I handed the bathhouse attendant some yen then followed the color-coded signs for the women’s section. Inside, the walls were lined with metal lockers and there were no curtains, no changing areas.
When I entered the bathhouse, I immediately removed my shoes. This was something I’d grown accustomed to. In Japan, shoes are almost never worn indoors. You slip them off as naturally as you would close an umbrella before entering a house. Then, all around me, women began to undress.
Before visiting Japan, I’d never been to a bathhouse. I’d never been naked with a roomful of strangers. I’d never even taken my top off at the beach when other women seemed to with ease.
I never felt I had permission to. It was the same with watching women go braless in sundresses. I saw the poke of their nipples and felt that they were privy to something I wasn’t.
In grade school, I’d seen girls expertly shimmy bras out of their shirts without ever taking them off. They’d emerge in the locker room, moments later, magically in bathing suits. They didn’t allow for a second of nudity. Of vulnerability. All throughout high school, I followed suit. I hid behind towels, behind backpacks, behind half-ajar lockers, to shield my body from being seen by anyone else.
The first person I was ever topless with was a surgeon when I was fourteen. When she asked me to take off my blouse, we had not yet exchanged names.
Sometimes when I tell this story, I tell of the car ride with my mother, with the cheery pop song that played on the radio, with the artificial chill of the air conditioner blasting between us. I can remember all the sounds that did not come from her.
I do not tell of the waiting room, because it felt like any waiting room. There were stark white walls and television monitors. There was bad artwork. Too bright. Too symmetrical. There were bony women in wigs, tense expressions, impatient fingers. There were glossy magazines with plastic smiles and cooking recipes.
The examination room smelled of an artificial air freshener—floral and antiseptic. It clung to the walls, to the chairs, to the exam table. The doctor’s hands were gloved, so when she took mine in hers, all I felt was a synthetic touch.
The doctor told me she’d operated on my mother when I was a baby, when she had had cancer. The doctor said this as a kindness, but it did not provide comfort.
Then she put her latex hands on my bare breasts and I stopped committing anything to memory.
In the Japanese bathhouse, women lifted their shirts above their heads the instant they passed behind the feminine-pink fabric curtain. They were naked before the curtain fully flapped back into place. I was surrounded with bodies. At first, I looked at all of them. I studied them. I tried to hide my gaze, but my eyes are massive and I doubt I got away with it. Thin bodies, thick bodies, fit bodies, round bodies. I’d never seen so much flesh.
It was terrifying and exhilarating.
I walked slowly to a locker and started to undress, using the towel I’d brought to shield myself.
I watched a woman in her fifties walk blithely towards the bath, entirely naked. No towel. Just herself. Her body was not airbrushed, she was not particularly in shape, she was human and this was her body and she did not try to hide it.
I followed timidly behind her.
At fourteen, I’d found that tender lump on my breast. It was the color of a plum. If this were a story, I could fictionalize the discovery. I could say that I found the lump when I was showering. That it appeared in the mirror after the glass had shed itself of mist. But that is not what happened.
I don’t remember finding the lump. I only remember it being there. Deforming me. A tumor, is a tumor, is a tumor, is a tumor, until you’ve said the word so many times that it becomes nothing but sounds and letters. A tumor is an abnormal growth that does not serve a purpose. A tumor can be cancerous, like when it grew in my mother’s breast, or it can be a benign mass of cells, like when it grew in mine, that did not kill me, but instead made me wish I would die.
Later, I watched the surgeon use a knife to cut me open.
I have written many versions of this account. I have revised the story to make myself seem less childish. I have hidden the part about screaming so violently that a nurse had to hold me down. I have lied about asking my mother to leave the room. Who did I think I was protecting? Me or her?
A colleague recently told me that if we tell a story about ourselves enough times, that story becomes our new memory.
Now I am laying the events out in my hands like my mother’s breast forms. Sticky and uneven. Which parts really happened, and which have I invented?
I always imagined I’d first undress in a lover’s basement, stealthily, away from parents, full of sexiness and anticipatory glee. Instead, I stripped my clothes away for a medical inspection and learned an entirely different understanding of nudity.
I could say that the boy I loved tenderly held my body and showed me the place where I was marked. But he didn’t.
My sexuality was marred from the start. What woman does not know what it means to feel that her body is for others? In service of. A performance for. Only in existence if summoned. If externally wanted. Mine was co-opted by illness, but I learned, as I got older, the multitude of ways a woman can feel powerless, how she is taught to feel shame.
In Japan, before I even undressed, I was confronted with two curtains: a blue one for men and a pink one for women. Spaces carved out for women to exist in the absence of men are intended to be havens; they’re cultivated to provide the illusion of safety, but they can also be piercingly exclusive and discriminatory. The suggestion that there is only one way to be female: biologically.
What is the implication of this distinction once our clothes are off? That our bodies are meant to look a certain way? What does a woman’s body look like? What about breasts? What about those born without them and those who no longer have them? What quantifies femininity?
I’m an able-bodied, white, cis-female, which means my position is inherently privileged. I also have a scar below my nipple along my left breast. I am imperfect. I am damaged. But I’m also real, the way that any woman is. I am the daughter of a cancer survivor who opted to have her breasts removed to better her chances of survival. Now my mother has implants. For a long time, on her chest she had nothing but scars. Hidden by silicon breast inserts. Who is going to tell us which one of us is more feminine? Which one of us is more authentic?
As a teenager, my having first been naked with a stranger with white gloves and a white coat and sharp instruments capable of both protecting and harming me, colored the way I understood my nakedness. From then on, I was always preparing to be wounded. Naked meant susceptible, meant exposed. My subsequent relationships only furthered this belief. I gave all of myself and I held all of it back. I undressed in the dark. I slithered into sheets before I could be seen.
I never even undressed fully with myself. I never looked in the mirror. I put my clothes back on as soon as the water in the shower was turned off. I didn’t want to see.
A few months after my surgery, the surgery that I did not tell anyone about because of my shame and my fear and my doubt, a friend told me that my stomach spilled out over my jeans. We were sitting with our backs against the padded gymnasium wall, both with doctors’ notes that exempted us from the swim unit. I pretended I didn’t want to swim because of the mess of having to deal with my hair. At that time, in the town I grew up in, it was considered beautiful if your hair was blow-dried and flat-ironed to a crisp. We were taught to bend ourselves.
This friend was impossibly skinny and she really, wholeheartedly believed in the straight hair aesthetic of beauty. It was a few weeks after the surgeon put a knife in me and even though it was still warm out, I was wearing sweatshirts to hide the bandages that were covering my left breast. My friend said: You’re trying to hide your stomach, right? It does a good job, but you should know, it makes you sweat.
I had barely had my first kiss; my left breast was scarred and now I was told there was another part of me to be ashamed of. I was learning that there were ideal ways to be female: hair should be straight, stomachs should not spill out over jeans. To be a woman meant contortion, conformism. If I didn’t fit these standards, I was nothing.
At the bathhouse, I got as far as a few steps away from the water when another woman, just as naked, just as human, began speaking to me in Japanese. When she recognized that I did not understand her, she gently reached for my towel, shook her head, and pointed at the water. I looked around me. All the women were naked; some had wrapped tiny towels around their heads, but besides those few, there was no cloth to speak of. The naked woman slowly pulled the towel from my grip. Suddenly, I was standing there, thighs and ass and hips. I crossed my arms out of reflex. My bare breasts felt warm against my wrists.
The woman folded my towel and set it on a stool away from us. Then she motioned for me to hose my body off before getting in the water.
The walls in the bathing area were lined entirely with mirrors. Trying not to see yourself was impossible. I walked towards my reflection, keeping my arms crossed, watching my breasts slowly bounce. I stared at my scar. For a long time, I could not even look at it. I would not look at it. It had stopped startling me in the shower, but I had never taken the time to study it. In that bathhouse, I followed the uneven line just below my nipple. It added some peachy-purple character.
I sat on a stool in front of the shower head and let my eyes trace my ribs. Then the wideness of my hips. The gathering of skin.
In high school, just after the surgeon, I met a boy who made me feel sexy. He told me I was. It was that simple. He made a declaration and that declaration became fact. His desire for the body that I was made to hate felt extraordinary. It temporarily erased the pain. It made me feel normal.
He restored me and then he took all of me. He sensed the power that he held and that power grew into insatiable hunger. He ordered my clothes off. He ordered my mouth on his cock. He told me I was not good enough. He told me I was fat. When I asked him to stop, he wrapped his fingers so hard around my wrists that they left purple marks.
This boy and I started running together. We were running together because I wanted to be skinnier, because he wanted me to be skinnier. Because I wanted to keep him and I understood that to keep a man, a woman was supposed to make herself perfect. As we ran, I’d watch the older runners around us and think about what they saw when they watched us. I imagined they thought about how healthy our relationship was. How our love must be strong and wholesome if we were exercising together. The maturity. We were teenagers, but we understood the fundamentals of commitment. They did not see him violate me. They did not see his hands or hear the sound of his voice as he condemned me. They saw companionship. They saw unity.
I became obsessed with this vision of us. With this fantasy. If we were perfect in their heads, then in some reality we were. It mattered only how people saw us. I lived so much of my body outside of it. Watching. Wondering what other people were thinking. Considering their observations. Their vantage points. Their perceptions of me. It was exhausting.
The boy had seen me as a mechanism of pleasure. The surgeon had seen me as a tumor. I had not seen myself anywhere.
Naked in Japan, all these years later, I was unwatched. I sat on that stool and thought about how much wiser I was than high school me, but also, about how I was still learning to love myself.
The women in the bathhouse didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by the shock of skin. None of them seemed to be there for observation. They weren’t looking around or even speaking with each other. They seemed content to be alone with themselves.
As the water slid over my body, I watched my thighs. I watched my legs. I examined everything. I got to know my nakedness. I got to know myself. My own beauty. My own geography, beautiful not in spite of my imperfections, but because of them.
I finished washing my naked body and joined the other women in the water. I let the warmth of it surround me, overcome me. I let myself feel vulnerable. Maybe for the first time, I felt free.
Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.