She was twenty, she was blonde, she had skin like a soft peach, a face to inspire poets and the sweetest of personalities. Anna gazed out at the world through clear, grey eyes, enhanced with expertly applied make up. Anna was beautiful
But Anna was fat.
Not to me, not to her friends, not to the others in the class. But in Anna’s mind, she was fat. When I looked at Anna I saw a glorious, sumptuous girl with dewy skin and plump arms like that of a baby. I confess at times I had an overwhelming desire to sink my teeth into those arms, they looked so succulent. But Anna wouldn’t have understood how much I loved the look of her. Because, like far too many women, Anna hated her body.
Despite being beautiful, Anna's perceived fatness defined her sense of self and stopped her doing the things a twenty year old should be doing. Dancing in nightclubs, lying in the sun on a foreign beach, wearing the latest fashions.
She came every week without fail, along with her friend Jess. Pretty, blonde, slimline Jess with the bubbly personality and the handsome boyfriend. The two of them were inseparable. I know it’s easy to categorise the friendship as the pretty one and the fat one, but I really don’t think it was like that. Because Anna honestly was beautiful. And gentle. And thoughtful. And oh, just the very best friend a girl could have.
She’d been coming to my classes for around a year. Always standing in the same place, gazing at me clear eyed, trying to replicate my moves. Sweetly thanking me after class, asking careful, thoughtful questions.
There was a time that neither of them had been around for a couple of weeks; but then they were back, same places as before. Happy, smiling, a little tanned, a lovely glow about the pair of them.
That night Anna hung back after class. Then came over to me, bright and bubbly and terribly excited about something. She wanted to tell me something wonderful, something so momentous and remarkable she just couldn’t keep it in. She wanted to tell me I’d changed her life.
“Charlotte!! We’ve been away on holiday and… and… I wore a bikini for the first time in my entire life!”
I know I’m an emotional person, but I’m crying right now as I remember that moment. Beautiful, sumptuous, gorgeous Anna confessed to me that until that holiday she’d never worn a sleeveless top. Never exposed her peachy arms outside of our classes. Kept herself hidden out of shame.
But, she said, since she’d been coming to my bellydance classes she’d realised gradually that yes, she was beautiful. That she didn’t need to be thin, she was lovely just as she was. She told me that recently she’d started to go clubbing with Jess wearing the latest fashions, rather than trying to cover herself up. And then, the biggest moment in her life she said, she bought a bikini to go away on holiday. And wore it on the beach. And felt proud of herself.
Time and time again women come up to me after class to tell me stories like this. How bellydance has helped them feel better about themselves, how they’ve learned to love their bodies, how they can now look at themselves in the mirror without fear.
One of the things people always ask when they phone about classes is what they should wear. I tell them to wear comfortable clothes they can move easily in and not to worry, they don’t have to show their belly. There’s always a laugh and a sigh of relief at that point. It’s what they’re most worried about - getting their bellies out in public. So they come along to class in baggy sweatpants and loose tops, well covered up, trying to hide at the back of the class, avoiding all sight of themselves in the mirrors.
Early on they buy themselves a coin hipscarf, then, as the months go on, the t-shirts get a bit shorter and the bellies start peeking out. The full midriff is usually out and proud by the intermediate class. And then the dressing up starts. The sparkly cropped tops, the rhinestoned classwear, the fancy tribal pants - all wide legged swishyness and drapery. And I smile to myself, remembering how afraid they were when they started.
The thing is, I truly believe all women are beautiful in their own ways. When I look at my class I see a rich array of lovely women - tall, short, slim or voluptuous. Red heads and brunettes, pale skinned and dark, fine featured or generous. All of them have their own personal beauty.
One of the most remarkable memories I have of my first show (see story here) was of the conversations my husband Paul had as people were leaving. One after another, men came up to him and remarked on how beautiful those dancing women were. But each time they would confide to him that there was one dancer who was particularly lovely, one who stood out amongst all the rest.
And you know what? Each man would single out a different woman. And not only that, but every one of the women who danced in that show had someone who thought she was the most beautiful of all. When I think about it, it seems the most remarkable thing I can imagine. We were all ordinary women, with insecurities and bits we hated,
but in those men’s eyes we were all beautiful and they loved
us. And each one of us had someone thinking we were the loveliest of all.
Of course men love us! They love our soft skin and our soft flesh. And each man is attracted to something different. Some men love skinny women, some like us chubby. Some go for a nice big backside, others are attracted to large breasts. It’s we women that stress about our cellulite or our stretch marks, not them. Just as some of us are attracted to big chunky men, others to willowy artistic types, so men love women of all shapes and sizes. Sex, love and chemistry is what makes the world go round.
And now you know the truth - every single one of us has someone who thinks we’re hot.
You can be absolutely sure of that.