Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Modesty and Public Nudity

Me Dancing at the Bon Odori in Japan
A Public Water Tap in Bhaktapur, Nepal
The taps are used for everything. They are for watering your goats, brushing your teeth, washing your clothes and filling your vase of water to take home for cooking and cleaning. Here is a man washing himself in January.

By the time that I was five years old, I had already developed a strong sense of modesty and would not even look at my own naked body in a mirror. It's hard for me to say where this idea came from other than to say that it was the Puritan ethics of my family in the context of my culture.

I don't think that I really knew what public bathing was until the first time that I took a public bath. At the time, I was a 15 year old exchange student living in Japan. One evening, I had attended a summer festival called the Bon Odori. All the women, including myself, were dressed in a brightly colored yukata, a cotton summer kimono. We danced traditional dances in the muggy streets for hours. After a happy, sweaty evening of dancing, I went with my hosts to a public bath house. The bath had a male and female section divided by a low wall. To my great concern, the man who took the entrance fee was sitting up high above the wall where he could see easily into both sections. When I pointed this out to my hosts, they said, "Don't worry, he doesn't look." Even more disturbing to me, was that 4 elderly women saw me struggling with my yukata and rushed over to peel my clothes off, leaving me naked and the center of attention. As the women kindly folded my clothes for me, they couldn't help looking at my pale white body, long blond hair and blue eyes. A young teenager near me came over and took a strand of my blond hair as it floated from my brush to the floor and wrapped it in a handkerchief to take home with her.

Though I was deeply embarrassed by the situation, I didn't have the sense that anyone else in the room was at all concerned about their nakedness. They soaped up and then rinsed thoroughly with buckets of water while they sat at little stools facing the walls. Then they walked across the room, naked, and entered a scalding hot communal bath to soak.

In the US, public bathing is extremely rare. Contrary to the images shown of American women on television and in movies around the world, most of the American women that I know are really very modest even among the members of their own sex and family. In the community where I live now, most women, young and old, hide behind curtains to change clothes in the women's locker rooms at the gym. It is a strange kind of modesty though. The same women who hide to change their clothes, might then appear in public with very sexy low cut blouses and short skirts.

On the contrary, cities in much of Asia are so crowded, it is difficult to achieve perfect privacy. There are just so many people that you must get used to seeing one another in all kinds of situations. Many of the places where I have traveled in Asia, such as Bali and Thailand, seem to be modest and have dress codes where your shoulders and feet must be covered in certain situations, yet women there can be seen walking bare-breasted down the street. It does not seem to be sexual to anyone but foreign tourists from repressed countries.

In Nepal where it is a sin for a Hindu man to sit next to a married woman, I have seen a woman casually pull out her breast to feed her infant with men seated nearby. She did not bother to lay a scarf over her shoulder. Similarly, many people do not have showers in their homes in Nepal. You can often find people bathing in the cold water at public taps. Women fold themselves in and out of long sheets of cloth in such a way that they can remain covered while they bathe in front of the whole village, and me, as I pass by.

Incase you would like to see a picture of a Japanese 'Sento' public bath, you can visit here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sent%C5%8D. It shows the lay out of a bath house exactly like the one that I was in. It was not a spa, it was really just for bathing.


  1. Very interesting post dear Butternut Squash. In Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt (very rare now) exist El Hammam (The bath). People can go there and bath. The difference is these places are public but separated the men and the women because of the tradition and religion there. These Hammams are kind of Sauna as well with steam coming from falling hot water. There are the cheap ones and the expensive ones!!
    I tried it once the night of my best friend's wedding but we had the whole place for ourselves. I forgot to mention that people are not completely naked but half naked!!
    I do not know much about Asia!

  2. Actually, on the west coast of the U.S., public bathing is something you can do in any one of the urban areas, as well as most of rural northern California and Lake Tahoe. People have hot tubs, and believe me, no one wears a swimsuit in the tubs.

    I lived in Tahoe, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco for a combined period of 20 years. Being a modest midwesterner, I never got used to all that nudity.

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  4. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into other worlds.

  5. I use the Heifer Project(on your sidebar) for Christmas gifts each year, along with Seva & a few others. Great program. We have a nude beach here in NJ that was quite a shock when I first went. I was expecting roadside attraction, but everyone was as natural as could be, no big deal. And all the shapes & sizes, quite interesting :-). ~Mary

  6. This is something I have all sorts of mixed feelings about.
    I think it all depends on context.
    I really don't want people to see me naked but it's OK in a single sex sauna or some such.
    I find it odd ( having grown up in England) that very little children wear bathing suits in the US.
    When we lived in Morocco I used to think it very insensitive of European women to wear very immodest clothes on the street.

  7. Fascinating post, Butternut Squash. I really enjoyed it.

    I'm about to give you the One-Minute Writing of the Day award for your response to yesterday's prompt. Congratulations! :)

  8. I came across you on One Minute Writer and just loved your post that won yesterday's award.

    Have just read your most recent post here - very interesting.

    Best regards,

  9. What a beautiful blog you have here... Thank you for teaching us more about this side of the world. My dream is go to Nepal someday...

  10. It's great to read your post about Japanese bath, its interesting how poeple have such different reactions to your article! I am really happy to know this as well, in case I am ever so fortunate to visit to Japan one day :-).

  11. Hi hope,

    I started writing these stories for my nieces and nephews and my own children. If I can not take them with me. I hope that I will at least inspire them to explore the world on their own.

  12. Wow. That was really interesting. I especially like the part where the young woman picked up a single strand of your blonde hair and wrapped it up to take home. It is amazing to me how self conscious women can be around other women. You are so right, it is all in how we were brought up. I will be back.