Friday, November 18, 2005

Body Beautiful

Em told me something really interesting last night. He went out for dinner with one of our neighbours (let's call him UK boy) and another friend, and there was a most interesting disclosure. Apparently one of our neighbours, who lives on the first floor (ground floor in India and UK) likes to walk around her apartment stark naked at times. Now how would UK boy be privy to such intimate information? Because apparently she isn't very careful about drawing her blinds when she walks around thus, giving UK boy a direct glimpse into her apartment (he's on the second floor and has a window that looks diagonally into hers). We don't know if the the exposure is intentional or careless oversight, and we wait for further updates on the saga.

Which got me thinking about exposure in general, and exposing the body in a situation where you live in very close proximity with a mixed group of people who may or may not be sexually interested in you. The department where I studied for my Masters in Delhi had a co-ed hostel/dorm and though I didn't live in the hostel, I was a frequent visitor and often ate in the mess (dining room). It wasn't uncommon for girls to walk into the hall and then freeze in the realization that they had forgotten the lower half of their outfit, rushing back to their wing as the boys craned their necks to catch a fleeting glimpse.

However, within the girls' wing of the hostel, the girls would happily walk around in towels and little else, or their underwear. I guess the girls thought of it as an exclusive space that a man's lustful eyes had been banished from (boys were not allowed into the girls' wing). Which just goes to show that women do not have absolute notions of public modesty, only relative ones depending on their audience. Gail Minault in her book Secluded Scholars writes of the dress reform that had to take place before Muslim women in British India could step out of their homes to study in schools. What they wore inside the homes was often so transparent and revealing that it was inappropriate to be worn in public space. In my grandfather's village, women bathe publicly in one of the village ponds, often topless because there exists a tacit understanding that men in the village will not go near the pond.

The boundaries between public and private space, and male and female spheres is completely blurred in the apartment complex that I live in. For one, in this old California style building, all the apartments have at least one window looking into the courtyard in the middle with a swimming pool. It makes for a much friendlier living space, more convivial and neighbourly. It also allows for a much more relaxed attitude to dressing, because the common space is seen as an extension of your apartment, and more than one neighbour has stepped out in a towel in the past without being overly concerned. And then there was the funny incident of a new resident opening the door to her apartment, to be greeted by a boy who had just stepped out of his shower, with a towel barely wrapped around him. Turns out she was given the wrong keys, and the boy later told us that he hadn't been planning on using the towel (he was alone in his apartment, he didn't care to walk into the living room naked).

When I visited Greece for the first time, S and I went to a few islands, including Mykonos. I had in my possession but one swimsuit, a one-piece that looked positive grandma style in bikini-friendly Greece. I was mortified in the beaches, and insisted to S that I should march into a shop right then and get myself a bikini. He assured me that it was not necessary, but I still felt extremely overdressed. And then one day, S and I wandered into a nudist beach. The first sign that something was different was that as opposed to the few odd middle-aged topless women on regular beaches, everywhere I looked, I seemed to encounter fully naked people. And yes, mostly middle aged men and women, who were charmingly comfortable with their bodies and the flab and wrinkles they possessed, quite different from a lot of young girls in the US who become supremely self-conscious in swimsuits and slog out in the gym to become "bikini-worthy".

And then there were S and me, he with his modest swimming trunks, and me with my one piece swimsuit, the odd couple out, quite aware that we stuck out strangely in this stichless paradise (I did suggest at one point that we ditch our swimwear, but S would have none of it). And all the time, the one question that was a dilemma to me was what nudist beach etiquette says about where to look. You see, when there is an ahem, naked person walking towards me on the beach, do I avert my eyes in a nod to conventional modesty (and risk appearing a prude) or do I look straight at them, pretending that what I see is a most normal sight (and risk appearing a lech). In the end, I kind of half looked and half averted, neither here nor there.

Of course it is all very fine to say that how much the body is exposed is context-specific, but then the notion of modesty is ever changing, and the change stems from people pushing the envelope in whatever direction they choose to. In another era, a glimpse of my neighbour's naked body through the blinds would have been cause for great scandal, now all it excites is curiosity and desire. Also even in places where the ostensible consensus is excessive modesty, there is always ample scope for exposure, as in villages where close proximity of the homes means a fair amount of exposure of the body on a daily basis. What all of this adds to of course, is a wonderfully complex kaleidoscope of how we perceive the body.


Blogger AB said...

A nudist beach sounds interesting.

After reading this post, let me leave it at this: And here am I poor woman, not even getting a glimpse of a fully clothed hot guy, leave alone firang or nude:(

11:47 PM  
Blogger anthony said...

very interesting..very very interesting, specially the last part. Where to look? the same kind of confusing feeling, not quite embarassment, heppens usually when i am talking to a girl and i notice that one of her buttons is open or you know, revealing not in the kind that a revealing dress does, but by negligence or mistake whatever. somehow I feel that my "looking away" must be making it even more obvious.. well I always tell her if she were a friend, but its very difficult with your colleagues or even married ones. I have to keep staring at her eyes and at a level little above the eye, lest she should feel I am staring down.. and it happens so often..

and ur post reminds me I need to hit the GYMMMMMMM

2:10 AM  
Blogger !xobile said...

ah! a very nice article...
there's something in such writings even that attracts one to them..
Im not demeaning you but at the same time praising the topic you chose.

Amd the beach dilemma, its cool!

4:36 AM  
Blogger The Other said...

I remember when I lived in Iran seeing a part of a neck or some other part of the body of a woman in Hijab was as interesting and sexy as seeing a woman naked. I uncounciously used to try to see those parts as much as I could because they were hidden. I remember even woman's legs covered with pants could be sexually arousing when it came out of Chaador (Borqe').

Wearing clothes is a sick invention. "Modesty" in appearance is a complete mane-made concept that doesn't have anything to do with our real instincts as human beings. Nothing is "modest" or "ethically repulsive" unless a certain culture and its man-made set of values defines it so.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Rhyncus said...

And a corollary to this is the definition of 'exposure' in different cultures. Like the point 'The Other' makes and like what I imagine the Victorian Englishman might have gone through when exposed to say, the Khajuraho sculptures. Interesting.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Rashmi Bansal said...

A few years ago I was visiting Japan, and stayed in some of those youth hostels. They were excellent except for one small catch. They have commune style bathrooms.

One large room in which there arec showers on the side (no cubicles).
After which you are esupposed to go and sit in a giant hot tub with fellow inmates.

Why shower and then bathtub? Well that's the Japanese way. Idea is to be *clean* when you soak in the tub - which actually makes sense.

Anyhow, I didn't have a bath on the first day. On the second I said 'what the hell' and went ahead. It was December and freezing - the hot water tub was heavenly!

Overall, good experience. It didn't feel awkward because they were so natural about it. People sit there and chatter like it's a coffee shop.

Did we look at each other? I suppose so. All I remember is those Oriental women are really flat and skinny!

10:34 PM  
Blogger shyam said...

One of the best pleasures of living on my own is to walk around, well.. umm..., any way I want to, which was picked up by my ex when she stayed close to a year with me.

Problem was that when she'd have to go back home visiting her folks, she'd have a hard time remembering to be 'decent' before she stepped out of her room.

The next door people can do whatever they want to, it is their problem in life if they peek into my private part of the world. Of course, I'd not hold much hope for the scarring those poor souls would receive if they were to actually look in. It would literally be a case of looks being able to kill people, this time out of shock of course.

5:13 AM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

:-) But not having to care how you are in your own house is nice. And, it is also a social thing. Except for maybe the first day jitters, locker room nudity is also so taken for granted. But, on the other hand, individual shower booths in locker rooms is a phenomenon that's recent.

The cold right now and beaches is making me think of the southern hemisphere... Hmm...

9:58 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

AB, a nudist beach is great fun, since ironically you are much less conscious of your body (does my butt look big?) than a regular beach.

Oh dear, had Delhi really degenerated so? Where are the haunts of the truly hot?

Anthony, I think taking it into stride, rather than looking away is a better. Looking away can be connoted as disapproval.

Gym.....yes I need to haul myself up there as well.

Exaggeratorr thanks!

The Other, welcome! Yes, that's where curiosity mingles with desire.

I like the avenue that clothes provide for human creativity and diversity. However, I do have a problem when they are seen as the manifestatation of a person's ethics and morality. That's related to the absurdity of having a set of sexual morality precepts.

Rhyncus that's absolutely true. Balinese women, who were happily topless, were forced to cover up after Westerners came on the island and convinced the Balinese that their dressing did not conform to "decency".

Rashmi, that's an interesting story! A friend has been trying to get me to go to a Korean spa, where you are supposed to be naked in the hot tub.

Codey, yes it's great fun when you're on your own and can go without clothes and not care at all.

Pidus, I completely agree. Now I go into the locker room, and don't even blink when an entire swimming team troops out naked from the showers.

Southern hemisphere eh? The land of the thong bikini perhaps :)

12:03 PM  
Blogger Rimi said...

it's slightly tangential, but this reminds me of the whole blazing sari versus 'western' wear debate, the scoring point of the defendants of the latter being that a pair of jeans and a t-shirt/kurta covers way more skin and is far less sensuous than a sari.

the notion of evading 'lustful eyes', as you put it (:D) is again, a contextual one because it works under the assumption that everybody is straight. i am quite casual about what i wear at home when there are just women around, but my would glare if i didn't run off to change the moment the doorbell rang. the thing is, partly, when we're wondering if our bum looks too big, we're trying to figure out if it makes us look unattractive/less desirable.

like i said, this isn't exactly what you were talking about, but well...
and clinton, eh??? and linked you, btw.

4:56 AM  
Blogger AB said...

Don't know about degeneration. But yes it is absolutely sad.

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Varun said...

After reading this post I just realized that even though I have always wanted to go to a nudist beach I can never ever actually go to one. I would simply get a hardon looking at all the naked woman. I don't think I can be ever indifferent enough to nude women to stroll around on a nudist beach without the aforementioned problem.

12:04 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Rimi, that's what my uncle's m-i-l told me explaining why she wears shirts and pants when she visits the US. For her, the stomach baring was a bit too revealing in the American context.

Precisely, the absurdity of assuming that the female gaze on the female body is asexual.

AB, perhaps you should have taken up that London offer then :)

Varun, interesting dilemma. Not that I haven't wondered. It's harder for men to shed clothes in public than women.

12:31 AM  
Blogger The Bangalore Torpedo said...

Re vera, cara mea, mea nil refert.

1:27 AM  
Anonymous AB said...

The offer seems to have expired. My parents are mum suddenly:(

2:48 AM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

i know that for guys even the thought of a girl diagonally opposite to your window walking around in a state of dishabille can be gloriously exhilarating ...

but, i am curious, is it the same way for the girls as well? or is it different for the "ladies"?

3:05 AM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

Need to be a little more reckless than I am now to start thinking details :-)

Happy Thanksgiving!

3:44 PM  
Blogger NoManNomad said...

Hey Thalassa,

Nice blog you have here.. For me, it would be way way to difficult to shed clothes in public. But its certainly one of those things thats very exciting in a liberating sort of a way. Would love to lose my inhibitions.

Neways have a nice day

10:56 PM  
Anonymous anthony said...

Seem busy with ur survey..

10:21 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Torpedos, parakalo :)

AB, you need to wheedle this out of your parents!

Bonatellis, it depends on the man's abilities to arouse desire :)

Pidus, to you too, happy turkey day!

Nomannomad welcome! Yes shedding clothes in public is quite difficult, although to develop greater comfort levels with our bodies is indeed very liberating.

Anthony, not quite :)

1:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First time on your blog - like it a lot!

Just got back from a holiday in Istanbul where I had the pleasure of going to a Hamam (Turkish bath). Bathing in a hamam involves shedding clothes in a communal situation - a first for me. Have done it in swimming pool lockers but this was the first time that i had to hang around a bunch of naked/semi-naked women for an extended period of time. It was a bit awkward at first, but like Rashmi says, after a while, you get used to it and you totally forget that you and people around you are naked. Everyone was happily chatting and enjoying the relaxed, steamy (no pun intended) atmosphere and the body massage. There were women of all shapes and sizes.....very soon, i stopped worrying about my body and started enjoying the overall experience. Quite a liberating experience. will defi try it again!


9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It wasn't uncommon for girls to walk into the hall and then freeze in the realization that they had forgotten the lower half of their outfit

You've got to be kidding me!!! I am a guy who spent 2 years in a guy's hostel. And not once has any guy forgotten the lower half of their outfit. How can girls forget to dress. I say it is deliberate!!!

2:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I workout at a gym six nights a week, and I have grown to be totally comfortable showering and being nude in the women's locker room.

The first time you shower nude in the locker room you might feel a little nervous at first, but after the next couple of times you will no longer have any embarrassment over it, at least not most women anyway, I can't speak for the guys!

One time I even had a conversation with my youngest daughters teacher while we were both showering, and neither one of us were uncomfortable in the least. I think that more women are becoming accepting of their bodies, and we no longer feel the need to hide our nudity from one another in the locker room, at least not at my gym.


11:18 PM  
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2:40 AM  
Anonymous Rachel M. Sevigny said...

Decent blog you have here.. For me, it would be path approach to hard to shed garments in broad daylight. In any case, its absolutely a unique little something that is exceptionally energizing in a freeing kind of a way. Would love to lose my restraints

7:33 PM  

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