Lillian Bustle initially began performing burlesque as a hobby while pursuing a musical theater career.
“I had thought about burlesque for a long time, but four years ago I bit the bullet and I took a class with the New York School of Burlesque. After I took the class and performed, I realized that I wanted to keep doing it,” Bustle, 37, tells PEOPLE. “I found that this was a way I could create art and produce art for myself, and it was super empowering.”
At first, Bustle was hesitant to take her clothes off during performances.
“It was something that I had work up to,” she says. “I wasn’t fully comfortable in my own skin the first time that I performed burlesque, but I have always subscribed to the idea that if something scares you, you should at least try it. And after I did it, I knew that I could do it again.”
It was through her burlesque performances that Bustle found her voice as a body positive activist.
“When I first got into burlesque, it wasn’t specifically with a body positive idea in mind, although I guess anything that involves taking your clothes of sort off involves that as a default,” she says.
About a year ago, Bustle created her burlesque performance piece “Yes,” in which she initially appears with the word “no” written all over her body, and begins to wipe away the nos and replace them with yeses. She even invites audience members to participate by writing “yes” on her body.
Hey IG There's no nudity here! This photo of my new act about body love was just removed from both my FB profile and fan page, as well as my IG! In my act I wipe the word NO off of my body and write YES, and invite others to write on my skin. Removing this photo that contains no nudity is saying my body is unacceptable. My body is beautiful. Get it together. #fat #censored #plussize #bodypositivity #bodylove #bodyart #burlesque #burlesqueshow #bodyposi #bootyrevolution #effyourbeautystandards
Bustle’s message is that women should allow themselves to say “yes” to their own bodies, no matter who they are or what they look like.
“It’s a very simple concept and it’s something we often deny ourselves,” she says. “For women, saying ‘yes’ to our bodies is not only discouraged, but I think people cast it in a light of being self-involved or selfish.”
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Her performance of “Yes” is “very raw and very me.”
“The first time that I performed it, it was such an incredible rush, and it was the most connected that I had ever felt to an audience,” says Bustle, who recently performed the piece with body activist group My Body Does. “Every time I perform it, I feel the same way. The amount of joy that I get from performing that specific act is like nothing that I have ever felt before.”