Business and Burlesque: The Secret Life of Paulina Sygulska

So what we all want to know is, how did you ever become a burlesque dancer?!

Ahah, yes my alter ego! Well, I just wanted to do something totally apart from what I do in my role as a businesswoman: it’s a lot to do with the power of self-expression and the courage to be the whole of who you are, not just the side you show the world. It’s pretty risqué, but it forces you to embrace your imperfections, which helps me feel powerful rather than vulnerable.

Have people been fairly supportive of your dancing?

Mostly yes. People are a bit confused at first, but most now think it’s brilliant. I think I’m quite lucky because I have a lot of great people around me. I gave a Tedx talk in London a while back and I had these huge images of me in full burlesque gear on the screen behind, which worried me a bit beforehand. I kept thinking, oh no, these pictures mean no one is ever going to take me seriously again; my reputation is lost forever! But everything was fine and there was a great reaction from the audience, which made me feel even stronger. Obviously there are always going to be losers on the Internet spouting off some kind of hate, but if you put anything on the Internet, good luck! You can’t please everyone. 

 The tech industry doesn’t have a great reputation for gender equality. Do you, as a female entrepreneur, ever have to put up with sexism or even misogyny?

I’ve always worked in the tech space, so there has inevitably been some negative behaviour. Especially when I first came over to England, being a young Eastern European girl with a strong accent meant there was a fair bit of prejudice. But I think it’s got better over the years as I’ve become more confident in myself. The more comfortable I feel with who I am, the less I care about what those kind of people think and so the less I notice the misogyny out there. To some extent it can be about perception. If someone is a misogynist, well, that’s their problem, not mine, and I’m not going to waste my time thinking about it

So misogyny is only a problem if you allow it to be?

No, I wouldn’t put it like that at all; I just mean that I find it a lot easier to deal with the misogyny because I have a lot of self-belief in myself and what I do. For me to play down the extent of misogyny would be unfair because I am lucky enough to live in a very welcoming and progressive environment. I know that there are many women out there in different environments who feel very threatened because of the very real misogyny they experience.

You went on the One Retreat for female business owners. How was that?

That was a really valuable experience for me. What’s really special about it is a bunch of strong, successful women all supporting and helping each other. I think a lot of successful women are afraid to acknowledge their vulnerabilities because we still feel we have to prove something, so it’s incredibly worthwhile to create an environment and space for women to come together and support each other. It gives us time to be quiet, self-focussed, and where you don’t have to be alone.

Like with your burlesque dancing, your vulnerabilities become strengths?

Exactly, it’s all about self-awareness and accepting yourself as you are, flaws and all. If you’re aware of and happy with your worst bits, then it makes it harder for other people to criticise you. You need to confront your demons! Most things in life are hard and you have to embrace the side that sucks. Women entrepreneurs in particular need to stop bottling everything up and never letting their guard down. We need to relax and let it all out, even if that is by burlesque dancing! Allowing your vulnerabilities to be exposed is one of the biggest signs of strength.

You’ve have been raising awareness about FGM. Tell us more about that.

It’s something about which I feel strongly and which I want to raise awareness by posing for what some people might view as potentially shocking photos. However, the main problem for me was not stripping down for the photos, but the question of how tasteful they would be. As something that is so culturally ingrained in certain societies, FGM is always going to be a sensitive issue and my main worry was upsetting those who had been forced through it. I was thinking, can we talk about something as atrocious as mutilating female genitals through the language of photography in a way that won’t be distasteful?

So what kind of reaction are you expecting to the photos?

I haven’t yet spoken to someone who has gone through it, so I can imagine someone turning round and asking, you think that by putting tape over your mouth and crotch you have the right to talk about something like FGM? That will be the fundamental test. I really hope it doesn’t upset any of those women. But if someone said to me that they understood what I was trying to do and appreciated it, then that for me would mean that it had achieved its purpose.

So why are you getting involved with this issue in particular?

I’m working with a charity called Forward which aims to advance the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls in Africa. It will be tremendously difficult bringing about a social change in communities where these practices are so ingrained that girls even do this to themselves. They have no understanding of their own human rights which is terrible. The cross on the mouth shows that this practice denies a woman’s self-expression, saying she is not right as she is and needs to be controlled.  No woman’s energy should be controlled by social practices and FGM is just one, especially violent, example of this. It’s only when that energy is trusted that amazing things can happen.

Also, I'm holding a fundraiser this Sunday and all the proceeds will go towards raising awareness of FGM (#unconventionalconvention on Twitter). All are of course welcome to attend!

Which brings us full circle back to your points on the ‘wholeness’ of a person.

Exactly. By saying no, you can’t do that, your identity and self-expression are being denied and altered, which affects how you live your life. Your sexuality is just one of the many possible ways to express your energy as a human being, which is why it is so terrible when you see these deep-seated methods of trying to destroy that. I hope that my photos help in some way to end FGM. And if only one girl tells me she appreciates them, then it will be worth it. 

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