I Got Naked and You Should Too
“Naked? As is no clothes, tits out, vagina exposed?”
“And then you just frolic around in the nude, naked?”
“Precisely,” Daisy repeated, smiling.
My first sentō experience was tentative at best. Being a 20-year-old woman who hails from the Land Down Under, it was hard to imagine such nonchalance in attitude to well, being completely naked in public. But who was I not to try, so I embraced the land of the rising sun and agreed to bare my bum with my friend Daisy at our local communal Japanese bathhouse.
With my dacks at my ankles, I stood in the change room mourning my peach bathing suit and its companioned security. Unsure of what to do next, I hugged my hips and, in a dire attempt to shadow my bird nest bush, I protruded my already jutted spine.
When the door rushed open at the hands of a Japanese girl, a child no older than nine pranced in right past me, uncaring of my very visible bits and pieces. In the time it took me to remove my socks, she was also bare and bathing. I followed suit, and all I can say now is that I wished I had first sentōed 15 years prior.
Having grown up in the west, I have adopted the western orientation towards beauty, sex and what is considered to be the “conventional” body: a standard I have learned in the last 25 days I have spent in Japan to be definitively false. Not only that, but it’s a standard that is destructive and encourages an unrealistic construction of what it means to look normal.
I cannot recall the last time I was naked among so many people, a time I stood tall and comfortably bare. Perhaps it was as a child running through the sprinkler, or splashing around in the tub with my siblings. Sure, there are public pool change rooms back home, in Australia where you would assume nudity to be the norm. But at somewhere around five, a swimsuit was deemed necessary, and even in the female change room, women will opt for a dirty toilet cubicle or an awkward change behind a towel than dare reveal their bodies.
Thus, the collection of nude female bodies I had clasped eyes on in my lifetime could be counted on a single hand. My own, of course, my sister’s, a couple of close girlfriends’ and those of the the all-too-familiar models and celebrities who circulate the media.
Since arriving in Japan, this figure has quadrupled. My very first sentō enlightened me to six drastically different kinds of nipples. Nipples in shapes and sizes I didn’t even know existed. Nipples that stuck out two or more centimetres, nipples cloaked in hair, chocolate-brown nipples on porcelain skin, inverted nipples and nipples as big as dinner plates. Just nipples.
Hitherto, my vision of a nipple had been as proportioned as Kendal Jenner’s and as evenly coloured as Gweneth Paltrow’s. Instead, sensational combinations have now lead me to realise that Daisy’s really aren’t all that large, and I can ditch my frequent tweezing.
You see, for the past four years, I have been plagued with this negative voice. A voice that had me situated at the pre-bath wash station of the sento looking down at the four-finger gap between my thighs that I spent the latter part of my teen years obsessing over. A voice that, when I glance into a mirror, the first visual I notice is my collarbones, a customary morning check for me, to ensure they hadn’t miraculously disappeared overnight.
That voice that took me a while to look past my reflection in the bathhouse, but as I did, I gasped at what I saw: an old Japanese woman bending over and washing her feet. Emerging from the bottom of her bum crack was a cricket ball-sized pink growth. In disbelief, I could not avert my eyes, and in what I now recognise as ignorant disturbance, I looked around for someone to confide in, someone to whisper, “What the actual fuck is that?” to. Instead, I turned next to me to see the little girl completely unphased, humming even, enjoying the foamy velvet product of shampoo meeting warm water.
As I looked around at my fellow sentō frequenters, I noticed a woman with one breast, a woman with prominent stretch marks and another with thick pubic hair that trailed up to her belly button. I couldn’t help but commend all of these unperturbed women, unapologetic in their organic bodies.
It was then that I noticed my own body begin to loosen itself – inadvertently, but a long time overdue.
I realised that at just nine years old, the little girl in the bathhouse possessed a far more sophisticated and realistic idea of what a female body looks than the 20-year-old foreigner sitting next to her. She was likely to grow up not second guessing the way her body matures, god forbid it deviates from those seen in popular celebrity culture. To her, those bodies are just more in the mix, among a vast variety of tones, shapes, ailments and alignments.
Not only does the concept of a communal bathhouse promote a healthy body image, but using one has also reminded me that being naked is really not all that taboo. In the west, the female body is so oversexualised in mass media; in fact, the only time we ever see nakedness is when it’s connected with sex. Consequently, we feel the need to sensor and hide so much of it. But we were born in this state, and it is the most natural way of being, is it not?
And to be frank, being naked feels fucking ace.
Cover by Sean Marc Lee