Exiting Far East: On Being Immodest.

Exiting Far East: On Being Immodest. May 5, 2014

I was finally in Sapporo, Japan, and in the earliest days of the trip. It had been a really long, hellish, topsy-turvy day. But now we were approaching the tail end of it; as my mom would have put it, we were “getting on toward.”

Now I lay almost entirely submerged in a wooden hot tub built into the floor of the hot springs, gazing up into the night sky full of stars while steam rose gently around my bare shoulders and head. A lot of stuff was going through my head right then, not the least of which was a considerable amount of culture shock. You see, I was unlearning one of the most powerful indoctrinations that’d been programmed into me since my earliest childhood: modesty.

Also, I was totally naked.

Earlier that day, I’d had my (fully-clothed) job interview with Katsuo and gotten a part-time job–very likely because I’d brought him a very interesting present, a Native American peace pipe (I’d read that NA culture was fascinating to many Japanese people at the time, and this clearly was true for Katsuo, who I learned right then was something of an American history aficionado). Now he was showing me and my husband, Biff, the sights. I see with hindsight that he was getting a considerable amount of street cred from his friends by jetting around two Americans, but at the time I had no idea why he was going to all this trouble. I was just grateful that he was.

First there’d been a trip to a sort of dining and TV pub; these dotted the city and were ubiquitous and fairly inexpensive. They were quite small; this one didn’t even have a sign out front advertising its existence. Its “menu” consisted of long handmade signs gracing the otherwise-unadorned white walls with descriptions of food and prices. A U-shaped bar counter surrounded a central cooking area. Bookshelves along the walls held a bunch of different sorts of magazines–some pornographic, no kidding, and I saw porn magazines laying around in a bunch of other informal shops and pubs during my stay. I was shocked to say the least to notice them but didn’t feel comfortable saying anything about it.

The TV was tuned to sumo wrestling and there were about 20 men watching it and arguing among themselves like something out of an anime. A horse-racing Kentucky Derby calendar written in Japanese hung near the pub’s stove. A pot-bellied man with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth was cooking at a frenetic pace. “What do you want?” asked Katsuo, his eyes sparkling and twinkling with mischief. Everybody else in the pub, about 20 people, stared and chuckled and grinned along with him.

Suddenly I wanted everything I could. “Whatever you think we’ll like,” I answered. Biff nodded eagerly and our educations began.

I ate until I felt sick. I can barely remember most of it. Oddly, I don’t remember there being any fish involved; there was this one dish that was a richly-broiled whole fish with coarse salt sprinkled across it, but Biff had seized it (this turned out to be a very common dish; the countertop oven I later bought had a specific setting for broiled salted fish, if the pictographic was anything to go by).

As adventurous as I felt, though, I drew the line at the strange soup of a plump red fish, its dorsal fin sticking up like a shark’s through a white milky broth with cubes of tofu in it, but Biff ate everything anybody handed him. It all  came in little bowls and plates, most of it unrecognizable to me. The chef would put a bowl or plate in front of Biff and everybody would hold their breaths to see if he’d really eat it. When the red fish got to him, he made our host take a bowl of it first, which Katsuo did, so Biff ate his with gusto. This was, I sensed, “real” Japan, a Japan that I would not have found had I wandered the tourist traps. I didn’t even mind the cigarette smoke that wreathed the place; my dad smoked, after all, and I’d learned to live with that, hadn’t I? It didn’t make the food taste bad. As Biff took his first bite, imitating Katsuo’s deft destruction of the fish, the men alongside us cheered.

What blew my mind was that the porno mags were there though. I didn’t know what to make of it. But these were really nice men overall. Nobody treated me with anything but decency and respect. This wasn’t what I’d been taught porn users were like. They were perfectly normal like anybody else. They weren’t treating me like a sexual object at all.

As we left the pub and headed back to Katsuo’s SUV (a big black bullet of an vehicle that prowled like a shark among the white minnow sedans alongside it, glossy like lipstick, wherein he played jazz on constant rotation on a 3-CD changing stereo), our host said, “I know the best place for ice cream. Do you want ice cream?”

I was stuffed and wanted to sleep but Biff said “Absolutely!” and we were off to a hotel.

JyoZanKei hot springs.
JyoZanKei hot springs. (Photo credit: MIKI Yoshihito (´・ω・))

Sapporo at the time was quite famous for its hot springs, which bubble up naturally from the ground. My impression is that this hotel was built atop one of these natural hot springs. A lot of people were heading up white marble steps into the place, all of them Japanese. Inside, the hotel looked like it belonged in an old-fashioned musical movie–lots of high ceilings, white and gold and red decorations, chandeliers, the works. I was simply dazzled.

Katsuo knew exactly where he was going; I could tell he’d been here many times before, though nobody specifically seemed to recognize him. After a brief chat with an attendant at the front desk, he took us down a wide side hall past a restaurant and various sitting areas to the hot springs spa, which was built in the middle of the doughnut-shaped hotel. We had to split up there, before two magnificent golden doors; he’d take Biff into the men’s side, and I’d go in alone through the women’s side. The plan was that we’d relax and enjoy the springs, then meet up in about an hour on the other side, where there was, I was told, a lounge and bar.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, these places were gender-segregated. Later I’d learn that in the back country, sometimes the springs are mixed-gender. But this hotel was all gentrified and stuff so I would not see Katsuo or Biff again till we were done partaking of the spa’s luxuries.

A few things sprang out at me instantly when I walked through the golden doors marked “Women” and then through its foyer doors. First, this was a locker room, which implied that I’d be disrobing. Secondly, I didn’t have a swimsuit; as a Pentecostal, I’m not even sure I owned one at that point. I’m not actually certain what I had expected there at the idea of a hot spring. Thirdly, there were naked women all over the place, all leaving with little white washcloths toward a large double galley-style door at the other end of the dressing room, or coming in from there looking steam-reddened and wet and happy.

Well.

Obviously I hadn’t thought things through when Katsuo had made his invitation. And I want you to remember that at this point you know exactly as much about this place as I did right then. I didn’t know if these women were mixing with men or if their section was just for women. I just knew they were all naked.

If John Cleese or Eric Idle ever find out about what happened next and put it in a comedy sketch, I am going to expect royalties, dammit.

My cheeks burning (the ones on my face–shut up), I slowly took my outer dress off (I had a white shirt under it, plus tights and all the other Pentecostal burkha accoutrement) and then tried to escape through the galley door, hoping I’d figure out what to do next once I got through them.

But a pair of attendants in sparkling-clean uniforms (in the hotel colors, natch) and little hats stepped in front of the doors as if on cue, stopping me. They tried to tell me something but I couldn’t speak Japanese and they couldn’t speak English. I did gather that I was a bit overdressed. I went back to the locker I’d selected for myself and removed a couple more articles of clothing.

The attendants were already at the doors when I tried to escape again. I could tell they did not approve yet. They bustled me back to my locker, making smiling noises at me, and left me there to stew in humiliation and fear. I had a couple decades of programming to deal with and I only had a minute or so in which to do it.

See, where I’m from, a woman can be devalued depending on what she wears, and her body is public property to an alarming extent. “Nice girls,” “good girls,” they don’t trot around in their birthday suits–or they will quickly discover that they have removed themselves from society’s protection. They become “bad girls” who deserve whatever happens to them. A naked body is a hypersexualized body. It is a body that is open to the view, admiration, condemnation, and even use of any man observing it. Any man who has an opinion about that woman’s body feels not only free but morally obligated to voice his opinion to her and anybody else around the two of them. She is not allowed to own herself, or wear what she wants to wear, or even refuse to give her time or attention to any man who has decided he wants either.

This mindset is called the “purity myth.” It is based on the curious notion of “modesty,” which is a shifting, ever-varying code of dress for women (behavior too, but mostly dress). It tells women that if they will only give up their right to their own bodies, if they will only let themselves be valued or devalued according to their wardrobes, if they will only do all of this, then they will be protected by society. They will not be victimized, and they will be safer than women who refuse to buy into that myth and behave according to its dictates. “Those” women are “bad girls” and they are seen as scarily sexual. When–not if–they are victimized, society will frown and purse its lips and try to decide how much blame “those” women should shoulder for their own abuse.

But the “purity myth” gets even more insidious than you might imagine, dear friends. I consider it a cosmic irony that the more de-sexualized a woman tries to make her body, the harder she tries to strip her essential femininity from herself, the less offensive she tries to make herself to society, then then more sexualized she becomes, the more outrageously feminine she seems to be in reaction, and the more attention-getting she seems to be to society. The more she tries to place herself under protective care by giving up her own power, the more likely she will be targeted by abusers and those who would happily victimize and control her. The simple truth is that you can’t give your own control and power over to other people and expect not to be abused and victimized. Predators thrive on that kind of control over their prey.

I was starting to see something, though I wouldn’t identify it till much later: when “modesty” becomes a fetish, then it is impossible to see women’s bodies in any context whatsoever except for a sexual one. Every woman’s body gets scrutinized to make sure it is covered up enough, and that involves thinking quite a bit about women’s bodies, doesn’t it? Men and women alike obsess about how to cover women up enough to make it impossible to lust after them, but that just makes it more of a fetish and even more of a sexualized object. And a woman’s body itself becomes more important than that woman’s ideas, her personality, her strengths, or her intelligence. Covering it up becomes more important than anything else– and as Muslims are discovering, there just is no limit to “modesty” that is far enough. Cover a woman in a tent except for her eyes, and some idiotic man is going to get a chubby over women’s eyes and demand that those be covered up too so he doesn’t have to deal with an unapproved erection, which he counts as being women’s fault rather than his own. Instead of us teaching men to manage their sexual feelings in respectful ways and be totally responsible for their own chubbies and their reactions to them, we demand women coddle them and their unapproved chubbies by doing their damndest to remove their sexuality from men’s view. And the more we remove our sexuality from their view, the more we’ll remind them that sexuality has been removed from view, and the more they’ll think about it and the more they’ll expect women to jump through ever-more-complicated hoops to assuage their guilt over feeling sexual feelings they don’t know how to manage…yikes, it just never ends.

I didn’t know how to articulate any of that at the time, though. I just knew that nakedness meant sexuality and that “good girls” don’t go naked. And I didn’t want to be naked. But those attendants had made it quite clear that I wasn’t going through the galley doors to whatever lay beyond them unless I was naked.

Shaking like a leaf, I tried one last time–this time in practical-bra and sensible granny panties–and was rebuffed. This time they were giggling behind their hands and trying not to outright laugh at me. The giggles finally did the trick. I went back to the locker. Fine, I thought. Fine. I got naked, locked my locker one last time and put the keychain thingie around my wrist, got my washcloth, and walked to the door. This time the young attendants very ceremoniously opened the galley door in unison for me and let me swan my way through them. I think I remember one of them nodding in satisfaction. I hope she did. I would have.

Rather anticlimactically though, I found myself in a large women’s shower room. Clouds of steam rose everywhere. Another set of galley doors lay at the other end of the shower room. I saw women sitting on upturned wooden buckets, using sprayers to shower off; they were cleaning themselves from head to toe, shaving, everything. Then they’d get their washcloths and go through the other doors. I was the only white woman in here. I stood out like a Mormon at an ICP concert. Thankfully, nobody stared.

But did you hear that?

Nobody stared.

My naked body was not being treated as a sexual body. I was just naked, that’s all. Nobody really thought much of it. I was all but reeling at the realization.

That said, a shower room was a little more manageable of an idea. I found a wooden bucket to sit on and did what the other women did and then followed a pair of them out through the galley doors, hoping it wouldn’t be full of men.

It wasn’t.

It was a big pool. Some women rested at one end, others at the other end. There were a series of round wooden (teak?) hot tubs along one side. The whole place was open to the sky, and I could see stars. You’ve probably seen videos of people in these hot springs with their washcloths on their heads, so I won’t bore you with that. I discovered that the pool’s heat level varied according to where you relaxed. Women looked at me curiously, but nobody seemed to care about being naked. Old women, young women; beautiful women, not-so-beautiful women; groups, duos, singletons; it wasn’t like super-packed, but there were plenty of women in here and they all minded their own business and did their thing.

Nobody stared.

For the first time in my life, I was in a society that didn’t automatically equate nakedness with sexuality. I was in a place where I was stark naked in front of hundreds of other people who were stark naked and nobody seemed to give a shit.

Eventually I found my way to one of those hot tubs, which I got to myself, and I leaned back among thick green potted plants and looked up at the sky. A few errant snowflakes drifted down from somewhere and melted before reaching the steam lazily reaching up from the water. I heaved a sigh that seemed to come from the very pits of my soul. This is where you found me at the beginning of this entry, dear friends, wrestling with important questions about modesty, about how women’s bodies don’t have to necessarily mean sexualization when they get revealed, about how society itself might be on the wrong track with treating naked bodies like forbidden fruit, about how maybe I’d been wrong all this time about modesty and purity. Remember, I was pretty much deconverted, but it’s really hard to get rid of that conditioning and programming.

But those thoughts faded and I fell into a near-slumber as I stargazed; they looked a lot like the stars I knew so well from back home. Days of fear, exhaustion, hunger, stress, and uncertainty began to fall away from me like layers of silky petticoats.

This wasn’t too bad. A girl could get really used to this, I thought.

Eventually a couple new things dawned on me.

The doughnut-shaped hotel was built up all around me. I was looking up past the inner walls of the hotel. I began wondering what all those rooms up there were–conference rooms? Or hotel rooms? And that led me to wonder if anybody was in those rooms looking down at the women’s spa and what, if anything, stopped some perverted Peeping Hiroshi from enjoying the view.

At that point, though, I didn’t care anymore. I stayed in the tub for way longer than I should have, then got up and padded my way back into the locker room, where the attendants gushed and fawned over me for some reason, put me into a super-thick white terrycloth robe, and sent me padding, still barefoot, out to the lounge, where I found Biff and Katsuo eating ice cream and drinking whiskey (well, Katsuo was drinking it, anyway). I sat down, we talked about stuff I don’t remember, and then we all went off to get dressed again. Katsuo dropped us off at the hotel amid promises that he had a nice apartment he owned that was opening for lease soon that we could look at if we wanted, and he’d see me at work the next day.

As you can tell, I never forgot that night. It taught me a lot about nakedness–especially to question the assumptions that I labored under regarding “modesty.” The whole idea of modesty is not only a myth, but an evil myth that demands women cooperate or else take the blame for their own abuse. This myth tells people that when they see a naked person (or one wearing less than the “approved” list would dictate), they should be thinking about sex. We have created a whole country of sex-obsessed adultolescents who titter about “nip slips,” get morally outraged over Janet Jackson’s bare breast, and try to dictate ever-more-draconian dress codes for women lest a thigh–or a knee–or a calf–or an ankle–or a foot get revealed to tempt, befuddle, and bedevil poor widdle uncontrollable men. Don’t even think that this society was created by non-Christians; the people setting the tone of the conversation there are Christians through and through, using Christian “values” to do their evil work. And I think we created these people by giving society the idea that women must be “modest” or else they are fair game for abuse, and the corollary that men who see women who don’t seem “modest” may feel free to harass them or even victimize them since they have stepped outside society’s tender protection (such as that Republican lawmaker who said out loud a while ago that because women have the right to access to abortion care, that it should be legal to rape them).

Let me tell you something: nobody can devalue you based on your clothes–unless you allow it. You deserve 100% full respect no matter what you wear or don’t wear. That respect shouldn’t be withdrawn just because someone doesn’t approve of what you’re wearing. And nobody gets to treat you like a lesser human being or abuse you just because you’re wearing something on the disapproved list.

There’s a huge segment of religious zealots–and even a great number of religious folks who think of themselves as the “nice” representatives of their religion (which applies to all religions, not just Christianity) who think that they have the right to tell women what they will or won’t wear, and who treat women differently or accord them differing levels of respect or courtesy based upon their clothing. I’ve heard a number of them recently whine and wring their widdle hands over how “immodest” and “sexualized” modern culture is, as if they didn’t have a huge part in creating both situations–and as if “purity culture” and the very obsession with modesty and sexuality didn’t hilariously, tragically backfire to do it. And these outraged folks are wrong to try to police other people like they do, especially about something that is none of their damned business. I know they think that naked people = rape in the streets and a super-sexually-immoral culture, but they’re wrong; the equation only means that if someone uses dress code to decide how much respect to give anybody. I saw firsthand in Japan that the equation fails entirely if “modesty” is not fetishized.

So. If you withdraw respect and courtesy based on a dress code, then you are a miserably bad person. All human beings deserve basic respect and courtesy no matter how they dress.

If a jet-lagged frazzled starveling college grad could figure this out, then I don’t know why so many other folks seem to have so much trouble with it. I decided then and there that I would no longer allow anybody to treat me with less that complete respect because they didn’t like how I dressed, and I would do my best to stop treating others differently because of it. I would do my best to stop equating nakedness to sexuality and to stop weirdly fetishizing and sexualizing women’s bodies. I would own myself and let other women own themselves. And weirdly, the sky hasn’t fallen yet.

So there ya have it; that’s the story of how I ran around stark naked for the first time in my life and came out of it with a new appreciation for myself and others.

Crazy world, huh?

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