Today I Told My Colorist I Used to Be a Stripper

I neglected my hair. It happens. I’m a busy “career woman.” I have shit to do. But when I decided to decompress by getting my hair done before my birthday, and my stylist offered me a glass of wine, I accepted. And then I talked.

I was transferred to the second stylist, the man scheduled to do my highlights, and I was talking about my current job(s). I was talking about my years in LA, and my time working for a bank, where I “got less respect than when I was a half-naked cocktail waitress in Vegas.” It’s a frequent go-to I use to describe how awful retail banking was for me. A few minutes later, my colorist asked, “How did you get into go-go dancing?”

He stuttered. “I mean — waitressing. You said you were a cocktail waitress in the clubs?” The mistake was real. He genuinely misspoke. He mixed up the typical female club jobs, especially in places like LA or Vegas.

It is a moment I know well. I have only experienced it ten or fifteen times, but I know. It’s the moment where I could tell the truth, or continue my lie. It’s the moment where I have to guess whether the recipient of this information will judge me, shame me, or mock me. They could laugh, cringe, look horrified, pretend they misheard me. They could become very silent and just let me talk while they silently do things inside their head I will never really know about. Or they could accept it and move on. I never know what might happen.

I looked at him in the mirror while he arranged the foils on my head and I said, “No. You got it right the first time.”

“You were a dancer?” he said.

“I was a stripper.”

He gaped. He stopped dead and stared at me. His body went limp in exacerbation as he exclaimed in a stage whisper, “No. WAY.”

I shrugged. Yes way.

When you decide to confide in someone about this, something only a handful of people know about you, it’s a risk. My choice to say something may have had something to do with the fact that we, two strangers, had developed a good rapport in the previous hour while he worked on my hair. It may have had to do with the fact that I couldn’t remember that last time I told someone about that part of my life, and I felt like saying something. It might have had to do with the fact that this was a relatively upscale salon and they had given me a glass of wine.

I decided to confide in this straight (yes, straight) man who I had been conversing with about his dating woes and my disgusting happiness with my current boyfriend. I felt that being honest about my past would humanize me in that moment, and give us something more to talk about. I trusted him to not be grossed out or treat me differently. Most importantly, when I made this decision, as often happens, I was tired of being ashamed and thought that this person would not care. In this case, I was right. He was enamored, and called me his favorite client of the day. He didn’t patronize me.

Since (almost) the day I became a stripper, I have regularly found myself in conversations where sharing this information would be relevant. It’s amazing how often stripping is talked about in everyday conversation. I’d never listened for the cues before I started dancing. But becoming so hyper aware of something you do for a living—something seen as shameful and meant to be kept from others—makes you listen more intently.

I liked being a stripper. I had so much control. I was in charge of my schedule, my work load, my pay scale (in relation to how hard I worked). I went where I wanted when I wanted. The interesting thing about being a dancer is that there is an illusion of being submissive. The customer gets to “degrade” you for money. But I’ve never felt more in control than when I was a stripper, and I had never seen men act so terrified and meek. In the real world, they’re in charge. As customers in any other type of establishment, they get what they want. In the strip clubs, they ask the girl for permission to do everything from talking to her, to dancing with her, to touching her, to tipping her. And he does it with the threat of a bouncer behind him. He is not in charge. The naked girl is in charge.

I almost want to describe the man doing my hair as “forgiving.” But I shouldn’t. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with being a stripper. I did it to my advantage during a very difficult time in my life. If I hadn’t have done it, I likely wouldn’t have been able to pay my bills or keep my apartment. My credit would have tanked, and my life would be significantly more difficult right now. And now, I don’t strip anymore. Stripping was temporary, but the financial stability it gave me was ongoing.

I compromised very little when I was a stripper. I never allowed someone to speak to me in a way I didn’t like. If a customer was rude to me, I walked away. It was my right to walk away. No one ever told me I was not allowed to walk away, or that I had to endure anything. I have compromised far more of my dignity and self-respect at other jobs, like the bank. People upset about bank fees would call me a bitch, threaten to have me fired, or toss things at my head… and the company did not back me or make me feel safe. The company would apologize to those customers for upsetting them, but not reimburse their bank fees. The company would tell me I needed to let those things roll of my back, and that someone hurling an object at my body didn’t constitute a “threat.” I was not deserving of basic human courtesy.

I never dreaded going to the strip club for a shift. It’s taken me several years to replicate this feeling in the job(s) I currently do. I had to make conscious choices in order to set up environments around me where I felt like I wasn’t being taken advantage of. When most people think of “work,” it’s meant to be something we don’t want to do. Once I realized this idea is bullshit, I had to take deliberate steps to change what was around me. It worked.

If I could have gone back to stripping, I may have. Several factors prevented me, along with the knowledge that stripping is not a long-term career option. Freedom-wise? It would have been a great option. The challenge was replicating the freedom of stripping while… not stripping. I have found it difficult for a woman to command her work life and be respected for something other than her body. At this time, I think I have achieved it. I plan to take it further.

My colorist dried my hair. Once it was styled, he looked at me and said, “I’m starting to see it.” He backpedaled. “Not to say that you didn’t seem like you could pull it off.” I tell him not to worry. I know I don’t seem like the exotic dancer type.

“I clean up well,” I told him.

I pay for my appointment and leave. It feels nice to have spoken honestly with someone about who I am for the first time in a while. It infuses me with confidence, in a way, since I’m typically hiding my past from everyone around me. Hiding such a huge part of my past makes me feel weak.

I think of the possible ramifications of being honest with people about what I’ve done, what I’ve been, and how it did not (ultimately) ruin my life. But trusting those around me to treat me normally after learning those things is something that’s burned me in the past. I may feel confident about my choices, but others will choose not to listen to my rationale or understand how it’s helped me become who I am today. There is always someone who will say I was wrong, that I damaged myself, that I couldn’t possibly be a feminist because of the things I’ve chosen to do.

In my short-lived confidence, I stride to my car. I realize it may be several months or years until I have another conversation like this with anyone else.

I make a note to book another hair appointment in eight weeks.

Ainslie Caswell is a fledgling writer and playwright, experimenting with her writing on Medium and Twitter. Following her will alert you to when her two stage plays are produced, which she hopes are often. She is also finishing a book about the year of her life spent as an exotic dancer. If you are so inclined, you can contact her directly.

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