Most women don’t like their bodies. Arms are too long, boobs are too small, thighs are too thick, teeth are crooked – women who are 100% ok with their bodies are few and far between. On good days, I’m 98% ok with my body. On bad days, that figure hovers around 60%.
But it wasn’t always like that.
I remember hating my body when I was growing up. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be pretty so badly. I wanted to be just like those other girls, with their perfect bodies and flawless skin – radiating confidence.
As the years passed, I grew into my frame. My boobs never got any bigger, but my acne disappeared and my hair “fixed itself.” My braces came off and suddenly glasses became “in.” I went from being a shy gangly nerd into a conventionally attractive person.
But it wasn’t good enough. I used to think if I just was 10 pounds lighter, if my hair was blonde, if my nose was smaller, I would be happy. If I looked like that woman on the cover of the gas-store magazine, I would be happy.
Now I’ve realized it doesn’t work that way.
I can’t look like that woman in the magazine because that woman don’t even like the woman in the magazine. It’s Photoshop; picking and choosing the best traits to make a “cocktail” of what the best human is supposed to look like.
And living in Japan, where most white girls are taller, heavier, “curvier,” and more “rough” than most of the other women, can absolutely wreck your self confidence.
Strange as it seems, the only thing that breaks up that cycle of self-loathing and body image issues is Japanese Onsen (public bath).
In the simplest terms, Japanese Onsen is a large public bath-house, where patrons strip, wash themselves, and then bathe in any number of communal (and themed) baths. Some of the baths are filled with minerals, some are icy and refreshing, some are outside, some have jet streams to massage you while you relax in a rock chair. Check out these articles for more information on what an onsen bath is and How to do Japanese Onsen.
The most memorable trait of Japanese onsen is the fact that everyone is naked.
Like no joke, you are face-to-face with a bunch of strangers junk – and no one seems to care.
The first time I did Japanese Onsen was when I was 15. I was in boarding school in the Northern island of Hokkaido, back when I knew absolutely nothing about Japanese culture (aside from Pokemon, I guess) and spoke three words of Japanese (yes, no, thank you).
I had signed up for a snowshoeing trip up in the mountains. There were seven of us: a teacher, the dorm mom, three boys, and one other girl. We climbed the mountain, slept in a tiny shack, toughed it to the summit to watch the sun rise of the horizon, and then hiked down. The whole trip was two days – and on the way back “home,” we stopped at an onsen bath house.
“I didn’t bring a swimsuit,” I confessed to my dorm mom while we were waiting in the lobby. “Sorry, I didn’t realize we were supposed to bring a swimsuit!”
She smiled. “It’s ok, you don’t need a swimsuit.”
“But, then, um…” I gestured to everyone. “Are we just…?”
“Naked,” she clarified. “Everyone gets naked.”
I gulped and followed her back through the curtains to the changing room. As I stepped through the curtains, I was shocked. There were dozens of naked Japanese ladies in various stages of undress. Old, young; wet, dry; chubby, skinny; everyone was different.
As my dorm mom peeled off layers of clothes, I just stood there, immobile. At 15, I had never been naked in front of another person before. I even made my mom wait outside the changing room while I tried to navigate and try on my first “big girl” bra (later I realized I had worn the wrong size for like 3 years – I was too embarrassed to get another one).
The next five minutes ticked slowly by. I fumbled with my clothes a bit, slowly unbuttoning my shirt, then glancing around the room to make sure no one was looking.
They weren’t. No one cared.
Before I knew it, my dorm mom was naked, with a tiny wash towel slung over her shoulder.
She looked at me – and I guess she knew what I was going through. “It ok,” she told me. “Everyone is scared their first time.”
I eventually made it to the bath. I was so nervous, I felt like I was going to pass out. I couldn’t see straight. Now, looking back, I was probably having a panic attack. My anxiety only became unmanageable in late high school, early college.
Soaking in the bath was glorious.
I was still mentally wired for the first fifteen minutes, glancing around to make sure no one was looking at me – laughing at my body. No one looked. My dorm mom and I eventually nestles in a stone alcove outside, as snow gently fell. Watching the snow melt on the surface of the water was peaceful. We sat in silence.
I spent so long hating myself and my acne and my stretch marks, that I sort of forgot that everyone has their own imperfections. Mothers with a jagged C-section scar? Proof of their love for their children. Women with small oil burns along their wrists? Cooking in oil is hard.
Scars on shins from playing sports in high school, stretch marks from age, scars from life, they just show you lived.
Stretch marks, scars, rolls of fat, sagging boobs, receding hairlines, lanky frames – they are all awesome. Each imperfection only adds to someone’s personality.
I’m not the same scared, awkward 15 year old girl, struggling to love myself when I thought no one else possibly could. I still live in Japan – now with my husband, a terrifically sexy and caring individual.
I still have body issues, but each year I love my body a little bit more.
Onsen helps. I have my own distinctive scars now too, from when I got my appendix removed on my honeymoon in Peru, that time I split my elbow open snowboarding, and from that time I sat on a pencil and the tip broke off into my leg.
When all the makeup is washed away, when people are completely naked (both physically and emotionally), with nothing to hide, something magical happens: You learn to love your body, just the way it is. Onsen teaches you that no one has the “perfect” body – and that the standards media gives you for “perfection” is stupid.
Scars, stretch marks, and flaws are fantastic. You are fantastic.
I was with my sister at Japanese Onsen last night and as we were soaking in one of the outside baths, she mused “I bet America would have much less ‘fat-shaming’ and body issues if everyone learned to just get naked together in the bath.”