Inspired by a recent trip, Katie Hughes explores the connection between Japanese Onsen culture and body image.


Growing up, the only “real” woman I ever saw naked was my mother. This will be true for many if not most girls in the UK. As we grow up, we start seeing actresses in love scenes on television, or underwear models, and they are lauded as beautiful. Neither the actresses nor models looked anything like our mothers. Worse, in typical self-deprecating fashion our mothers are unlikely to say anything positive about their bodies. We grow up in an echo chamber of complaints and worries: size, weight, calorie counting, and clothes that ‘skim’ the parts that are supposedly unappealing. Is it any wonder that we have such dreadful body image issues in the United Kingdom? With eating disorders and other mental health issues on the rise especially in young girls. In a 2004 study the prevalence rates in Western countries for anorexia in females is almost double the prevalence rates in non-Western countries.

I think Japan has the solution. It’s called an Onsen.

Onsen is the name for a Japanese hot spring, and people used to open inns around these springs in order to create indoor bathing facilities. They are a similar concept to the Roman baths, with a variety of different pools of different temperatures but all just a little deeper than a paddling pool. You shower first and then walk, into the pool of your choice to let your body absorb the minerals. This all sounds relaxing, but for me, there was a daunting aspect of the experience: it is compulsory to be naked. Naked in front of strangers.

On the first day I walked in and used a facecloth to cover my front, convinced that I would be the largest, or hairiest, or ugliest woman in there. I sat in the pool with my legs bent to hide my belly and only then did I look around. It was relieving and almost as relaxing as the warm water and steam. Naked women, everywhere. Some with body hair; some with none, some with muscles, some with curves, some with cellulite, some with inky blue veins, some with scars, some with love handles, some with protruding collarbones.

After the soaking, one walks into the bathroom/ changing area and there’s the usual sort of things: a large mirror with stools along it and hairdryers and lotions provided. Nothing particularly remarkable. What was remarkable from my foreign perspective was that women would sit without towels or clothes on the stools. Completely naked, they rubbed lotion, brushed their hair and chatted to their friends. All embracing the folds that occur when sitting. Sisters, friends, mothers, children all together in this bizarre but empowering little bubble.

I went to the Onsen every day, and each time I went I stood up a little straighter, stretched out a little further, stopped sucking in or using my facecloth. It ended up being my favorite part of my day and I always left feeling incredibly healthy and happy and dare I say… pretty.

There are things about Onsens that we could never recreate in the UK; the sensation of falling snow and rising steam meeting in the middle and silently compounding above your head. However, we can and should recreate that feeling which is created by soaking and being with naked women in a relaxed environment as part of our weekly routine. We have very confused and warped expectations of our naked bodies. We treat our naked bodies as if they were intended to be ornamental and thus, we only view them as objects that if they do not conform to the mould of the aesthetic ideal should be considered shameful, even obstacles to happiness and success.

Exposure to the corners, curves, and crevices of normal women creates a destigmatised and more realistic perspective. Inevitably this sensible shift in perspective can act as a weapon in our generation’s battle against low self-esteem and negative body images.