Have we discussed what I look like naked?
Generally, I try to avoid being naked in front of other people and it’s not just because my ears are sensitive to high-pitched screaming. Sure, the Hague has issued some rulings but, one cesarean and life-long affair with butter later, I just don’t really feel comfortable baring my vulnerable body to others. That the inner 14-year-old-Catholic-School-student I suspect lurks inside everyone will see my body and compose dark curses.
This isn’t the hair-flicking cry of a size 8 ingénue, terror-stricken and without a thing to wear. I’m larger than most, often unapologetically so. It’s enough to make buying clothes a saga worthy of Norse legend and make my health-obsessed sister twitch uncontrollably. It also adds drama to my existing curves and fills cups that were previously empty. I adore and agonise over my flawed body in equal measure.
However, it makes some moments awkward. Especially the first entry into a Japanese bath house, also known as sentos or onsen. A communal bath house separated for each gender, the routine is to drop trou, kneel by the showers, scrubbing and rinsing your skin to Silkwood levels before serenely plunging into the boiling hot bath.
It wasn’t the first time I have visited an onsen, nor will it be the last but I have always done so solo. Stepping into the sento’s inner sanctum with a tiny towel and a few friends just seemed to up the volume on my inner crazy. At one point, the crazy was not just loud, it was driving and muttering about entering bat country. That was when I wondered if the dire quality of my abs or grooming would quite understandably compel my friends to never speak with me again. Because, quite obviously, I have dancing tentacles in lieu of labia.
Together we all lounged in steam rooms and melted in baths. The chatter was easy and we all stared off in the middle distance. Our voices said “oh sure, I hang around my friends naked and chatting breezily all the time” while the eyes said “if I stare at that tile over there really hard and not at my body, it’s like I’m wearing clothes. Clothes made of ceramic tile.” The presence of friends removed the transient anonymity I was normally afforded. I was exposed to so many people, exposed in a way I find vulnerable even with my partner.
Naturally, I broke the rule I fervently hoped others wouldn’t and looked around. Around us, Japanese women of all ages milled about, chatting happily with their friends and family. They were relaxed in their conversation and in milling about the baths.
Slowly it dawned on me why the women may have been so relaxed and at ease. They weren’t comparing themselves to one another. In the sento, one is surrounded with the evident proof that advertising and popular culture hides: women are a staggering array of different shapes, sizes and beauty. No physical one ideal as splashed across the pages of magazines.
It’s amazing the power of a bit of communal nudity. Realising the physical diversity within the room instantly ameliorated my barking neuroses, a harder bomb to defuse than anything shown in the Hurt Locker.
There was no shame, no feeling of needy comparison – just different women, all looking utterly beautiful and relaxed. It wasn’t a voyeuristic thing nor alienating, if anything, the sense of community and solidarity was enhanced. Our bodies aren’t just markers for sexual desirability or fashion fillers – they’re just bodies, astounding physical collections of function.