That Time Someone Called the Police on Me in Belly Dance Attire

That Time Someone Called the Police on Me in Belly Dance Attire June 3, 2016

This is apparently the week of “relate all my posts to all my other posts.” Because I’ve been getting some pushback on my posts about setting boundaries as a sex-positive person, about whether acting/dressing sexy means you “deserve it,” and about “mild” sexual harassment, I thought I’d throw some more fodder onto the internet about things that I’ve experienced around these topics.

So, here’s my personal narrative, a.k.a. a true story that happened to me, about body shaming in a really unexpected way.

As in, I had the police called on me while in a belly dance costume.

Yep. That happened.

This occurred in 2010, in Bloomington, Indiana. While living in Bloomington for grad school, I became especially active in the belly dance community. And there were a LOT of us… one dancer joked that you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a belly dancer in Bloomington. So seeing someone in belly dance attire just walking around Bloomington isn’t unusual.

At one point I wanted to test-drive a costume before performing in it, and someone I knew wanted to test-drive some photography techniques, so we teamed up to do a photo shoot. We went to a public park (Cascades, if anyone’s curious – lots of lovely scenery), and proceeded to do a shoot, cycling through a few costumes once I’d moved around in the dance costume a bit.

Me in a dance costume. Photo by Barb H.
Me in a dance costume. Photo by Barb H.

The dance costume? Is the one pictured in this post. The top is about as modest as a bathing suit top, or moreso in some cases. The skirt started at my hips and fell to my feet; it didn’t have slits or anything in it. I was, by belly dance standards, fairly covered up. And I was certainly street legal.

We walked a good few hundred feet into the forest, away from the picnic tables and playground in this section of the park, to do the shoot. But a couple minutes into it, a lady walked over from the playground, and had to keep walking over so that we could hear what she was shouting (that’s how far we were from the rest of the people in the park).

“YOU NEED TO LEAVE!”

We paused and looked at her. “Why?”

“BECAUSE YOU’RE INDECENT! THERE ARE CHILDREN HERE! YOU ARE WEARING NOTHING BUT A BRA AND THAT IS INAPPROPRIATE!”

At that point, I was basically shocked into silence. It had never occurred to me that someone could view a belly dance costume as indecent. I guess this is what comes of growing up in a secular household in Los Angeles, huh? I began say something about how I am, in fact, legally decent, and this is a dance costume, it’s for art… but she just started yelling at us again.

She next said: “DO YOU HAVE CHILDREN?!”

I answered no.

“THEN YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND!”

My friend and I looked at each other, confused, and restated that we have every right to be in this public park, and we’re going to stay put. She answered that she was calling the police, and stormed off. We shrugged it off and resume the shoot. Oh–and one of the other ladies from the playground walked over to inform us that we have “three minutes to get your shit and leave, the police are on their way!”

Just as we were finishing up, we noticed a police car drive up. An officer got out and walked over to the first woman. She appeared to rant at him for a while. Then he walked up to us, where we’re just hanging out.

The police officer was very polite. He greeted us and asked what we’re doing. We replied that it was an art project. He looked at me and affirmed that we have every legal right to be here since I am, in fact, legally decent and covered enough… but because that lady was being very irate (we could tell he was being, er, diplomatic in his assessment), we might want to consider moving on at some point. We agreed to this, and pointed out that if she had been more polite when approaching us, we would’ve considered moving locations sooner, and that we in no way tried to antagonize her. He told us to have fun and then left.

We moved to another part of the park, where there were lots of people hanging out and grilling and so on, and nobody gave a shit that I arrived in a belly dance top and changed into another crop top, since that’s what my next costume for the shoot was.

The whole thing was perplexing and disturbing. For one thing, I have to wonder if this woman lets her kids go to the public pool, or watch TV, or engage in any mainstream media at all. For another, I have to wonder if they’re getting body-shaming messages at home as well. Shaming people for showing their bodies is, in my opinion, another manifestation of rape culture, because it’s usually unidirectional (framing women’s undressed states as sexual, and men’s as natural, and making out women’s bodies to be tempting to men, which clearly is what causes rape).

The manufactured outrage over “think of the children!” is also problematic. I don’t think seeing human bodies in various states of undress is as harmful to kids as people make it out to be. Obviously exposing kids to genitals or sex acts or whatever can be exploitative and abusive… but the human body in a dance costume? I fail to see how that’s harmful.

Anyway, that’s my personal narrative about the time I had the police called on me for doing a belly dance photo shoot.

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