In this day and age, it has almost become a given that if you’re middle class and female, you struggle with your appearance. Even if you make an effort to refrain from obsessing over how you look, society consistently reminds you that you should be. All too often, I find myself undergoing assessment by people around me, reminding me whether my body has changed in the slightest, discussing – extensively – my hair and my skin and everything else. My father still remembers the time he asked me why I didn’t straighten my hair and I went on a rant about sexism and colonialism (and for the record, I used to straighten my hair, for years). But I won’t even go into the sexism behind all of this, the continuous pressure on girls to look and act perfect – and sometimes the pain this causes. People discuss my looks as a superficial conversation starter, I’ve been told, and no one wants to hear about my work. But the normalization of these conversations is disturbing. The socially sanctioned fixation with appearances is an illustration of how females are taught to derive their value from how they look, from the approval of others.

Body image is by far the most explicit manifestation of the obsession with our appearances. The biggest compliment you can give a female is that she’s lost weight. And too many girls feel guilty simply for eating, for doing something they need to be doing to survive. Yet, this comes in many forms, and girls are also judged, and can feel self-conscious, for being too skinny, flat-chested, and so on. Body shaming is as diverse as it is violent.

I do not believe that it is only through exercise that we can learn to love our bodies—a scary proposition, because if we are incapable of exercising, for whatever reason (and there are many physical, mental, financial, and other), does it follow that we should hate our bodies? Are we not so much more than how we look and what we wear (what we buy)? And should we even completely give in to this individualism?

I fell in love with pole precisely because it’s not just fitness but also dancing, movement, expression; it’s art. And I reclaimed my body through pole dancing. I felt more in control of my body. I learned to focus on what my body can do, not how it looks. It was no longer about the contours of my thighs or the way my ‘excess’ fat jiggles; it was about how my body can lift me up, hold and keep me up, how it can move and make shapes, wrapping itself around the pole, twisting and mangling, how it gives me the power to express myself, to be myself, fully, shamelessly.

Pole dancing confronted me with my body. You need minimal clothing to be able to grip the pole and perform your desired tricks. You simply cannot hide from your body; you’re using everything: your arms (and armpits), thighs (including inner thighs), your stomach. When I watch a video of myself on the pole, I do not look at how many ‘rolls’ there are in my stomach, how awkwardly short I am, or the massive surgery scar I have on my right thigh; I am checking my lines (the damn pointed toes and straight legs) and my fluidity. I don’t even notice all the bruises on my body. Side note: people in the pole community call them ‘pole kisses’, but I don’t. They’re bruises, and I love them, because isn’t the best kind of love that which destroys and changes you (to rephrase a quote by Alejandro Zambra)? They momentarily scar you but then they remake you, giving you new skin.

And finally, pole dancing fundamentally changed my body in ways I had never imagined. I became much stronger in my upper body, and my physical strength translated into greater independence. It may seem minor, but I could carry my bags myself (carried a gallon of water in the scorching heat once) and lift heavy things (still too short to easily reach the overhead compartment in the plane though). Pole dancing redefined me. It encouraged the rebel within me, to defy social structures and expectations about how to look, how to behave, and how to exist.