It’s a Thursday and I’m moving around Melbourne on my bike, unable to warm up. It’s a top of ten degrees today, a minimum of two. In the library, while I wait for the rain to stop, I turn over all the things that might sooth my goosebumps. My mind keeps returning to a bath and the unfortunate fact that I do not have one. Then I remember the Japanese Bathhouse one suburb over, which I have always been meaning to visit. Fortuitously, it’s a female only bathing day.
One hour later, I strip down to nothing, step into the bathhouse and feel the freedom characteristic of the Sento. It’s a liberating triumphant feeling that I haven’t felt since I visited the land of the rising sun five years ago. Sitting on the miniature stool, as nude as one can be, I feel my body loosen – inadvertently, but a long time overdue.
I recall my first Sento experience in Tokyo well. I remember standing with my underwear at my ankles, mourning my peach bathing suit and its companioned security. I remember hugging my hips and protruding my already jutted spine.
I recognise my discomfort as symptomatic of someone raised in the West. A place that treats nudity as taboo and sexualises the female body. It is a land of rapidly accelerating beauty standards that leaves many individuals insecure in its wake. I tell the woman behind the counter at the Sento that I am surprised it’s so quiet given the awful weather outside. She shakes her head and says the nude sessions aren’t as popular, that people are not ‘there yet’ in Australia.
We absorb the beauty standards and attitudes of the culture we live in
We live in the era of ‘every-size-models’, ‘body positivity’ and ‘body neutrality’. Yet I still see how fraught, even toxic, the relationship many women share with their body is. It’s confirmed in the swimming pool change room when I witness grown women opt for a dirty toilet cubicle or an awkward change behind a towel than dare reveal their bodies. It’s confirmed by the paper-thin teenager who is freezing but cannot bring herself to eat. It’s confirmed when my sister confides to me that she actively avoids her reflection in the mirror. This is coming from an outgoing, confident, successful woman, someone who I have heard referred to as a ‘boss-bitch’.
It makes me wonder; how many other women carry this shame?
Our body image, whether positive or negative, can influence how we engage with the world. It is especially relevant to our interpersonal relationships, where poor body image inhibits our capacity for intimacy with a partner.
The link between positive body image and self-worth is a hugely replicated finding in psychological research. Body image refers to the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs we hold about our body and how we look. In this way, body image is not your objective weight or shape, it is your own subjective relationship to your physical body. Research also repeatedly reveals that the impersonal or public experience of the naked form is correlated with more positive body image in males, females, and non-binary individuals (for example, life drawing has been shown to have a positive impact on body image).
We are influenced to take a critical stance on the way we look
It is natural to compare ourselves with others, ruminate on our flaws and strive for improvement, especially when we are bombarded with advertisements from the beauty, cosmetic, fashion and social media industries. However, when we are staring at our reflection in the mirror fretting over our flaws, it is easy to forget the standard we are comparing to and striving towards is completely warped, unhealthy and, often, unattainable.
In a 2010 study Andrea Pelegrini and Edio Petroski revealed poor body image caused individuals to drastically reduce their nutritional intake (learn more about this study here), a trend which appears to be on the rise. I see this firsthand in the increase in eating disorder inquiries here at Peaceful Mind, and in the need to train more and more clinicians in the treatment of eating disorders and body image across Australia in order to keep up with the demand.
Body dissatisfaction begins in childhood, especially here in Australia
The Butterfly Foundation CEO, Kevin Barrow expressed his concern that body image concerns were reported in the top three worries of young people in Australia for the eighth year in a row. In fact, body dissatisfaction among youth has gone up by 6% in just a few years, according to the Mission Australia’s National Youth survey. (You can read more information on the possible causes and behaviours which may reinforce poor body image in our previous posts.)
I will never forget one morning at my local Sento in Tokyo when I gasped at an elderly Japanese woman bending over and washing her feet. Emerging from the bottom of her crotch was a cricket ball-sized pink growth. In disbelief, I could not avert my eyes, and, in what I now recognise as ignorant disturbance, I looked around for someone to confide in.
Instead, I turned next to me to see a little girl completely unfazed, humming even, enjoying the foamy velvet product of shampoo meeting warm water. I have since learned, with some chagrin, that poor body image also correlates with closed and immature attitudes to nudity. And Melbourne -a progressive appearing city- doesn’t rank that well. We still treat nudity as a rather taboo subject. A fact corroborated by the woman behind the counter at the Sento.
A healthier view of ‘normal’ bodies
There is a lot we can learn a lot from the Sento experience and philosophy. At the core of this cultural practice, nudism is an everyday practice centred around physical and emotional wellbeing, not exhibitionism or sexual activities. Data reveals nudity around non-intimate acquaintances has something of a domino effect.
Firstly, nudity works to break down the unrealistic and stereotypical beauty standards propagated by the media. By exposing the plethora of bodies out there, the definition ‘normal’ expands. Secondly, the regularity and nonchalant exposure to the nude form, as well as our experience of our own body in the nude, puts one in touch with themselves and serves to remind us that we’re all just mammals, functional animals, at the end of the day.
It reminds you that nobody cares what you look like under there and you are wasting your time in doing so. The nudity of the Sento is the perfect habitat for breeding body positivity and neutrality, which conversely lifts our self-esteem and leads to greater happiness in the world and in our interpersonal and intimate relationships.
When I return the following week, it is busier. I peer around at my few fellow Sento frequenters. There is a woman with a large scar on her breast, a woman with prominent stretch marks and another with thick pubic hair which trails up to her belly button. It’s refreshing and inspiring to see these women enjoying the sensations of the Sento, free from shame.
There are many contributing factors to poor body image, and while this isn’t going to address them all, I believe there is something worthwhile here. There is a reason western women are known to walk away saying how liberated they feel when at the Sento. It untethers you from perceived flaws and reminds you we’re all just silly animals doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
If you would like more empowering content for positive body image check out:
Eat the Rules podcast by Summer Innanen
Break the Diet Cycle podcast by Melissa Landry
Food Heaven podcast by Wendy Lopez and Jess Jones