Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Prudent Land of Exhibitionism

One thing I’m having some trouble adjusting to in readapting to the U.S. is the hypocrisy between the commercialization of the body and the lack of acceptance of the body in its natural functions. It’s no surprise that images of barely dressed people fill the media, and sometimes the streets. Recently in Washington, DC I saw a woman walking in a public area with nothing more on than a bikini and a mesh cover-up. As long as the couple of strategic points are covered, it’s OK to bare a lot of skin.

Yet the sensitivity about those strategic points – the nipples and the genitals – is so extreme as to make me wonder what happened to make Americans so ashamed of their bodies. Is it the Puritan tradition, the influence of religion, or just never reaching the point of accepting the body as something other than a sexual symbol?

I recall a European friend in Kyrgyzstan telling me how different it was to get a bikini wax in the U.S., versus in Europe or Muslim Kyrgyzstan.

“In Kyrgyzstan I go in with no underwear on at all. The woman who does the waxing looks at me and talks to me normally, as though there is nothing out of the usual. She looks right at my pubic area and does her work, without making me feel there is anything wrong with me.

“In the US, I asked if I should take my underwear off. The woman said no, and just moved it to the side as she was working. It made me feel so dirty.”

Yesterday I got a prenatal massage. It was a nice, clean, professional place, very careful in making the conditions safe during pregnancy. However, I was so covered up in sheets and pillows I wondered if I was in another country. The masseuse removed only the part of the sheet she was working on while she massaged the back and legs. When she massaged my hips, she did so through the sheet. It made me think of my friend in Kyrgyzstan. Was I too dirty to be touched there?

I’m also concerned about breastfeeding in the U.S. It seems to still be considered something dirty to do in public, with books advising working women to go into bathrooms, to lock the lunchroom, or otherwise hide out in uncomfortable places. I see ads for slings advertising their ability to help with “discreet breastfeeding” and showing pictures of mothers on park benches, their baby completely covered by the fabric so as not to offend anyone.

Is the sight of a partial breast so offensive, or so disturbing that a baby should either be denied sustenance, or be kept in a hot and dark environment? Or is it only offensive to the idea that a woman’s breast is a sexual tool? Seeing it used for practical purposes could break some of the mystique.

Since I’m not too eager to hang out on toilet seats in order to feed my child, I went online to check what the laws are. La Leche League publishes a helpful list of current legislation by state. In most places, including where I live, breastfeeding in public is perfectly legal, and is not an obscene act or indecent exposure, even if the breast is exposed. In most areas, a woman has the right to breastfeed in any public place that she herself has the right to be in. I printed out the law for my state and plan to carry it with me. But I find the fact that such a right needs to be legislated rather sad. And I don’t look forward to having to defend my child’s right to be fed.

Having grown up in the U.S., I went overseas with this same prudery I’m now having trouble understanding. I never went to the public baths in Siberia, ashamed to be naked among my neighbors and co-workers. I was shocked the first time I got a massage and had to lie bare-chested on my back as the masseuse worked. I was mortified when I went to the doctor’s for a chest x-ray and I had to walk across the entire room naked, with no gown or other covering. But with time, as I saw them react to the human form as nothing special, I could accept it that way myself. What’s the big deal? We are over six billion people, with three billion or so of each gender. No individual really has anything that someone hasn’t seen before.

I can understand the countries that take a position on either side. Either they hide the body fully, in public and private. Or they accept and embrace it. Here I find a strange middle ground – where many seem to take pride in showing the maximum permissible outline of their shape and form. But once you pull back the little cover, what’s underneath is something lurid and shameful.

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