Right Down to Your Birthday Suit
Wet necks stretch gracefully; curled tendrils trace cheekbones as heads balance above the steaming water. A wave ripples out as breasts, followed by hips and thighs, emerge and wade to the bath’s edge, swinging over onto the textured tiles. A pair of eyes follow with interest.
A young girl watches the woman pass by, eyes large and jaw slack with the mild curiosity of a cognisant child. She points at her retreating form and asks a question I do not understand. As her mother’s hand closes over her tiny forefinger and brings it down into the water, she murmurs continuously what I interpret to be an admonishment for pointing, and an answer. The plump face turns to her mother, once again to the wet trail of footprints left behind, and then her mind turns to more important things: like dog-paddling to the other side of the bath. She’s not bothered by the nakedness that surrounds her, and neither am I.
There are hundreds of stories like mine. Westerners, particularly women, are eager to share their version of the eye-opening experience that is the Japanese onsen and sento: hot spring communal baths that require total nudity. We come away feeling liberated, less self-conscious and more positive about our body image. It’s self-affirming seeing for ourselves what we secretly knew the whole time: everyone’s body is different, and that’s perfectly fine.
It’s not to say that Japanese women don’t have beauty standards they feel forced to meet. Fair skinned, hairless, slender bodies adorn every surface made available to advertising. Maybe it’s because my identity lies thousands of kilometres south of where I’m sitting, but I don’t feel personally bound by these expectations.
The millions of women who call Japan home, however, probably do. Walking down the street in Tokyo, the similarities in haircuts, dress and behaviour are distinctively patterned. It’s a mass conformity that is broken up only by the vibrant subcultures and salary men when they interlace over Japan’s crosswalks.
Knowing this, I watch the young girl swim by and wonder if she’ll have a more positive experience transitioning to womanhood from the continued practice of attending an onsen. As an adult, even after the body positivity movement stepped in disrupting the sociocultural normative ideas defining beauty in Western societies, I still find it hard to accept my body the way it is. Although I am now regularly exposed to images of different bodies in all their shapes, regularities and peculiarities than ever before, it’s often hard to shake the idea of what I should look like.
I would have thought no matter your age or culture, it’s hard to perpetuate an idea of abnormality or idealism when you’re regularly faced with the reality of naked bodies at all stages of life. Nothing can dispel the illusion and build solidarity like getting butt-naked with a bunch of strangers.
Growing up in Australia, beauty ideals hovered somewhere around tanned and athletic, with tousled sun-bleached locks from the morning’s surf. Despite the fact that a significant portion of the population are immigrants and largely don’t fit this aesthetic, during the early noughties, these beauty ideals were presented everywhere in Billabong, Roxy and Quicksilver advertising which had the upper hand in branding popularity amongst school-age children. At such an awkward stage of your life – when you’re repeatedly exposed to those images and know, due to your genetic history, that you’ll never match these ideas of attractiveness – reassurance that you are equally valid and human would be a comfort.
Surrounded now by naked women, some strangers, some known to me only a few weeks, I feel truly comfortable, years later than I would have liked. Sharing our nakedness, a mutual respect exists like a subcutaneous bond that extends beyond the self to each individual present.
Maybe it’s the culture of competitive attractiveness, or maybe it’s growing up side by side in a culture that continues to sexualise and objectify women’s bodies, but despite our years of friendship and shared female experience, this is a kind of solidarity that perhaps I will never share with my friends from home. It’s a mentality I’d like to bring with me, but many Australians would probably argue that the naked body is inherently pretty private, reserved for romantic intimacy or for the wild at heart. They think it’s a liberated approach best left to Europeans and Scandinavians, or overseas travel.
Walking into an onsen with all the preconceptions I hold, I’m nervous as to what my reception will be. I wonder if I will be the recipient of strange looks for my body shape or the way I choose to maintain my body hair. Whilst back home people might care, the reality here is no one does. I barely snag a glance until I struggle turning the taps, trying to expel hot water into my bucket. Even then, it’s a kind pair of eyes which catch my own and glint with humour as their owner mimes a downward action: push.
Whilst for that little girl the onsen may become an ordinary thing, for women such as myself, it will be nothing short of extraordinary. Like the many stories that surround mine, I cannot help but express relief, finally, for the comfort of my own skin.
Cover by Rodolfo Sanches Carvalho