Thursday, 1 March 2012

Public Bathing and Body Image

Onsen overlooking the ocean
I live in an area famed for its thermal springs (onsen). Tourists from all over Japan flock to my prefecture to bathe. Many of the baths are supposed to be helpful for specific ailments and have the mineral composition of the water listed beside each bath. Some baths have electric currents running through, some are naturally carbonated, some are out-doors and some are chalky-white with mud. What they have in common is that, for the most part, these baths are public and nude. Almost all onsen are sex-segregated (although there are one or two “mixed” baths for the adventurous). Usually you go into a locker room, strip off, and then walk into an area with rows of low stools in front of large mirrors and taps. You sit in front of a mirror and wash thoroughly, trying not to splash anyone beside or behind you. Women scrub one-another’s backs and help their friends rinse long hair. Then you get to the actual bath, where you unwind and catch up on the neighbourhood gossip. Everyone baths together; grandmothers, babies, tweens and middle-aged women all naked and free of make-up, push-up bras and elastic stays. I’ve seen mastectomy scars and stretch marks and wrinkles and no-one feeling the least bit uncomfortable about being together there, exposed. When I first started using public baths I thought what a wonderful thing it must be to grow up seeing a variety of real body types. In particular I envied the pre-pubescent girls. When I began to go through puberty I had a good idea of what adult female bodies looked like but no idea what the transitional forms were. It would have been nice to have had pre-warning of the strange shapes growing breast move through. One of the commonly discussed problems facing young women with body image problems is that they see thousands of advertising images that portray unreal bodies (photo-shopped, airbrushed, racially homogenous etc). Having little else to compare their own bodies with, many young women assume themselves to be lacking. Now, I think that focusing on advertising alone is an oversimplification, but you get my point. How great to have this ever-changing montage of real bodies from all walks of life and all ages to broaden one’s understanding of bodies. Yet… it doesn’t seem to work out that way. Japanese women have incredibly high rates of disordered eating, and eating is heavily gendered (in many elementary school classes I have eaten with, boys are given second helpings of lunch while girls are encouraged to eat less than a single serving). I’ve heard of maternity clinics that admit pregnant women who gain more that the permitted couple of kilos and put them on a strictly calorie-controlled diet. Women who happily lounge on the warm stones surrounding a bath completely comfortable in their nudity cover themselves from neck to ankles in loose fitting long sleeved smocks before venturing into the mixed-gender world and are shocked by the idea that in Australia singlet tops and shorts are standard wear in public.

Edit: Please read this one for more information about hot spring resorts and breast cancer survivors
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  1. Strange how onsens have become safe havens for the body conscious in a country where eating disorders are increasingly becoming more prevalent. I and other ALT friends (who are in the healthy weight range by Western standards) have been lectured by Japanese doctors about the dangers of "obesity" and how we must begin dieting immediately. Why do they do it? One of life's great conundrums.


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