I grew up as a very artistic, athletic, and insecure child, and I always tell people that circus saved my life. But that is only part of the story. As a teen, I was chaos. I entered into an extremely toxic relationship at 15 that took over my entire life. I almost ran away from home multiple times at the demand of my partner, and I developed an eating disorder (anorexia) as well as a deep, dark depression. Though I did not name those struggles or know how to speak of them at all, it’s safe to say I was having a very difficult time growing up. When my 3-year-long emotionally painful and manipulative relationship finally ended, I was sexually assaulted. This pushed me further into a depression and I felt the stigma of rape so deeply that I was unable to speak to anyone about it for quite some time. I had this intense wound burning me up and thought it was just mine to manage. Around this time, I did not know how to deal with anything life had thrown at me, and I was just letting the world sweep me up and throw me around. Until I found circus.
Through the creation and performance of circus, I found an artistic and physical outlet, purpose, and the confidence I had been missing for so long. When I realized this was a valid career choice, I threw myself in head first and it gave me a healthy way to spend my time. It also provided me with a community who understood my artistic and athletic tendencies– which gave me the true support I had been craving. This world that I had fallen into created a path for me to explore who I was, and I finally had a goal to pursue.
I left my hometown to go to a circus school in another country, as is common for a performer who is serious about their circus career. During my time at school, my bond with my community became stronger and the people around me were working on their career as hard as I was. I naturally began to eat enough food to fuel my intensive workouts. I was not surrounded by toxic people anymore and went through a sort of unnamed recovery, from my eating disorder and depression. I was truly happy with my life of learning, working, exploring my artistic boundaries, and creating real relationships within my school and new city. Circus had saved me and helped me pluck myself out of my unhealthy circumstances.
Eventually though, things changed once more. I was sexually assaulted again, this time by someone in my circus community. My feeling of safety in the community had shifted and I felt slightly lost again. Once more, I felt too afraid to reach out for help because I had recently watched as my friend accused their rapist and become ostracized from the community because the rapist was popular and perceived as a “good guy.” I came back to my hometown after school to start a small circus performance company. We created work on our terms and it was very empowering. I used the opportunity to face struggles within myself onstage and to start a socially relevant discussion and try to de-stigmatize talking about mental health.
Although to make money to survive, I had to perform quite a lot at corporate events and cabarets. The people who hired me for these types of gigs explicitly pushed me into being the “sexy” type of performer –which I was never comfortable with. That was never me, but I presented as a woman so they felt it was the only natural way for me to be on stage. Some people feel empowered by reclaiming their sexuality as power on stage. Though when pressured into it a lot of people, like me, will feel extremely uncomfortable, and if that person has experienced sexual trauma in the past, it can also be triggering. They asked me to wear less clothes and to put on more makeup. This was my job and to pay for my rent, I did what they asked and my eating disorder came back, but this time it was worse. I was also working out extensively every day and passing out due to exhaustion and turning upside-down while not eating enough food. One of my coaches noted that I had gained weight after coming back from circus school (which was mostly muscle and due to the fact that I had recovered from an eating disorder) and told me I was “getting fat”. Many successful female performers I saw were small, thin and often using sex appeal to their advantage, especially in my community. Being surrounded by this type of pressure, I began to feel that to become successful in my field I needed to take unhealthy measures to ensure my body was presentable to others (which I now grimace at).
After circus school, another sort of perfectionism creeped up on my circus practice—I would work for hours perfecting my craft each day, which is common, but I also subconsciously based my worth as a human on the difficulty of the tricks I could perform. I became obsessed with the perfect form and worked until delirious each day. Although I am prone to perfectionism, this was also a reflection of what I saw around me. Merit is given to those who perform the most difficult tricks the most effortlessly. It makes sense that we do this because it is entertainment and we are all trying to get better at what we do– but without the proper kind of support from an instructor or the community, it can truly damage the self-esteem of a young, impressionable performer. Which is why when I practiced in isolation, I would get so angry at myself when I had perceived that I had failed. I believe that anger actually pushed me into failing more often. Had I been training in a room full of supportive friends and a teacher, I believe my relationship with circus may have not become quite as toxic. I was performing, which was my dream, but the world of performing was trying to push me into a box that I didn’t fit into. I wanted to create art, not to be a body on display performing tricks for others. Somehow, circus had brought me back to the dark place I was running away from.
After some time living this type of lifestyle, I had a terrible break down, I became suicidal and was experiencing symptoms of PTSD. It took me some time, but with the support of my partner and family, I got into therapy and began slowly finding my way into healthier habits and built my self-esteem from the ground up by talking to others and challenging my self-destructive thoughts.
So, I am not writing this essay to preach about the evils of circus. I have been on both sides of this story, circus got me out of one of the darkest times of my life, but it also put me into one of the other darkest times of my life. I am not blaming the art form of circus itself or even specific segments of the community. Mental health issues that foster isolation, pressure on women to sexualize themselves for the pleasure of others, rape, how our culture forces perfectionism on it’s people, and all the other issues I have touched on are social issues and are not only being interpreted though circus, but also the arts, sports, and every other social institution touched by humans. But institutions and communities that begin with good ideas and grow towards their purpose can also be neglectful or abusive in the wrong hands or with the wrong tools.
The only way for us to change the world is to start with our own community. With the recent events in the news, such as the #metoo movement and the circus corollary #theshowisover, as well as the rash of suicides in the worldwide circus community, I decided to write this to explain, from my point of view, how the circus that has the potential to save lives, to build careers, and to create the most beautiful art imaginable, also has the capacity to do great damage to an individual’s psyche if not done with purpose and care. As circus artists, we live in a world where virtuosity is one of our highest held ideals. We cannot forget that because circus is a performing art, aesthetic appearance plays a big role in what is programmed across venues. Yet when our society at large holds thinness and “sexiness” above all else, so does circus, because it is just an expression of a facet of society. When society holds productiveness and perfection above all else, so do we, and we even encourage it to the extreme. One product of this in circus is the idea that only the performers with the highest skill level have the value to be cast in our shows and accepted into our professional schools. Steven Desanghere ironically calls this system we seem to live by “skill fascism,” in a blog post he wrote calledSome Thoughts on Circus Spaces and Community. We need to fight back against these impossible ideals that are leading people in our community to such dark places and that could result in a whole host of issues including depression, eating disorders and suicide. Circus has the potential to show all of humanities’ physical capabilities but also to express the intricacies of humanity and inspire us all. A body can express so many things, regardless of if the audience members view it as “perfect” or not.
Let’s focus on the positive aspects of circus– like its inherent and historic ability to shine light on the unique abilities of individuals who don’t conform. Let’s try to mend our unspoken competitive streaks (which we often hide by throwing around the word circus family without actually giving it the meaning it deserves) and by supporting one-another, because no two circus bodies or minds are the same, but we all need support and not judgement to thrive.
Here are few examples of how we can do better: As someone working at a circus school; hire an onsite therapist for your students and even teachers. As a casting director; be inclusive to all shapes, sizes, genders, abilities and colors. As a circus educator; keep checking in with your student’s motivation levels and mental well-being as well as using encouraging language and making sure they know they can talk to you about more than just technique. As a programmer; program shows that include all types of humans or allow the storyline of the show to discuss social issues. Don’t degrade or over-sexualize women or minorities (or anyone), and otherwise have a conscientious mission. As a performer; be good to your friends and take care of yourself. We need to take better care of each other.
To me, the circus of the future is more inclusive, poetically tackles social issues and brings people together! I wish to continue to embrace circus and work to free myself and others of the stigmas people in circus (by way of societal expectations) can both accidentally and/or purposely impose. Will you join me?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and/or position of CircusTalk.
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