I remember hating my body when I was growing up. It’s not that I wanted to be pretty; I just wanted to be “good enough.” If I looked just a little bit like that woman on the cover of the gas-station magazine, I thought 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 the woman in the magazine doesn’t even like the woman in the magazine. It’s Photoshop, and you can’t Photoshop a real person.
Now, it’s no secret that most women don’t like their bodies. And living in Tokyo—where most Western women are taller and thicker than their average Japanese counterpart—can absolutely wreck your self-confidence. My Japanese sister-in-law is four months pregnant and weighs less than 100 pounds. I don’t weigh less than 100 pounds. I will never weigh less than 100 pounds.
Strange as it seems, the one thing that breaks up the cycle of self-loathing and body image issues for a Western woman in Japan is anonsen—a Japanese spa. In every onsen, patrons strip, wash and then bathe in any number of communal baths. Some of the tubs are filled with minerals; some are icy and refreshing; some are outside; and some have jet streams to massage you while you relax in a chair composed of rocks.
The key characteristic of Japanese onsen, of course, is that everyone is naked. You’re face-to-face with a bunch of strangers’s junk. And no one seems to care at all.
The first time I went to an onsen, I was 15. I was in boarding school in Hokkaido, back when I knew absolutely nothing about Japanese culture (aside from anime, I guess) and spoke exactly four words of the local language (“yes,” “no,” “thank you,” “toilet”). I went on a school-sponsored snowshoeing trip and, on the last day, our group went to an onsen.
“I didn’t bring a swimsuit,” I confessed to my dorm mom while we were waiting in the lobby. “It wasn’t on the packing list!”
She smiled. “It’s okay, 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 into the changing room. As I stepped through the curtains, I was shocked. There were dozens of 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 stood there immobile. At the tender age of 15, I had never been naked in front of another person before.
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. Before I knew it, my dorm mom was naked, a tiny wash towel slung over her shoulder.
She looked at me, and I guess she knew what I was going through. “It’s okay,” 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. My dorm mom and I nestled in a stone alcove in one of the outside baths, snow gently falling and freezing to the top of my hair.
I was stunned by the fact that no one was looking at me or laughing at my body. I’d spent so long hating myself and my acne and my stretch marks that I’d sort of forgotten that everyone has their own imperfections—and imperfections aren’t something to be embarrassed about, because each mark only adds to a person’s personality. Mothers with jagged C-section scars? Proof they survived childbirth. Women with small oil burns along their wrists? Cooking with oil is hard. A skinned knee from falling on a rainy day, permanent blisters from wearing work heels, a sunburn that peeled wrong, scars from surgery—these are all proof that you’ve been alive.
I’ve changed since then. I live in Japan again, but now with my husband. I still have body issues, but every year I love my body a little bit more. Onsen help. When the makeup is washed away, when that perfectly curled hair is washed and tied up … when people are completely naked, something magical happens.
I was with my sister at an onsen the other night, and as we were soaking in one of the outside baths, she mused, “I bet girls in America would have much fewer body issues if they could go to onsen.”
Japanese onsen taught me to love my body just the way it is. It taught me that no one has the “perfect” physical shape—and that the standards I have for perfection are stupid. When we strip off all the threads and colors we slap on to try to get that magazine look, we find we all look a little more alike than we thought.