First Public Appearance
You were born naked. Pink and screaming, covered in amniotic juices. The nice midwife and doctor washed your bare skin. They wrapped you up tightly and handed you to your mother. That was your first naked public appearance.
Being naked when you’re little isn’t a bad thing. Mum and Dad squish you in the bathtub with your siblings, cousins and neighbours. You all fight over the little floating yellow duck. Looking at photographs later you will blush at your bare bum. Your yoga-like positions with your baby-fat legs spread apart. On your face you wear a cheeky grin, like you know that being naked is a naughty thing. For a few more years you’re allowed to run around the front yard wearing no undies and get changed in front of people. It isn’t embarrassing because there’s nothing wrong with your body.
You start going to school and wear an itchy uniform. Baths are private and when you run under the sprinkler during summer you wear fluro-coloured swimmers.
At school, a boy in your grade pulls down his pants in the playground and everyone runs away screaming. He gets in trouble from the teacher, because at his age he should know better.
The body becomes an embarrassing thing. More than just arms and legs, there are different parts that girls and boys don’t share. Your parents put on a video, a cartoon called Where Do I Come From? and What’s Happening To Me? You learn that the body is for baby-making, erections happen at the swimming pool and pubic hair will grow down there. Even though nobody says it, bare bodies scream “sex”.
At the same time you learn that people like the thing called sex. Your favourite pop group, The Spice Girls, wear tightly-clad union jack dresses and sing about people who wannabe their lovers. Their adult breasts squish against the leather. They are sexy. They have Girl Power. You wonder if one day you’ll be sexy too.
You’re an adult now. You wear a bra. The freckles have faded. Your hips have rounded and you’ve grown twice the size. You don’t like being naked in public. Even in change-rooms you dash to a cubicle and hide. Your boyfriend tells you that you’re beautiful. You believe him. Sometimes.
Second Public Appearance
I wonder if the people on the train know. Know that I can taste vomit that’s coated thick on my tongue from nerves. Know that I am on my way to get naked in Collingwood.
A text message comes through: ’Just imagine that people are wearing clothes! Ha ha.’ A friend. It’s a joke to her. My cheeks redden with blood. I think about whether having a friend with me would make this experience better or worse. Wouldn’t it get awkward? Boobs, bum and the rest, seeing your friend in the buff. I mightn’t be able to look at her the same again. No, it’s best to do this on my own.
The train pulls into West Richmond station and I exit, heart pounding. A model on a billboard leers at me in her black lacy underwear, smooth brown skin. The bare skin tantalising what is underneath. Not a single dimple, stretch-mark or stray curl of pubic hair. She would be perfect.
The baths are located in Cromwell Avenue, an industrial area. It’s one of those places that you never have to go to until your car breaks down or you need a particular type of blind replaced in your bedroom. Or in my case to get naked in a public setting.
The Japanese owner, Hiromi, greets me kindly. ‘Oh Shannon, yes. We have your booking. Have you been here before?’
I shake my head, my body sags.
An assistant asks me to take off my boots. She locks them in a deposit box at the front. Running away is now difficult. I plod upstairs after her.
There are three separate rooms: a female bathhouse, a male bathhouse and a relaxation room for both genders. I am given a soft robe and a towel. The assistant opens a grey door and we enter the female area. She gestures towards the open communal showers, the bath and sauna.
‘You spend an hour here and change between the bath and sauna. You must wash yourself each time you get in and out of the bath. Yes?’
I nod but cannot hear properly over the blood throbbing through my ears.
‘And this room is for your relaxation. After bathing you sit here and can read. Just ask if you need help at all.’ She smiles at me and I thank her. I am left alone with the smell of pinewood. There are no other women in the bath or sauna at this time. I undress, happy that I only have to confront my own body for the moment.
I start to follow the instructions sign-posted on the wall. My own instructions go like this:
- Get undressed. Shove precious clothes in the locker.
- Tip-toe nervous, white, naked self into showering area.
- After spraying self in the eye, successfully work out the strange Japanese showers. Feel a slight triumph in commanding the foreign contraption.
4.Lather. Scrub. Rinse. Repeat.
While cleaning my body using the array of bottles available, the sliding door to the bathing area opens. My shoulders tense and stomach churns as a woman enters. There is a naked body reflected in the mirror.
I see disjointed body parts. Limbs, a dimpled back-side, a woman with a classic hour glass figure. What people call child-bearing hips. I cannot tell if she is pretty by just seeing her bare skin. I am too scared to look at her face.
I lower my head and continue washing. After giving myself the best scrub of my life I realise it’s time to move to the bath, where the woman is. I have not shared a bath with someone else for over twenty years. I climb up the stairs with knobby knees, baby legs. I am completely bare, but my heart has slowed down. I feel less anxious, perhaps my naked body is not so bad. The woman is a stranger and she does not seem unkind or judging. She is not embarrassed but has closed her eyes. She is enjoying herself.
The bath is not like a spa. There is no power-jet, or foaming bubbles in which to hide your nipples or to put on your chin and pretend to be Santa Claus. It is completely clear, nothing left to the imagination. The bath is very hot, 42 degrees and my frigid body uncurls in the comfort of the heat. For a while it is nice. Liberating. I lift my feet and examine my toes. Start chipping at the blue nail polish on my fingernails. It is hot and boring and peaceful. I imagine starting a conversation with the woman:
‘So do you come here often?’
‘Have you ever thought about getting that mole removed?’
Or maybe even something topical:
‘So apparently cellulite was created by advertisers to get us to buy stuff.’
The heat becomes too much. I repeat the shower-wash, wrap myself up in a towel and return to the changing room. I am drying my hair when two older women emerge from the sauna. They are friends chatting away freely while their breasts droop. I see their flabby tummies and bums tainted with red stretch marks. Breasts sagging from years of feeding little ones from their nipples.
You can drink Japanese tea or even red wine in the relaxation room. I drink water from a plastic cup and feel strangely content, cocooned in a robe sitting in cross-legged position. There is another sign in the room, a list of warnings:
There is to be no masturbating!
This is not a pick-up joint!
I laugh. Even in a room full of Japanese pictures and bamboo Aussie slang will prevail.
I decide to spend an hour in silence, meditating. The taste of vomit in my mouth has long subsided. After my time in the relaxation room I pull my jeans back over my legs. They feel unnatural and heavy. I want to stay, stare out the window longer. But I have things to do. I pay at the front and Hiromi thanks me. She is lovely, so courteous. My leather boots are waiting for me. I load myself up with my possessions; my coat, my broken rainbow umbrella. I walk outside, the air is colder but it doesn’t matter. My mind hums.
Third (nearly) Public Appearance
You stand in the change-rooms at the gym. There are toilets to the right, showers to the left. But you remain in front of your locker. Out in the open, like a billboard. You peel off your pants and shirt, revealing your goose-pimpled thighs and white cleavage. Women chat around you, sweat dripping from their faces. But they don’t notice you with skin only covered by the fabric of a bra and undies. For the moment being nearly naked in public is fine. You smile and wrap yourself up in a white towel. You take a deep breath and imagine you’re going through a process. The shower door closes with a click and you look at your body. You are pale skin, limbs, flesh. And yes, there is pubic hair.
But it is you.