One of my favourite places in Sweden, Ribersborg kallbadhus.
If you want to get rid of body image-related fiemies in a quick way, a very good place to start is a Swedish sauna. And it’s one of the reasons, when I lived here, why I insisted on taking South African friends saunering – even when they would really rather have done just about anything else than walk around buck naked amongst foreign strangers. Because, let’s be honest, we grew up with some mightily messed up ideas about nudity and our bodies. When I was it school it was normal to go into the toilet cubicle to change for P.T. lest – God forbid – your peers got a glipse of your bits. Never mind the fact that we all had the same damn bits. It was also school policy to run random underwear checks (seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up) to make sure the young women of the nasie had the requisite commitment to their country (or something) to wear the prescribed nylon broeks – in my high school these were maroon – which covered the tops of your thighs and went practically up to your navel. Because if you were voor-op-die-wa enough to wear Woolworths panties, for example, you were definitely on a slippery slope to moral decline, the kind which would end in an anarchy our country could ill afford.
So, we’d stand in a long line and someone (usually the P.T. teacher was given the unenviable task) would move down the line and lift our tunics to see which girls were committed members of the volk and which were contributing to South Africa’s moral decay. And amidst this Calvinist-inspired hysteria about the showing of skin, the only naked bodies we saw – aside from our parents whose privacy we regularly invaded – were the Scope girls with stars on their boobs and the odd, contraband porn movie from the seventies which was usually so grainy you could barely make out what anybody was doing. And it was from this deeply conservative upbringing that I arrived in Scandinavia and discovered the most interesting contradiction about this nation and ours. In South Africa, especially back in the day, it was quite acceptable to leave a party so drunk you had to walk with one eye closed, get in your car and drive home. It was also okay, at said party, to partake in any array of recreational drugs which – amongst certain friends, anyway – were used and exchanged freely. Sometimes it was as harmless as a joint, but I’ve been to a braai in deepest suburbia where caps of acid were offered on a saucer as if they were chips and dip until everyone was so high they stopped talking to each other and instead moved anxiously from room to room, in formation, like llamas.
But while this kind of heady licentiousness was kind of par for the course, don’t – whatever you do – take off your clothes. Because that’s bad. In Sweden, exactly the opposite norm prevails. While drinking even a little bit and driving is darkly frowned upon, and drugs are so bad they’re not even mentioned in polite company, you can feel free anytime to go starkers – and people do. Find yourself in town and suddenly the sun came out and you want to tan? Go for it! Discover you forgot to wear underwear that day? No problem! Nobody cares. And that’s the truth. And this is why the sauna experience is such an important reminder – especially for us women who manage to develop some very funny ideas about how we’re supposed to look – that bodies are just bodies, and while their shapes might differ, they are more alike than different. I remember the feeling of fear the first time my Swedish friend, Teresia, took me saunering, of having to strip down completely and walk across a sizeable changing room and into a sauna full of naked people. And then, when it got too hot, walking out with my bare bum facing everyone and strolling down a quay where, 50 metres away and in full view, naked men walked down their own quay and we all cooled off in the cold November sea before doing it all again.
And realising, with amazement, that I was the only one who felt uncomfortable. These women – old ones, young ones, bigger ones, smaller ones – were completely at ease with their physical selves. And nobody was perfect. Even the ones who were thin in clothes stripped down to reveal wobbly thighs, knock-knees and droopy boobs. But nobody cared. Nobody even looked. They chatted and laughed and sweated and swam and showered and lathered and bent down to pick up their water bottle without a moment’s self-consciousness. It was a beautiful thing to observe, and it changed the way I saw and felt about myself. Seeing these bodies in the cold light of day – zits on bums, stretched nipples, bony knees – reminded me that the perfection I demand of myself is unrealistic and unattainable, that nudity is not sexual, it’s just nude, and that there is a zone of self-acceptance you can enter if you choose. Not that I always get it right, but being amongst sisters who were that at ease with themselves meant that some of their togetherness rubbed off on me. I wanted to take the freedom I felt in that space and bottle it so that I could access it on days I felt iffy and like I didn’t quite make the grade. Instead, I will share some things I discovered which I think are important to know.
1. Most Women Have Outies…
Based on no scientific research whatsoever, I would say that less than 5% of women look like the ones in porn movies. So, please can we stop this insane trend towards standardising our fannies? There is no ‘right’ look. And, by the way, men don’t give a crap, they’re just happy to be allowed in.
2. …And Ordentlike Bushes
Ja, you get the odd landing strip but, for the most part, woman go au natural, true story. We’re bushy. A lot of us don’t even deal with the hair that creeps down the thighs. And while it’s not my best look, I think it’s fabulous that there are women who genuinely don’t care. So, while some of us walk around feeling slightly skaam about the fact that our lady topiary isn’t always as perfectly trimmed as it could be, it’s good to know that neither is anybody else’s. And anyway, who has the time?
3. At Some Point You Lose Your Pubes
The only Brazilians I encountered belonged to women in their sixties who didn’t really look like the type to be having crazy sex which led me to the assumption that the pubes went of their own free will. So, instead of waxing and shaving everything away, maybe we should enjoy the fact that we have hair down there. It means we’re not old. Yet.
4. Fannies are Not Beautiful (and that’s okay)
Neither are the bodies they’re attached to. Real bodies have bumps and stretch-marks; remove the Spanx and the Wonderbras and women have pot-bellies and hips and boobs that go south. Its okay. Life is not a freaking beauty pageant. And the people we try to emulate, the actresses and the models, are amongst the saddest, most messed up people alive. Let’s be strong and healthy and do fun, interesting things rather than worrying whether one labia minora might or might not be slightly longer than the other. It’s not what you’re going to think about on your death-bed which means it’s not important so don’t think about it now.
5. Fannies are like Feet
They differ from each other, but less than you’d expect. And when you see them a few inches away from your face they’re much less mysterious than we’re led to believe. They’re just a part of our bodies, and while they are used for sex it’s not like we have sex all the time. Mostly we just put them in undies and go do the grocery shopping. So let’s stop fixating, be happy we have one that works and get on with our lives.