Bodies, Perception and Self-Protection
(Disclaimer: this post contains generalizations. If I allowed for every exception it would run for far more pages)
I grew up in a solid professional-class town in Minnesota, a community full of German Catholics and Scandinavian Protestants, people who greeted each other on the street and analyzed every comment made after all social gatherings. There were creative types and a small artistic-natural vibe: organic community farms, an art gallery, street fairs and festivals, an established co-op (of which we were the 128th member), an alternative bookstore with tarot cards and crystals, massage services and acupuncture, forest conservation and environmental education movements. But in many ways it was still a very closed town – people were afraid to do anything out of the norm, knowing that everybody else would talk about and judge them for it – for years to come. The smallest change in clothing was creative, unique. One day walking down my high school hallway I realized that all five girls in front of me were all wearing the exact same pair of American Eagle jeans.
I also grew up in a tourist town – the second biggest tourist attraction in Minnesota after the mall of America, to be exact. In the summer people came in their speedboats and clogged our city streets in deep tanned skin spilling out from fluorescent bikinis and florid tops. Most locals despised the summer speedboat tourists – too loud, too brash, too un-cultured and drunk and upsetting (especially during the annual LumberJack Days when our main park turned into one giant trashheap and nobody could find parking within a mile of Main Street). Only a small percentage of our neighbors and family friends benefitted from the tourist industry – most people commuted daily to the main city or worked in large locally-based industries like 3M.
Somehow out of this came an extreme sensitivity when it came to bodies and flesh. Americans in general are sensitive about their skin – I think no other culture has such a phobia of fatness (balanced by an equal phobia of talking about fatness), such fear of confronting their own bodies, such fear of standing in front of their naked flesh. When I think back to my summers at the beach, or comments my mother would make about my early outfits, it seems that where skin is involved people (and by people here I mean females) in my hometown were always either showing off the parts that flatter, or hiding those they were ashamed of. And women are always ashamed of their stomaches, their thighs, their wrinkles, anything that bulges (but boobs) or sags. A women over the age of thirty-five (or thirty even) would nearly never be caught in a public place wearing a bikini. Maybe at a private pool, at home or at a close gathering with friends. But even there she would risk people thinking her too ‘bold’ or a little crude, whispering after she had left. Never would you see a professional woman over fifty in less cover than a one piece.
In first Thailand and then a Turkey I was initially shocked to see so much flesh from women of all ages. And in Turkey no one seemed to be flaunting it. In fact, they were rather nonchalant. We went to the boardwalk beach belonging to N’s housing site outside Bodrum today; being the end of summer almost the only people left are retirees and a few late-start college kids or young professionals. Perhaps fifteen percent of older women were in one pieces, and the rest in bikinis. My mother commented on an earlier picture that I sent of us diving underwater that she would “close her eyes to the skimpiness of my string bikini”, but at the beach I’ve seen plenty of women far older than me and with far more flesh wearing suits that cover far less. Because here young, old, fleshy, slim, skinny – it doesn’t matter. A body is a body, and people will wear what’s comfortable and cool. There’s no shame or hiding. That flesh is there – everybody knows it, and no one seems to be concealing anything that’s already obvious. In short it seems a lot less dishonest than the US, where obesity and silent fat shaming go hand-in-hand with complete dishonesty about our bodies, where I once overheard a plus-size woman eating a salad buried under bacon and croutons drenched in ranch dressing telling a friend over the phone that she had ‘picked up a little salad for lunch’;where we’re practiced with the worlds ‘just a little’, ‘a bit’, ‘a smidgen’, ‘generously sized’, ‘a little extra’, ‘an indulgence’ as if denial of what we ate will make us skinnier.
Turkish women aren’t skinny. Some women are when they’re younger, but it’s generally assumed that women will gain flesh as they age and have children. There’s no shame in that – I don’t see diet pills or advertisements hailing a miraculous return to youth. Curves on a woman are generally considered attractive. Perhaps some people are uncomfortable with the accumulation of flesh, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the majority. Bodies are. People eat what they eat (which is mostly heart-healthy natural food aside from an over-emphasis on red meat).
Complimenting the comfort most people seem to have with their bodies is a lack of piercing, critical judgement. When compared to the US, I nearly never feel stared at here for my body, Not started at like someone is evaluating my skin. We were in Olympos with the girlfriend of a longtime friend of E’s old band buddy. She’s my age but has gained a few rolls in the midsection over the past few years. E commented that she had gained a belly – but unlike in the US this isn’t a mark of biting critique, wasn’t meant to induce shame, and the comment was taken in a friendly, joking manner. Comments on flesh are rarely mean – they’re just an acknowledgement, for both men and women. Where people can be (and are) more honest about their own bodies, comments are more acknowledgement and less attempt to get someone to admit a perceived fault they’d rather hide.
In the East (where people are often more conservative, and more women cover their heads), men are known for being more aggressive in pursuing or catcalling foreign women (before you judge Turkey, recall that this is quite commonplace in parts of Europe and the US as well). Where women are closed, or more concerned about covering their bodies and the sexuality or sin in flesh, skin is stigmatized. But here along the coast flesh is flesh, skin is skin, and bodies are what they are.
In terms of everyday wear though the British actually shock me – sometimes. After years of living in China where the average size is a 32 A and people don’t wear cleavage-baring shirts if simply because there’s usually no cleavage to flaunt, I’ve grown accustomed to covering my chest. But in Europe and the US the necklines plunge and plunge, a fine line between daring and overdone. Push-up bras, plunging necklines, the pulling and pushing and shaping of flesh, a lot exposed here, none exposed there – it all seems too overdone, too anxious, too tawdry. Maybe we could all just relax, be honest with ourselves about food and flesh and exercise, and stop simultaneously hiding from and flaunting in front of others.