Getting Naked With Your Preteens is a Great Way to Help Them Through Puberty
Why I’m glad I raised my girls in Japan where communal hot baths are common.
There is nothing like seeing a wide variety of naked women of all shapes, sizes and ages to give girls a realistic counterpoint to the mostly unattainable photoshopped portrayal of feminine beauty common in the West. This was an unexpected but wonderful benefit of moving to Japan when my daughters were preteens and leaving six years later on the other side of puberty.
My middle child was the first family member to experience public bathing. It happened on a Girl Scout homestay with a Japanese family.
“So after dinner, we went to this place and I didn’t really know what it was or why we were there because my family didn’t speak any English really. They paid an admission and the dad and son went through one door and I went with the mom and the daughter through another door and then everybody started taking their clothes off so I did too.”
I couldn’t decide whether to be impressed that my kid’s reaction was, oh okay, this must be the culturally appropriate thing to do so I’ll follow their lead, or horrified that she didn’t even pause to consider what she was getting herself into before following the crowd into nakedness.
“Then we went over to this shower area where there were these little stools you sat on and handheld shower hoses. They showed me how to work everything and made sure I used plenty of soap. When we were all clean we went into the bath area. It was like a giant hot tub. There was an indoor part and an outdoor part too. I loved it. Can we go to an onsen as a family soon?”
There are a wide variety of public baths in Japan from the inexpensive public bathing houses, sento, to genuine hot springs fed with mineral rich water, onsen. There are fancy resorts with multiple pool options and simple single pool facilities. Many have indoor and outdoor options. During our six years in Japan, we sampled a wide variety and found something to love in each place.
It took a little longer for the rest of the family to dip our toes into public bathing but eventually, it became a key part of our family traveling experience, especially on camping or ski trips. There is nothing that beats the joy of cleaning off the grim of camping and then enjoying a good soak unless maybe it is relaxing sore muscles after a day of skiing sitting in an outdoor tub looking at the mountains while snow falls on your head.
Often when we found onsens while camping in rural Japan we would have the entire place to ourselves. These experiences turned out to be the perfect time to have facts of life conversations. Sitting naked and relaxed in the steamy water, it feels natural to discuss the changes that are starting to happen.
I had visual confirmation of my daughters’ developing bodies that is denied to most modern mothers. Not that one stares in the onsen. Quite the contrary. Still, you can’t help noticing things in passing.
Talking about sex is somewhat awkward for any parent. So is removing your clothes in front of your preteen and teenage children. Once you are stripped naked literally it is easier to do it figuratively. Here are my experiences child. This is what I know.
Let’s talk about this thing called sex which society both treats as shameful and a thing not to be discussed openly and at the same time celebrates and overemphasizes. Obsession with sex shapes and warps the world in so many ways. Let’s face it on our own terms with our eyes wide open.
Not only is the onsen the perfect place for coming of age conversations, it also provides a chance to see female bodies of all ages, shapes and sizes. More often than not we shared this sacred space with others.
Western women grow up with a certain level of exposure to the naked or scantily clad female body through media and the internet. Even in sheltered families, girls see advertisements, tv shows, and movies. Porn is easily accessible and often stumbled across.
Women use clothing to conceal their perceived flaws and accentuate their physical assets. Images of naked or barely dressed women are almost always of impossibly slender and perfect bodies either photoshopped to appear perfect or cultivated with numerous hours of effort each day and/or expensive treatments not available to most.
When I was a child, I would sometimes flip through the pages of National Geographic to find pictures of bare-breasted women. I wanted to see what I would look like someday. Somehow I knew even then that my future appearance had more in common with these women who lived a life far removed from my own than the unattainable beauty found in The Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping also available in my mom’s magazine stash.
But I was able to give my girls so much more than a few far distant women in National Geographic. Over the years we were able to mix and mingle with plenty of women unashamedly stripped not only of clothing but also makeup. Their hair was tied up practically on the top of their heads and not a single status symbol was in evidence.
Women move through an onsen with ease. It is a space without men or the male gaze. Friends go to the onsen together for a chat and catch up. Others go solitarily for a contemplative peaceful soak.
Women enter the changing area burdened down. They chose a basket and slowly, item by item remove everything that protects and adorns them as they move through the outside world. Watches, wallets, and cellphones join the clothing in the baskets.
Next comes the shower room. Every part of your body is sudsed and scrubbed. Hair is washed and piled clean on top of your head. Every bit of your outside walking around appearance is cleansed away until nothing is left but you. Completely unencumbered and clean you head to the hot waters to melt away the cares of this world.
When it is time to return to daily life, you exit the bath and rinse off before heading into the changing room. Wrapped in a towel, naked, or clad in only your underthings you dry your hair and apply your makeup before reluctantly putting your clothes back on and heading back out into the world substantially lighter than when you entered the onsen a couple of hours earlier.
This was the gift I was able to give my daughters as they transitioned from girls to women. There is a grounding and a grace in moving among women stripped of all but their natural bodies and the diverse beauty therein.
Unfortunately, it is not an experience easily attained in the West. We have no similar locations or customs. There are fleeting moments in a locker room for one example but no ritual unrobing and luxuriating in simply your skin.
Taking a trip with your daughters to Japan isn’t going to be feasible for most people, although I highly recommend it if possible. Even then, it takes time for most Western women to break down our barriers and hang-ups enough to enjoy public bathing.
I know naturalist communities and resorts exist in America but they are rare and not an integrated part of the overarching culture in the way public baths are in Japan. They also are not divided into single sex areas like most Japanese onsens. I’ve never seriously considered seeking them out for myself or my family although I can certainly see why others might.
Shortly before leaving Japan, I took a trip with three of my closest friends and our three teenage daughters who were also best friends, to a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese Inn. It was a beautiful isolated location with numerous different baths on the premises to explore and enjoy.
All three 16-year-olds had frequently been to onsens with their mothers but never with each other. They decided they were ready to handle that intimacy but not with us present.
“Look,” the girls said, “It would just be too weird to be naked all together. Plus we want to talk about our things and you will want to talk about yours. Let’s agree that we won’t do the same bath at the same time.”
We enjoyed joining the girls for traditional Japanese meals seated on the tatami mats and we occasionally passed them as we wandered the paths of the resort. As the three of us middle-aged mothers soaked together in the rich mineral waters we talked about all of our impending moves back to scattered locations in the states.
How could we give up our tight friendships which were bound even tighter in the warm waters of onsen intimacy? What did life have in store for us? How would we transition our girls back to life in the United States? Had we given them enough? Were they strong enough to make the transition without losing themselves? Were we?
Many years later the three teenagers from that trip are grown up and on their own. One is a happily married mother with two little ones. One is contentedly working in a very male-dominated engineering field. The other one is moving quickly up the career ladder and loving her work. They’ve gone different ways but made solid strong life choices so far.
I like to think that our time spent soaking in the waters of a culture unfamiliar to us helped us strip away the outside expectations of what it means to be a woman. We saw a vast variety in the feminine body all of them beautiful in their own way. We learned to relax with our own nakedness under the right conditions.
Would we have reached the same place without the help of onsens? Probably, but I’m glad we had the opportunity at such a perfect stage of life.