Two years ago, Jeff and I went to Akita Prefecture in Japan with a gaggle of our fellow English teachers for a stay at a ryokan (Japanese inn) called Kuroyu Onsen. The best part about staying at a ryokan is onsen (hot springs)–hell, the best part about living in Japan in general is onsen. It takes some time to grow accustomed to onsen etiquette, as they are public baths rather than just hot swimming pools, which means–you guessed it–full frontal nudity.
Alcohol passed freely between us that night; I sipped from more than a dozen different bottles and cans thrust in front of me for a taste. Outside of the main building, Kuroyu had medium-sized separated baths, and one smaller, mixed bath. Many of our group found their way to the mixed bath after dinner. My boyfriend tried to persuade me to join in, but every embarrassed shred of me screamed HELL NO!
All my life I’ve struggled with a warped body image and dangerously low self-confidence, as I know many of you reading this probably have. I’d lived in Japan for over a year and was plenty comfortable with public baths already. Getting naked among those of your own gender is one thing, but getting naked among those of a different gender is entirely another. Fear of judgement, fear of my imperfect body, and fear of outright insult nearly kept me from joining the soiree…Nearly!
I had drunk just enough to give in, strip off, and stride into the bath, determined not to let my insecurities shut me up in my room while the rest of my friends enjoyed their evening.
There were about a dozen of us in the bath in total. We sat on the edges of the small pool with only our legs in the water, passing around a bottle of sake quick enough to make your head spin.
I’m not going to say that stripping down to our birthday suits also stripped away any remaining barriers between us or anything like that. I’m not going to say we were grown-up about it; with quips like “Come on, just let them go!” in reference to the timid covering of breasts, and “I keep trying to find a safe place to look, but it’s just penises!”, there wasn’t a legitimate argument for maturity to be made. I’m not going to say that thanks to that experience my body image issues disappeared overnight. They didn’t.
I will say, though, that there is nothing better for fostering confidence in and appreciation of your own body than getting naked with your peers. Yes, the alcohol helped, but it was also the realization that not one of us actually gave a damn about what anyone else looked like.
For so many years I was so preoccupied with how I looked with or without clothes on, thinking that if only I could lose ten pounds, if only I could tighten my tummy and thin my thighs and whittle my waist, then my life would be perfect and all my problems would be solved. The absurdity of the self-torture I was putting myself through had already begun to dawn over me long before our night at Kuroyu, though my inner demons still tormented me too often for my liking. After Kuroyu, however, those demons found it harder and harder to drag me down, and eventually gave up trying altogether.