Updated: Jan 24
How Stripping Taught Me to Communicate With My Body
BY REESE PIPER
Growing up, I used to bump into desks, fall over curbs and down steps. I dropped objects on my feet. Bruises would decorate my body. Like a puppy who grows too quickly, I struggled to understand how my body moved through space. I might have avoided being teased for being clumsy and ditzy in school had that been my only physical quirk, but I also couldn’t eat without making a huge mess. When I sat down for lunch, crumbs and sauce smeared across my plate, my cheeks, and somehow even my forehead. On top of that, I didn’t know when to stop. I ate and ate, shoveling down fries and chicken nuggets until I puked. I ate completely unaware of when my stomach got full, just as I ran around all day oblivious to my expanding bladder. I barely felt when my lower abdomen began to press, telling me it was time to pee. Only when it pounded with alarm did I sprint to the bathroom. Often not until it was too late.
If my messy eating and poor bladder control had been the only awkward traits I contended with, I may have brushed them aside and assumed I would grow out of it – grow up and one day become graceful and feminine like the other girls in my class. Surely that’s what the adults around me thought, or more likely that’s what they hoped for. But even as young as five, I was beginning to suspect that something was wrong with me, something more serious than being gawky and ungainly. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t feel when my stomach and bladder filled, but I also didn’t know how to recognize my own feelings. I didn’t know when I felt sad, when I felt angry, when I felt joy. I didn’t know what paint color would make my bedroom feel calm and cozy. I didn’t know when people made me feel uncomfortable or when I followed them into unsafe situations.
It wasn’t until I started stripping in my mid-twenties that my relationship with my body changed. Before that I had always been concerned by the disconnect, but I had no language to conceptualize why I couldn’t feel my insides. I thought I was just dumb and ditzy - a misguided belief that I carried about myself that fortunately didn’t stop me from auditioning in a strip club. Drowning in student debt, I was too worried about money to consider if I was unfit to dance. But my sister balked when she found out.
“But...you’re so clumsy,” she said, her voice thinning. “How will you dance in heels?” She was right to be concerned. During my first week, I tripped and fell on the floor of the club. Plus, I was awkward on stage, eliciting what I assumed to be only pity tips. If I had a line of communication with my body, I might have been better at sensing how my petite frame traversed the club in platform heels, but I lacked an essential relationship with my own form. I lacked the ability to identify and interpret the sensations under my skin. I lacked interoception - a term I would learn years later when I began to question whether or not I was autistic.
Interoception is how you converse with your body. It’s the ability to feel when you’re thirsty, when you’re in pain, when you’re satisfied—not only so you can take action to return to a calm and safe state, but also so you can enjoy your life. When you can sense what you need and feel, you know when you find a painting beautiful, when you crave company or need alone time. When you can decipher the sensations undulating under your flesh, you feel ownership over your body. People with strong interoception have a clear sense of how they move. They don’t fall over at work. They can correctly aim a fork into their mouth so food doesn’t land all over their face. They can recognize their emotions and know how others make them feel.
And people who can’t do these things, people like me who lack interoceptive awareness, who, either from trauma or growing up in a world that doesn’t recognize our unique sensory needs, can lose control in relationships.
Whenever I struggled to describe my emotions to my friends, I worried they assumed I felt nothing. Because I wasn’t numb. Far from it. I felt a jungle raging inside me: a constant commotion clamoring across my skin. I felt so much that it was impossible to sit with myself and learn how to decode anger from sadness, joy from frustration, hunger from a full bladder. And so I turned away from learning about the inside of my body and used other people to define me. When my sister felt sad about a friend moving away, I felt sad. When my best friend wanted to go to the park, I wanted to go too. When my brother found a movie relaxing, I eased into it. I didn’t have an individual body, an individual self with its own needs and wants and desires. I existed only in relation to others.
I never told my sister about falling at work, because my clumsiness wasn’t what she should have been concerned about. The first club I worked for had clear rules on what you could and couldn’t do with customers. I had to keep one foot on the ground during lap dances, keep 6 inches between my genitals and their clothed crotch. No letting them suck your tits, no overt grinding. Overall nothing too raunchy nor too close.
One night, a manager pulled me aside after a fifteen minute lap dance and pointed at my red nipples. “Didn’t it hurt when he pinched you like that?” she asked, a slight sneer in her voice. I pasted a smile on my face as a response, a wide uncomfortable smile. It didn’t hurt. I had asked the customer to pinch my nipples, hard, very hard, because I barely felt pain. I barely felt anything besides my customers’ desires, and I wanted to feel the pleasure that I imagined others felt with light nipple play. But I winced at her comment, ignited with shame by my overt breach in decency.
Had that been the first time I got in trouble, I might have brushed it aside and forgotten about my manager’s disgusted face when she saw my distressed breasts. But that was the fourth time she pulled me aside for crossing a line, possibly the fifth. A week before, I had gotten in trouble for sitting up against my customers, for not leaving enough space when I danced naked on their laps. Before that, for letting their tongues explore my mouth. And before that, for not asserting the rules of the club when a customer pushed for more than a lap dance; for not shoo-ing his hands away when he tried to explore underneath my thong.
I wasn’t bothered about my boundaries. I didn’t have boundaries. But I was concerned about getting fired, and I wanted to make money. The first two weeks, I got lucky a few times and earned a liveable wage without much skill, but usually I struggled to get customers to buy lap dances. At first I pressed every guy for a private room, but once I realized how much energy I was pouring into men who never spent more than fifty dollars, I started journaling about how clients made me feel. I wrote about how my skin crawled with sensations when they rambled on and on and then refused to get a lap dance. I wrote about how my face tingled when they were enthralled with me. I wrote about how my heart pounded in panic when they violated the club’s rules.
It took time, but soon enough, I learned to feel when I got too close to customers, when their fingers inched near my thong, when they squeezed my boobs. I learned to resist the urge to enmesh with clients, to collapse inside their bodies and let their needs become my needs. I learned to stop escaping and distracting myself from the sensations rippling through my body by hiding inside others. I forced myself to hold on. And along the way, I learned when I needed to pee, what colors calmed me, what movies relaxed me. I learned when people rang alarm bells in my chest, when others brought me joy. I learned that too much eye-contact made me uncomfortable. I learned to strut and sway in heels.
I hadn’t sought out to map the inside of my body, all I had wanted was to keep my job and earn cash, but it happened nevertheless. And as consequence, something else transpired. Before dancing, I had sometimes been accused of lacking empathy. If I got an A on an English test, I was confused when my friend struggled to get an A. If my sister felt pain, I felt it so acutely that I wasn’t sure who carried the original source of agony: me or her. Without the ability to differentiate, I struggled to conceptualize other people’s needs, a necessary ingredient for meaningful and healthy relationships. I knew I felt blurry, often split in pieces, but since no one around me thought anything was wrong, I had no way to understand what I was feeling. As months turned into years in the club and I began to color in the inside of my body, I started to wonder if something was wrong with me after all. Was there something that had made it difficult to feel? Something that still afflicted me?
Nothing had been wrong, I learned at 26, but there was something that made me feel and sense the world differently. Much to my shock, I discovered that I was autistic. I had always thought autism was only expressed through language difficulties and lining up toy trains. I hadn’t even realized that women could be autistic. But it turns out that many women are on the spectrum and that many of those women struggle with interoception.
Autistic people grow up in a world that is overwhelming and triggering to them. From flashing lights, bright screens, loud honks, forced hugs by relatives, they are constantly being pulled outside of their body. When their sensory needs are not accommodated, when they are forced to sit under fluorescent lights or are refused a moment of reprieve from a crowded family dinner, they have no choice but to turn off the lights in their bodies; to sever their needs from their consciousness. It’s easier to feel nothing than endure a never ending stream of panic.
I never imagined that I could live in a world where I could be anything but pliable. I had always striven to be easy-going, someone who could endure anything. I thought it was necessary for my survival. And I may have survived had I never found out about autism, but I may have never felt at home in my body. If I hadn’t started dancing, I may have never experienced pure joy or learned how to avoid danger. I may have never felt like an individual.
WORDS BY REESE PIPER
PHOTOS BY SYDNEY TATE