Writing: Phoebe McGowan
Illustration: Hazel Laing
You were stood in the wings, gelled back bun and static electric nerves, waiting for the first step
you didn’t even notice the cramp,
Too focused on your first slow steps. The arrival of the swans is a deliberate dance,
Slow, winding, each swan debuting at the back of the stage, her own moment of beauty
in brilliant white. You’d thought the teariness was from the shouting and lack of sleep,
But you’d danced through the nausea, ran through sticky corridors to the disabled toilet,
The only one big enough to house you and your tutu,
Sat down with a sob your body had betrayed you again wet red embarrassment staining your
At this point, you remember the day your mother had dared to congratulate you on your womanhood arriving with some anger.
You start to think that this womanhood is actually a curse designed to rip through perfectly nice
white net tutus and why would you think any different, darling,
When you watched your thighs curve outwards with horror, watched your stomach gather fat like
an act of survival from the back barre,
Where the bigger girls went,
Where the mirror was more slimming,
And it was ‘just lose a little bit of weight for this exam girls’
And it was ‘I’ve had a fried egg for breakfast so I won’t eat today’
And it was ‘well I just don’t think it’s nice that two girls would do that together’
And it was ‘it’s easier to jump higher when you’re thinner isn’t it?’
And weren’t you good at painting it on? Your humanity in bronzer, blusher and glitter eyeliner,
your skin didn’t know what breathe felt like, didn’t know what mouth was if not to be painted and smiling,
Had the sex stripped out of you and exhibited, tucked away the blood and sweat,
put on a pair of shimmer tights that sucked in child stomach, draped our pubescent shoulders in chiffon and a push up bra,
femininity to be looked at, enjoyed- my awkward puberty was for your enjoyment.
Watch as they dance and shimmy!
‘Remember, cheeky faces girls!’
Not like this, not sat on a toilet 5 minutes before the next costume change, watching your womanhood stain the crisp white perfection you’d tried so hard to foster,
Not like this, with the tears that tug up your chest like eyebrow plucked from forehead,
not with two track marks running through the hours of brushing and bronzing and shimmering.
You thought you were so ugly,
and who wouldn’t, when you tried to stuff all this woman into girl frame.
I have good news, 12 year old me to whom this poem is addressed, sat on that toilet, wishing that this hot burn of embarrassment would stop stinging so much.
In 4 years from now, after a diet of no ‘bad’ foods and 100 sit ups a day you will walk out of a ballet exam where your skin was alight with enough,
You’ll buy a bucket of fried chicken and smile as the grease wipes off the lipstick,
You’ll know that stains wash out,
You’ll cut off your ballet bun,