Shaping Identity: Body

by Susannah Brister

For twenty-two years, I didn’t really know what my body looked like. Whenever I got in or out of the bathtub or the shower, I never looked straight at myself. I averted my eyes from the mirror, afraid that seeing my own nakedness was somehow wrong.

Raised in the homeschooling evangelical Christian sub-culture of rural Texas, I drank in pseudo-Platonic dualism right alongside southern sweet tea. To my community, spirit was essential and flesh was either irrelevant (if you had a genetically male body) or a “stumbling block” (if you had a genetically female one). “You are a soul. You have a body,” was the catchphrase.

And for twenty-two years, I believed it. My body was a ball-and-chain, something for my soul to lug around to tone its spiritual biceps. It wasn’t until after college graduation that I began to identify with something other than incorporeal theological statements (“I am a sinner,” “I am a child of God”): to identify, in fact, with my particular body.

All I had to do was travel 6,000 miles and take a bath.

The summer after graduation, I found myself unexpectedly in Japan, on a tiny, man-made projection of island, pleasantly full of both people and a tidy quiet that soaked peace into the bones. I had never craved travel in Asia the way I craved Europe (early overexposure to BBC movies made me the tackiest of Anglophiles), but I had spent too long in Texas classrooms, and Anyplace Else beckoned enticingly. My college friend Mie invited me to come help teach Vacation Bible School at her grandparents’ international school, and I packed my bags.

Those few weeks, we struck a balance between volunteer and tourist. During the day, we herded children: Mie recounting Bible stories to squirmy listeners, I demonstrating complementary crafts, helping tiny fingers string Fruit Loops on pipe cleaner crosses. In the afternoons, we explored the local yen store, buying juicy Hi-Chew candy and cotton dresses and rough nylon washcloths for souvenirs. Some days we rode bikes to the clean, mostly deserted beach, or helped Mie’s grandma, Yoshiko, shape soft triangles out of seaweed-flecked rice.

Japan is a country overflowing with people. When you fly in or out of the island, you can see the scaly silver band of continual city that rings the level shore, the less accessible mountain country rising green from the center. With sky-high prices for water consumption, many in Japan prefer to skip home showers and do their bathing instead in traditional, gender-specific communal baths (or, ofuro) for a more modest fee.

I think I had heard about this custom before I boarded the plane. I know I wasn’t ready for it when I got there.

I arrived in Japan a day before Mie, so it was her grandma, Yoshiko, who took me to the ofuro that first evening. Yoshiko had a chirping, no-nonsense voice and a command of any room that was entirely unimpacted by her compact stature. She led me to the bath house’s brightly sterile locker room.

“Take your clothes off,” she ordered.

I hesitated. Here? Now? Maybe I had misunderstood. I hadn’t been naked in front of anyone save doctors since I was a baby – and even medical visits left me feeling shaky and exposed.

But Yoshiko was stripping off her own t-shirt and trousers, so I followed suit. I peeled down to my underwear and paused to glance furtively among the lockers, checking up on what all the other women were doing.

“All off, all off!” Yoshiko insisted. I clung to the small washrag I had brought along, my only permissible vestment.

Evangelical Christianity’s purity culture taught me that my body was dangerous, a snare to everyone, even myself. In this framework, the body was inextricably tied to sex, and any and all adult nudity was considered inherently sexual in nature. Since purity culture taught that sex was something only to be enjoyed by my husband, I treated my body like a present with an unknown man’s name on the label. I was meant to be left tightly wrapped until marriage, and after that only unwrapped secretly, seldomly, behind locked doors, in the dark. Anything else – even looking too long in the mirror – might be sin.

No wonder the thought of my own skin sometimes made my stomach tremble and turn sour with panic.

But Yoshiko wasn’t waiting for me, and if there was anything worse than being naked it was being both naked and left behind.

Beyond the locker room door, a room opened, filled with soft lights and soft sounds. Four or five showerheads lined the right and left-hand walls, too low to stand under. Under each showerhead sat a plastic stool. On each stool sat a woman, rinsing her hair or lathering her arms or massaging her feet in the water’s flow.

At the end of the room, straight ahead, a steaming pool, maybe 5 feet by 10, ran flush with the tiled floor. The lights glowed warm, lending enchantment that turned white tile to pearl and pale limbs to rose.

Yoshiko gestured me over to a small tub of water beside the door and showed me how to wash my feet, both the first step in the bathing process and the last step before leaving.

I bent and scooped water over my toes. It felt like a sort of consecration ritual: instantly, this place is set apart from the outside world of sweat and dirt. Instantly, I am set apart from the self I am in that outside world. On some deep-as-the-bones level, I already knew this from the stories of Jesus and his disciples: when crossing a new threshold, it’s not a bad idea to wash the dust of the old ways off one’s feet.

I picked my way to an empty stool and sat, feeling only vaguely uncomfortable now. I turned on the showerhead and felt the first streams river down my scalp and spine. The room was warm, and the water warmer still. Soap and shampoo were provided, and I worked each in turn between my hands, enjoying the luxuriance of soap bubbles on skin.

As I sat, surrounded by the soft plash of the shower, the delicate scent of soap, flanked by naked backs sluicing both water and shame – my rigidity began to dissolve. The women were talking to one another. When I got up to give my place to another, her eyes met mine, and she smiled.

I had never seen what other women’s bodies looked like without makeup or photoshop or “supportive” undergarments. All I had to go on were the glib covers of grocery aisle tabloids (from which I tried to avert my eyes). Yet here in front of me was an inarguably real body, loose and tough and large and small in places and ways all its own. And this body was human, unfearsome and unafraid, with eyes that smiled at me.

I went back to the ofuro again and again that summer. When Mie arrived, she came along, prompting a different shyness: I feared nakedness among friends even more than among strangers. But Mie had spent every childhood summer in Japan’s ofuros and saunas, and her unconcern disarmed me. We sat in the hot pool together, sweating as we talked, steam rising and light refracting along tiles that my memory tints a mosaic of gold.

There were women old and young in that bath house, all of us with our particular moles and birthmarks, our limp breasts and wrinkling arms and Venus-worthy folds of flesh. “Your stomach is a heap of wheat,” the lover sings to his bride in Song of Songs, and watching the gleam of water cascading over me in the mellow light, I at last understood the metaphor as a compliment and forgave my belly its convexity.

The ofuro demanded that I inhabit my body. From the first warm scoops of water on my feet, the carefully composed dance of sensory inputs captured my attention, inviting me to savor each sensation: the shower’s delicious scents and musical pitter-patter; the ofuro’s ripe steam and gentle sloshing waves; the sauna’s heat, strong enough to singe nose hairs and unspool drawn muscles. After everything, there were the fancy massage chairs, rollers running up and down legs, arms, spine, knocking tension’s last fingerholds loose.

I began to know the secret Eve knew: what it is to be naked and unashamed. To know that nudity is not always sexual, and sensuality is not shameful. To know that a body cannot be judged “better” or “worse” – it is only itself. To risk being truly seen. To give yourself, your whole self, the gift of your own presence.

Taking my clothes off in Ashiya’s ofuro that summer set the stage for a much longer process of disrobing. In the years that followed, there have been many more old fears to shed, many more vulnerabilities to lean into. Today, whichever side of the world I’m on, I try to face myself in the mirror with eyes wide open. Not to judge or compare, anymore. Just to practice seeing. Just to practice being seen.

Susannah is an avid reader, world traveller, and drinker-of-tea. Her work has been published in Baylor University’s Pulse journal, and presented at the Conference on Christianity and Literature’s 2011 Southwest Regional Conference. When she’s not teaching English online or exploring her this-year home in New Zealand, she blogs about trading fundamentalism for a more honest faith at thestillnessthedancing.com

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