Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Naked in Tokyo

There were a couple of ways to feel naked in Tokyo. There is the metaphorical nakedness that I felt as a 1 in a 1000 minority. The wordless stare of a toddler would occasionally remind me that it was clear that "You ain't from around here, are you?" (If you want to find white Westerners in Tokyo, I suggest visiting the Starbucks next to the Shiodome metro station.)

But we didn't settle for that kind of exposure. We went for the full monty of the Oedo Onsen Monogatari hot springs resort. It is like a cross between a theme park and a day spa. There are some areas where you wear a light robe called a yukata, but the best hot tubs are housed in female-only and male-only areas that require you to fully disrobe.

The first time we went there, about a year ago, we tried to take the bath towels in with us, and an attendant wagged her finger and pointed to tell us that we could only take the teeny washcloths. This time they had a sign up in English, with a cartoon picture of a blonde woman on it, saying not to bring in the big towels, so there must be a fair number of tourists visiting, probably ALL making the same mistake. (How I wish I had a photo of that sign, but of course cameras weren't allowed in the changing rooms.)

But on that day, my daughter and I were the only white people in the baths. Tokyo is so polite and urbanized that adults don't really look at you on the subway even when it's packed in. It was funny to think that we were now taking off our clothes and walking around among the same women.

We had a great time relaxing in the hot springs. It was freeing to be naked and not care, even though we stood out a bit. At least we knew how the bathing protocol worked--you have to change into robes, the get naked and wash off thoroughly before getting in the tubs. So we saw women of all ages and shapes. Most Japanese women are in healthy shape, but the development of a "meno-pot" (potbelly) after age 40 appears to be a reality rather than a myth.

In a way it was freeing to feel like there was no possible way we could ever manage to live up to a Japanese standard of looks, so why even worry about it? In my mind, this stood in stark contrast to the airbrushed and Photoshopped media images we are exposed to every day. We are conditioned to believe that the cover of Redbook might be reality, when the truth is that even a beautiful woman like Faith Hill in real life doesn't look like Faith Hill on a magazine cover. We are comparing ourselves to literally impossible images of beauty.

This all came together for me because the day we visited the hot springs, I saw the report about surgical postpartum "mommy makeovers." The New York Times headline asks, "Is the 'Mom Job' Really Necessary?" to which I answer HELL TO THE NO! Plastic surgery in general is bad enough. Bundling multiple procedures and marketing them as postpartum "packages" is unethical.

I appreciated this quote from the Times article:

"The message is that, after having children, women's bodies change for the worse," said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, a nonprofit group in Washington. If marketing could turn the postpregnancy body "into a socially unacceptable thing, think of how big your audience would be and how many surgeries you could sell them," she said.

I attended a Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium at UNC last month where the idea of women's fear of deflated saggy breasts after breastfeeding was addressed in several talks. I wasn't really aware of this myth, but it was mentioned in the context of many different groups of women, from teen Moms to an "upscale" Cookie Magazine article that showed unattractive water balloons as breast stand-ins. For the record, experts say that sagging breasts are a function of age, not breastfeeding experience.

At the same conference, UNC communication Professor Jane Brown gave a talk that referenced "terror management" research that ties in our discomfort with images of breastfeeing women with our fear of death. Apparently, breastfeeding reminds us of our "creatureliness" which pierces through our denial of our own mortality, leading us to feel very uncomfortable on a deep level. (I believe that this is the specific study Professor Brown referred to.)

How to tie all this together?

1. I think of the women I admire the most and realize that their looks have nothing to do with my true opinion of them.

2. We will get old and get saggy breasts IF WE ARE LUCKY. Time, attention, and money spent worrying about these natural processes are sucking essential energy away from the things we should really be concerned about.

3. I am turning 40 next year and part of me is relieved to move into a phase of life where my looks are not the primary quality I am judged on. I never looked like a beauty queen (except maybe for 5 minutes when I was 16) and it's a good feeling to know that I don't have to. I am more than happy to say farewell to the ingenue role. Bye bye, Dorothy. Bring on the Wicked Witch of the West!

4. We are Moms. Creatureliness--the utter messiness of real life--comes with the territory. I wish we would try to accept that in ourselves. If we don't, who else ever will?

Wish we could convene a discussion group in a naked hot spring....

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Blogger Heather said...

I enjoyed this post! I was in Japan 14 years ago and felt a lot of the same things - white, red-headed woman with a larger-than-average chest. But I loved the spas and communal ofuro.

Also, the key to good body shape after pregnancy and breastfeeding is exercise and good nutrition, not surgery. And Spanx. And a really good bra!

I've bookmarked your blog and look forward to reading more!

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ambitious post and for the record, the meno-pot ain't no myth in my house. I do believe if we had cultural/institutional nakedness like public baths we would put the Dr. Frankensteins out of business.

There is a new, expensive, sold-out phenom (at least on the left coast) of "naked yoga." When I teach my "clothed yoga" classes I tell people that we are to do naked yoga too, just with clothes on. Dropping our self-consciousness and self-criticism, facing ourselves as we are. At least for 90 minutes. And it's good for meno-pot too!

11:28 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

So I've been lurking here more or less since the Breastfeeding and Feminism symposium ... I'm really enjoying your Japan posts, as I spent a year there in college.

Body image and motherhood ... man, that's a can of worms, isn't it? Thumbs up to all your points.

9:02 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Thanks for all of your comments, and welcome to my blog, Heather and Rebecca. Way to step out of the lurking shadows :-)

This post really tickled me, I have to admit. It pulled together a number of ideas that I couldn't have foreseen putting in one piece.

I wonder what I'll think if I reread it in ten years--how much of it I will remember directly, and how much will seem like reading about another person's experience.

9:12 PM  

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