Defining “Sexy”: What I Learned From Taking My Clothes Off Onstage

Portrait of the writer before stripping on stage for the first time.

When you’re asked to describe yourself to a perfect stranger, what do you say? What labels do you use? And perhaps most importantly, which labels do you dream of being able to use, but feel like they would be impossible to embody?

We all have a box we fit into which feels safe and comfortable, a place we’re happy dwelling in. Maybe “optimistic” is a label you feel good about, whereas “intelligent” is not. Or perhaps you’re the living embodiment of “clever”, but “beautiful” makes you cringe.

A label I could never even come close to identifying with was “sexy”. When people would use it, I just thought it was funny, and that they were slightly delusional. I was fine with being cute, weird, or funny — all labels that felt true to me. But sexy? No. Not even close!

I never saw myself as being hyper-feminine, even though for the last few years my wardrobe has been overrun with hot pink and high heels. Sometimes the way we think of ourselves doesn’t shift at the same rate as our outer appearance. I never felt beautiful in glasses, which I wore until I was 23 years old, and in some ways I still thought of myself as that person. I also struggled with an eating disorder for a long time, and I believe that was (at least partially) a response to my sexuality feeling unsafe.

I had some weird ideas about what sexy was. I saw it as something you do for other people, a kind of performance. Sexy wasn’t something you owned, it was something other people “gave” you, or something you staged for someone else’s benefit. I never wanted to do that. Even when I bought cute lingerie, it was for me, not whoever I was dating.

So, this year has been all about investigating the ways I see myself, the stories I recycle in my head, and asking myself, ‘Are those comfortable old habits helping or hindering me?’ I have been actively reprogramming my mind, and consistently pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve been forced to see myself differently: not just my behaviour, but my physical body too. (Getting a breast augmentation has completely changed the way I see myself, much more than I anticipated.)

No lie: it has been exhausting and sometimes I just want to take a big nap. But it has also been rewarding and exhilarating to realise that, yes, I really can be whoever I want to be. I have been writing about the fact that we have the ability to craft our own reality and persona for years, and it is truly delightful to recognise that even after years of mindfully creating my life, I can still do a 180 and build something totally different. It has been amazing to discover that even though I have created so much, there is literally no cap on what I can change and do; that I can become the vision of myself I’ve been holding in my imagination for so long, but thought was impossible.

That person you want to be, and all the reasons why you can’t be her? It’s all in your head, and it always was.

I wanted to reclaim my body. I wanted to examine what it might feel like to feel “sexy”, to actually go there and try it, rather than being too embarrassed to even attempt it. For years, I had never accessed that part of myself because I thought I would look stupid, or feel stupid, or suck at it. So many of us do that in so many areas of our lives: we don’t even try because we think we might not — shock, horror — be perfect on a first attempt.

“Therapeutic mantra for the perfectionist introvert asked to do something new: NO EXPECTATIONS / ONLY EXPLORATION / YES IS TEMPORARY” — Clayton Cubitt

But perfect is bullshit. Perfect is the enemy. That’s what I was thinking as I made my way to my first class at the New York School Of Burlesque.

My dance history is not extensive. I attempted ballet as a 5-year-old and bailed out early! So I was definitely walking in with the lowest possible expectations. I just wanted to try it out and see what happened. I certainly didn’t expect to be good. In fact, I thought I would possibly be the worst in the class, but I was okay with that! I viewed the whole thing as an experiment, which, if nothing else, would make for a good story.

You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that learning a dance routine was really fun and — wonder of wonders — really easy! Standing in formation with a group of strangers and dancing to Tom Waits was awesome. I laughed the whole time. I couldn’t believe how much joy I felt!

So when, at the end of the class, our teacher said, “If any of you want to perform this in the student showcase in April, just let me know,” my whole body said YES. I was immediately excited. Terrified, of course, and slightly bewildered by how much I wanted to leap at the chance — I had taken ONE dance class and now I wanted to get up on stage?! — but thrilled.

I took just one more class, and before I knew it, I was applying false eyelashes and striding into The Slipper Room with a tote bag full of fishnet stockings and patent leather platforms.

Before the curtain went up, I stood onstage, back to the audience, giving myself a pep-talk. ‘It’s now or never,’ I told myself. ‘You will never be alive in this exact moment again. Be sexy and sassy and playful… Give the audience a show they never forget. Fully embody everything you’ve ever wanted to be. This is going to be awesome!’

The curtain went up, the audience went nuts, and the music started to play. My Venus in Leo came alive! I made eye contact with the crowd and took my time with every single move. I was, as Beyonce might say, feeling myself, and I felt no shame — just ecstasy. Time seemed to slow down, and I enjoyed every single moment.

I had been wrong about my definition of sexy. It is definitely something that you own — a power you can choose to wield at your own discretion. It comes from the inside, it’s not about trying to please anyone else. Being sexy is about revealing your inner radiance. When you are totally in your body and expressing yourself with joy, it feels so good, utterly unlike anything else.

A video posted by Gala Darling (@galadarling) on

A snippet from our dress rehearsal.

Afterwards, I felt like a superhero; like my whole body was glowing. I was so proud of myself for trying something that terrified me and seemed so far outside of my comfort zone, and then taking that fear and performing in front of a crowd!

  A video posted by Gala Darling (@galadarling) on

The experience reminded me that we can do anything at any time. The only trick is to get fear and ego out of the way. Once you can do that, the possibilities for your life are literally endless.

I’m going back for more classes this week, and I can’t wait to perform again. There’s only one problem: I still need a stage name. Any suggestions?!

Love and false eyelashes,