If you have ever traveled in Asia or have had a layover in their advanced airports, you probably have seen billboard after billboard advertising whitening or lightening products. From their marketing material, the beauty standard is clear: white, young and the rounder the eyes the better. Beauty, as in most corners of the world, is dictated by the same western look. Yet this blog is not about how Asia’s, specifically Japanese and South Korean, beauty standards are so similar to ours. This blog is about what my first public bath, better known as an onsen, taught me about the body.
For a country that has progressed so much in technology, think robot hosts greeting you at a restaurant and trains that run only 1 minute late, the role of women seems outdated. In Japan and South Korea, it is expected for women to have full-time jobs and pull the same weight financially than men, yet their value to the household, and dare I say to society, is still pretty much determined by their looks. It is no coincidence that South Korea is known for making double-digit skincare routines a thing.
I remember the first time I heard my Korean friend say that the thing that scared her the most was aging. I was honestly shocked. Here was this beautiful woman, who didn’t look a day older than 18 years old, worrying about wrinkles and what her Korean age meant for society’s expectations of her. In Korea, everyone is 1 years old from the time they are born and every New Year’s day, everyone gets a year older. So your Korean age is always either one or two years older than your western age.
Those that know me well, know that I don’t like being barefoot on wet floors. I have always been grossed out by it; I just am. So when I decided to go to a public bath where you have to bare it all, you are not even allowed to bring flip-flops or a towel big enough to cover your whole body, I pat myself on the back because I am indeed out of my comfort zone. To make matters worse, I end up having to go in by myself because our friend cancelled last minute. So while my boyfriend goes in with this cousin to the male bath, and has someone that is basically a local, guiding him every step to make sure he doesn’t commit an onsen faux-pas, I am left to my own devices.
So here we go. After leaving my shoes in a cubby and receiving my locker’s key and a teeny tiny towel, I proceeded to go through the red curtains. Immediately, I was in a sea of naked female bodies. Although years back a coworker had told me how it was customary to go to an onsen after work with colleagues in Japan, the first image that popped in my mind when I though of a public bath was that Big Mouth episode where Missy’s mom decides to take Missy and Jessi on a body-loving field trip to a public bath.
Dark nipples, light nipples, pubic hair everywhere. So many different bodies and different shapes. As I get out of my clothes, I am trying not to objectify or judge the figures that pass by. There are toddlers, there are older ladies. It’s a shared experience.
I push open the sliding door and start walking with the tiny towel covering my crutch. I catch myself tucking my stomach in as I shower, but no one is looking at me. Then I decide to pretend like I am a local and stop covering, as I quickly get in the 30 degree celsius pool. With the murky water up to my chest and the towel resting on my head, I am finding it hard to relax. I decide to look at the ceiling until it becomes boring and I figure that others might be thinking I am being weird, but no one is looking at me.
I look down and see hairs that are probably not mine, suspended on the water's surface. I try reading the signs on the wall, pretend like I understand Japanese characters until I get distracted by some 5-year-old girls splashing water nearby. As I am giving them an approving smile, I stop myself after I realize that the one place it would be inappropriate to smile at or even do eye-contact with kids, is the present one. So I stopped, but then again no one notices me.
I didn’t stay long, partly because I quickly overheat but mostly because I was ashamed of my own depravity. Here I was concerned others were looking at me with either desire, judgement or worry that I might be a paedophile. I believe that in the western side of the world where, in my experience, the only time women feel comfortable undressing in front of each other is in a crammed dressing room at a sample sale, we see the body so interlinked with sexuality that it is very difficult to detach those two. This makes an otherwise relaxing, peaceful, community-building experience, like an onsen, an uncomfortable one.
When you take sexuality away from the equation it is easier to see all bodies as equal, regardless of how they look. You understand the body for what it is, a vessel that takes you from point A to point B, and not as a tool for pleasure. In this way, I find the Japanese community has a more advanced view of the body than the west. Just think about the 5-year old that grows up with a realistic understanding of what an aging body looks like because of her onsen experience. Although my friend reassures me that some body judgement does go on in and out of the onsen, who knows how long it would have taken me to come to this realization if I hadn’t gone out of my comfort zone at an onsen?