THIS BODY NAKED
I was 25 years old when I found myself in Japan. As a tourist, I experienced the country as one that was exceptionally focussed on appearances. How things looked mattered. How one was perceived mattered. Presentation, aesthetics, beauty. All was considered carefully and meaningfully.
But I had one experience in Japan that was more beautiful to me than every beautiful tea pot, garden, or robe that I saw in my time there.
I was staying with a host who told me on this particular night that we would be going to the bath ~ a public bath house. I had no idea what to expect. Would I have to be naked? Would I make some giant blunder and offend everyone? Did bathhouse in Japan mean the same thing as it meant in North America? I went along with my host, nervous, but eager for the experience.
There was no opportunity to blunder, as every step was explained (where English was available) and demonstrated (where it was not). I could not have strayed even if I’d wanted to. Wash here. Dunk here. Soak there. Scrub here. At one point my host said, “I wash your back”. It wasn’t a question. She washed my back. I washed hers. It was sweet. And normal. And lovely.
The most beautiful part of the visit, though, was being together in that big, clean, warm, echoey, watery room, with dozens of naked women, who were literally able to let their hair down and be together in a space where appearances didn’t seem to matter. It was relaxed and chatty and…embodied. Large bodies, small bodies, old bodies, young bodies. It was stunning to me. And beautiful.
And there were children there too. They came regularly with their mothers and grandmothers and aunties. Regularly enough that this was ~ regular. And being with all these bodies was also just ~ regular. I nearly cried as I sat in envy of the little girls that got to grow up with this being just a part of life. Who got to enter a space regularly where all bodies were good. Where being naked was comfortable and without shame.
As a child I loved being naked. I loved the air on my skin and the feel of grass under my feet. I even remember the feel of the scratchy blue couch under my naked bottom. I was a child of the ‘60s, with parents who wanted their children to feel free. So I was allowed to be naked ~ outside, inside, singing, and dancing. I was regularly naked on my large rocking horse named Thunder, while belting out songs from the musical Hair, to which I knew all the lyrics. (Yes, even to the song Sodomy. If you don’t know it, feel free to look it up.)
I don’t know how or when exactly naked became no longer okay. I guess it must have happened gradually. I do know that, like the well socialized girl that I was, I learned that my body was shameful. Don’t display it. Don’t show it. Don’t be proud of it. Don’t enjoy it.
And just as quickly, I got the message ~ here are all the things that are wrong with your body: too tall, too skinny, not skinny enough, too dark, nose too big, breasts too small, pores too big, chin too pointy, face too long, thumbs too big, nails too brittle, feet too big, ears uneven, one eyebrow too low, too lumpy, too blotchy…too too too. Be average. But be special. I think I may have liked my collarbones. Everything else needed correction. And I couldn’t correct them.
By the time I’d made it to high school gym and swim classes, where changing clothes in front of the other girls was required, we had all mastered the incomprehensible contortions required to get completely changed and remain completely covered at the same time. There was always that one girl, though, loud, proud, brash, and incomprehensibly, willing to let it all hang out. I was simultaneously mortified and in awe of this rule bashing behaviour.
This was also about the time that I became obsessed with “losing my virginity”. I desperately wanted to have sex, though it was less about desire and more about the dream that this would somehow erase all those things about my body that were wrong, would make me acceptable, attractive, wanted, desired, beautiful, when I felt none of these things.
Much later than all my friends, it did eventually happen. I had the sex. And it didn’t change anything. All those messages about my body continued to live in my body. I decided that my preference was for “missionary position”, not because it felt better than anything else (it didn’t) but because it was the best way to keep my nakedness from being seen.
The pleasure, comfort, and ease in my body that was my birthright, was gone.
It’s forty years later and I find myself standing up in front of a room full of earnest art students, allowing the sheet that I’ve been draped in to fall to the floor. Naked. The room isn’t quite warm enough, but that’s not what gives me goose bumps.
Nude modelling is being in a state of complete exposure and complete invisibility simultaneously. Strangers are staring at me, but they are not seeing me at all. I watch them watching me. This body being converted to planes and lines and light and shadow. It is surprisingly, remarkably liberating.
I am no longer the conventionally beautiful body I once had but never knew. I am no longer the free-spirited body that I was born with. But I am This Body, in all its perfect imperfection. And this is the body that I am allowing to be seen. Naked. This body not beautiful, not ugly, not positive, not negative, not too much, not too little…just a body, my body, this body.