feelings that I had – a yearning to be desired and validated and loved and finding an appropriate way to do so that was aligned with what felt safe. Most young girls are not taught to love, honor or respect their bodies, but to objectify them. Too many don’t have the forethought, language or supportive environment to gain that awareness or have that perspective. The brain doesn’t really have those developed pathways that tell them such things are damaging, let alone dangerous.
A lot of individuals raised the objection that gymnastics and swimming were activities replete with less than conservative garb, as simple par for the course of participation. Obviously, this is not disputed that these are accepted attire for these sports. More of this seems to relate to tradition and necessity (in the sense that bathing suits are used for swimming) rather than actual attire making a statement.
The merits of gymnastics and dance were also raised, as being a point I missed. I could honestly pen a 300 page tome on the dangers of hyper-competitiveness and overemphasis on one’s physique in the crucial physical development years of young girls in boys. I am sure this subject alone would endow me with a tidal wave of angry critics, but it is a cultural point of contention that can be expanded upon in a later post.
Here I only wish to mention that those activities can breed their own brand of harmful and are not without fault. I have come into contact with many young girls and boys who were exposed in their most formative ages to the stressors of highly competitive and physically demanding sports that required an overemphasis on appearance and weight. This focus proved beyond damaging in terms of developing a healthy body image and many resulted in full blown eating disorders and dangerous behavior.
My point is that however mainstream, pole dancing/fitness (it’s really just semantics, folks) largely lends itself to a reflexive association with exotic dancing and provocative poses regardless of whether or not the intent to appear so is present. Society still holds certain aspects of pole dancing to be sexually associative. A child swirling on a pole in subway could garner unwanted attention from an onlooker or dancing (innocently taught in the privacy of a studio) could lead to attention, reinforcing a boy or girl’s experience that their body can provide them with validation or love they seek.
Nope…No sexual implications here. Even with the empowering words, the graphic speaks for itself.
Lastly, I’d like to raise the matter of those who believed I was attacking their chosen fitness style or livelihood and how they responded with a fierce brand of fervor. Sadly, I felt that the responses inadvertently proved my point. My piece said nothing in the way of relating pole dancing to the likes of being promiscuous or as one person blatantly dubbed “slutty”. Even in their defending statements, they felt the need to distance themselves from any sort of sex worker correlation. They automatically offered a disclaimer to combat the stigma, yet at the same time felt attacked by my supposed implications. I feel that in their innocent defenses they proved my point and raised with it, an even more disturbing confirmation that this stigma is so deeply ingrained that those who take pleasure in it feel they need to separate themselves from some seedy stripper life that the practice may imply to the unknowledgeable.
Unfortunately the good intentions of a professional instructor, an approach of decorum to the subject matter or the ascetic ambiance of a studio have little weight in terms of overriding cultural implications that are deeply woven into the fabric of our society. Yes, society objectifies and marginalizes women in a myriad of ways and there is certainly a stigma surrounding sex workers and the inatimate objects related to that trade, but that is a separate feminist issue not up for debate in this piece. I’m not questioning the morality of pole dancing/fitness or the physical prowess required to perform it, nor am I stating that the association is a just one. Rather, I am acknowledging its existence and holding that it is an inappropriate offering for children and a questionable one at best for teens/pre-teens.