… and it’s not all about Patrick Swayze. Although he’s got a lot to do with it.
I was 16 when the film came out (27 years ago!) and, I reckon, more impressionable than your average teenager. A group of girlfriends and I headed to Mcdonalds’ first for a burger or, in my case, a filet-of-fish and then piled into the cinema with popcorn to watch what had already become a movie sensation.
Like many of my fellow female teens, I came away mesmorised, transported to another land. And that, of course, was the point. That’s what Hollywood does best.
The problem was I thought that land was real.
The stars of Dirty Dancing showed me who I thought I wanted to be, how I thought I wanted to look and the guy I thought I wanted to date. The film fed a feeling, already deeply lodged within me, that I wanted to be someone else, somewhere else and living somebody else’s life.
This feeling kicked in as early as primary school. I remember starting to write Karen instead of Katherine on my work and confidently telling my teacher I’d changed my name by Deed Poll (although I think I said Deepol, and I really didn’t know what it meant). Karen was a classmate who I deemed to be prettier, thinner and more popular than me. She lived near school in a nice house.
Couldn’t I just be her? Wouldn’t that make everything alright?
So by the time I was in secondary school and Dirty Dancing hit our screens, I was already a few years in to my diet plan, restricting my food to try to get slimmer – even though I was really slim. On top of that, and probably as a result of my undereating, my hair had begun to thin, losing its volume and shine and turning to frizz. And perhaps I’d started binge eating by then too, I can’t recall. But the bottom line is my body hate and my desire to escape myself had well and truly taken root.
I’d also developed countless crushes on good-looking boys, probably seeing them as some sort of escape or as a means to get love and attention, even if I didn’t feel I deserved it. Typical teenage behaviour, you might say, but I’m sure I took this to extremes, thinking about the guy with the flat top or the strawberry blonde hair day and night, following him around town or going out of my way to be in the same place. This guy would be the answer to all my problems, I thought.
So when I sat down in that cinema in downtown Liverpool, I was well and truly ready – hungry in fact – to find some way, any way to not be myself.
First, there was the young Jennifer Grey, so slim, toned and perfectly tanned with thick, curly locks. In my eyes, she had the perfect body, great hair and fantastic clothes, including pristine white underwear – if I really tried, I thought, I could look like that.
Then there were all those amazing-looking couples with their fantastic dance moves. I already loved to dance so maybe, if I worked at it, I could dance like that (my friends and I went on to do countless poor impressions of dirty dancing in Liverpool’s nightclubs).
I saw a real sense of camaraderie or family too – all those young people hanging out together at that holiday camp. And that sense of belonging was something I really craved. Oh yes, and Baby’s dad was a doctor and was very much around.
Utopia, I thought.
There was the romance, that intense, falling-in-love feeling that set us all up to think it had to be like that to be real or worth something (“I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.” Spoken breathlessly, of course).
And then, last but not least, there was Swayze, who in a couple of brief scenes (maybe the one where he’s lifting Baby out of the water or the one in his cabin with the record playing?) condemned teenage girls all over the world (or was it just me?) to years of searching for a man just like that – a man who could lift you over his head but also one in touch with his feelings and with a big heart. A man of few words but with great one-liners (“Nobody puts Baby in the corner”). And a man, of course, who could dance.
I’ve never found anyone like Johnny Castle in real life, and believe me I’ve looked.
Ok, so it’s just Hollywood doing its stuff, entertaining us all and giving us something, momentarily, to dream about.
But for a teenager who hated her body and felt lost in her life, those images convinced me that happiness lay over there or in becoming someone else.
What I was aspiring to was unattainable, of course. It was perfection and it was far out of reach. But I didn’t realise that back then.
So I starved and ran to get thin and then overate because the dieting wasn’t working, I still didn’t have a body like Baby’s and I’d started to binge. I bought clothes in all colours, shapes and sizes, thinking they’d make me feel better about myself but they never did. And I kept looking for the man, looking for that guy Hollywood had made up, the guy who didn’t exist.
Why write about Dirty Dancing now? Well, it was on TV the other night and despite having my own copy on DVD that I could put on at any point, I couldn’t resist tuning in.
I’m pleased to say that this time around – probably about the 20th time I’ve seen it – my head didn’t go off into a fantasy land where I was as slim as Baby and where guys like Johnny actually lived and breathed. Instead, I saw it for what it was, a movie set in a made-up world.
And a movie I was watching from my London flat in a body and a life that were good enough – despite some feelings of discontent – and with the awareness (finally!) that striving for perfection in myself or in a man would only condemn me to years of loneliness. As they already had.
So Dirty Dancing and other similar Hollywood movies do, indeed, have a lot to answer for. But the extent of our vulnerability to their messages comes down to how we feel about ourselves and how happy we are in our lives – and that’s our responsibility.
Imagine coming away from a movie or from an encounter with someone who seems to have it all worked out (body, family, home, career and so forth) and saying to yourself, “That life looks great. But I don’t want it. I want mine.”
If there’s anything worth striving for – or perhaps surrendering to – it has to be that.