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Stripping Down: A Memoir peels back life as a stripper, daughter and mother

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Connecticut – from – Stripping Down: A Memoir, the latest book by Sheila Hageman of Stratford, is not the prurient tell-all by a former stripper some readers may be looking for.

“I see this as more of a women’s book,” Hageman said. “It’s for women. What modern woman doesn’t have the same struggles of body image. Yes, there are bits about stripping, women always want to know about that. A lot of women are dealing with aging parents, and dealing with children at the same time. I was in a place where I needed help being a new mother, and my mother was not in position to help.”

While she tells about her life stripping in the memoir, 10 years in the making, it also peels back layers of a life story, about body issues, becoming a mother, dealing with a dying parent, and finding new success.

“It’s the whole idea of what being a mother is. You’re seen differently, the new role you’re playing. Who are you now? Are you just a mother? Who am I as a woman? Can I separate away from being a mother? Can I be sexy anymore, and does being sexy mean being a stripper or being authentic to who I am?” Hageman said. “There’s definitely an accepted role of a mother in our society today, kind of an either/or, not acceptance of.”

Stripping Down began as the memoir of a stripper.

“I started taking notes for it when I was actually stripping, when I was 18,” Hageman said. “I thought, ‘Someday I will want to write about this.’ When I went to get my MFA I really started working on it.”

It took another two years to finish Stripping Down, ending four years of intense work woven into an emotionally trying time in her life.

“When I started my MFA I knew I wanted to write about my stripper past,” Hageman said. “At the time I was getting my degree, my mother was sick with breast cancer, I’d just had a daughter.”

School was followed by caring for her child, then drives to Connecticut to care for her ailing mother.

“It’s about my experience as a mother, the experience of taking care of my own mother,” Hageman said. “It started me seeing connections to my past. There were more deeper body issues dealing with my mother getting sicker, the changes when I became a mother, looking back at my childhood, what really led me to the life I had chosen.”

Eventually, Hageman’s mother passed on.

“I was really faced with a lot of issues that needed to be dealt with,” she said.

Hageman said Stripping Down is written “as a meditation,” and is not linear in structure.

“It’s back and forth as I try to tie the ends together,” she said.

As she set about baring all about the issues in her life, Hageman knew her experiences in strip clubs would attract readers.

“When I first started writing, I talked about my stripper past because that’s what people find interesting,” she said. “What it became was [a study in] body image, women and where we are today. It became much more relevant to women.”

“What I saw,” she said, was the culture leading me to it. It opened my eyes.”

The path to the runway started when Hageman decided she wanted to be an actress and wanted to move to New York City.

“I had graduated high school, and all of my older friends were saying, ‘You’re such a great actress. You don’t need to go to college, just move to New York.’ It got in my head,” she said.

She was selling shoes at the time, when she saw an ad in a free newspaper seeking exotic dancers, promising $1,000 per week.

“I said, ‘I could do this. I’m an actress, I’m just playing another role. I’ll move to New York City, save money and become a famous actress,’” Hageman said. “Life got complicated.”

First, Hageman had to tell her mother. She was 18, but because she needed to be 21 she needed a permission note.

She started working at strip clubs in Connecticut, and a year later was “working in New York, at the big fancy clubs.”

In Hageman’s plan, stripping at night would allow time to audition during the day.

“I did get a part in a play, one of the touring shows for kids,” she said. “I was able to make a living as an actress, on and off.”

During the “off” times, she could always fall back on stripping.

“It becomes something like an addiction,” Hageman said. “Who would like to go to a normal secretary job?”

Instead, she returned to stripping, where she had the spotlight.

“It’s nice,” she said. “Yeah, you have to take your clothes off.”

The stage at the strip clubs provided money and attention, though Hageman never did make the $1,000 a week the ad promised.

“It’s what I hate about that advertisement,” she said. “The only way was to work double shifts every day. It’s hard work, dancing in heels, double shifts. I was not going to do that.”

At the same time she was modeling.

“I did nude modeling, mostly for artists, I did some really beautiful stuff,” Hageman said. “I moved to New York, was also doing things a little more risqué.”

Never, she said, did stripping hurt her acting career.

“I always had the attitude there was nothing wrong with what I did, and I didn’t need to hide it. I didn’t think it would ruin my career,” Hageman said.

Hageman stripped for six years, until she was 24. “The first two years were pretty constant,” she said.

While stripping did not hurt her career, it did not provide the launching pad some young women hoped it would.

“I know of nobody who was a stripper who got discovered as a stripper,” Hageman said.

She did know of strippers who opted to do nothing else.

“There were women that this was their career, what they wanted to do with their lives,” Hageman said. “I thought they were old ladies at the time, who were 30.”

Hageman quit stripping at 24 and decided to go to college.

“I got a job as a secretary, the thing I didn’t want to do,” she said. “It took five years to get my degree, but I did.”

She graduated as valedictorian of her class at Hunter College, with a double major in a special honors program in English and a minor in media.

“When I set my mind to something I go all the way,” Hageman said. “The very first class I took in college, the English teacher said she had gone to Hunter and decided to get a four-point GPA. I said in class, she didn’t seem that much different than me, if she could do it I was going to do it.”

What Hageman had not realized is that all along there were people who knew of her intelligence.

“I think people thought, and this is kind of what my mother tried to tell me, thought I was very smart, but didn’t think I realized it enough.” Hageman said. “The thought was, ‘Why is Sheila throwing her life away like this?’”

In high school, she admits, her grades were “not so great.”

“Not that they thought I was dumb. I was just not acting very smart,” she said. “I knew I was smart, just really messed up. I was just caught up in this wanting to be a star and be an actress, wanting the world to love me, and nothing else really mattered.”

At the same time, Hageman was struggling to love her own body.

“I was very petite,” she said. “When I first started getting into acting, I was never diagnosed as anorexic, but I think I was. I starved myself my entire teenage years. I got really obsessed with my body, how it looked. I my 20s I started eating, filled out a little, but was always conscious of my body. Then being a mother my body changed. Over the years my body changed so much, I’m constantly having to readjust where I am.”

There was also the image of being a stripper, and “the judgments that everybody made about themselves and the other women,” Hageman recalled. “It’s always who has the better body, whispers behind other strippers’ backs. It’s always in the background. People don’t come out and say it, but you’re supposed to look a certain way.”

But Hageman had a different look.

“You wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me,” she said of being a stripper. “I looked younger than I was, I looked like a nice, neat girl.”

Her appearance made her more attractive to some customers.

“In some ways I think it did,” she said. “I was really coming from a place where I was playing a part. Men could tell I was young, new and were mesmerized by this: ‘What are you doing here?’ I could play that up. There were definitely a lot of men who were attracted to it. It’s kind of icky if you think about it.”

Originally approaching being a stripper as playing a role, Hageman said she became addicted to the attention. If she was addicted to the situation, at what point was playing a role replaced by living a life?

“It’s something I write about and try to figure out,” she said. “If I’m doing it every day, it’s not a role any more, it’s kind of who I am. There were days when I was a stripper, days when this is a part I’m playing.”

As her stripping days ended, Hageman watched her always thin mother lose more and more weight to cancer.

“I was watching her body being taken away,” she said, adding that she came from a culture of “thinness.”

“There are still issues that come up, even though I’m much more in a place of acceptance than I was,” said Hageman, now 40 and a yoga teacher.

A teacher of writing at Housatonic Community College and Kaplan University, Hageman has also published The Pole Position: Is Stripping for You? (And How to Stay Healthy Doing It), for women considering the business.

“It’s a guidebook on making that decision,” Hageman said.

While writing and teaching, she’s also raising three children.

“I struggle with that,” she said. “I want to work, want to write, want to teach as well. I get that mother guilt. It’s about saying I don’t have to be one or the other. It’s an issue I can see repeating in life. It’s I’m a stripper or I’m a mother: Why can’t I be a little bit of both? It’s about being more authentic to ourselves.”


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