Body Taboo and “Dressed in the Shower” – Increasing Modesty Among Teens in Norwegian Culture
[ This is a translation of an article from a Norwegian news site by Erik Jakobsen. Click here to see the original article in Norwegian by Wenche Bjornebekk master of social work and managing editor of Universitetsforlaget. ]
Issues Pertaining to Body Taboo And Why Norwegian Teenagers Are Showering With Clothes On
Body Taboo – Translator’s Note: Over the past 30 years, the country of Norway has experienced a significant amount of immigration – heavily consisting of people from conservative Middle Eastern and African nations. A couple of weeks ago, a conservative politician asked a question of Norway’s new Minister of Culture (Hadia Tajik, a member of the ruling liberal Labor party, who is the country’s first cabinet minister of Middle-Eastern descent) – What is Norwegian culture in 2013?
The resulting discussion has taken many directions, but the article below is a response by social worker Wenche Bjornebekk who talks about how Norwegian teenagers are becoming more shy about their bodies – to the point of showering with clothing on.
Showering with clothing on is becoming steadily more common and happens not just because of Muslims. It is oppressive and affects women the most.
In the dressing room of Mellos stadium in Moss, Norway, it smelled moldy. The white stone walls had a thin, dark pattern in the corners and up under the ceiling.
The wooden benches were painted green, and the metal hooks hung so high on the wall that 12-year-old girls had to stand on the bench to reach them. The water in the shower was more or less warm. And if we didn’t shower, it was because we would rather swim in Vansjo lake on summer days.
These memories come to me as a polarized debate rages about Norwegian culture. At the same time I read about the celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in Norway, and the Parliament is preparing to reaffirm equality for the first time in 20 years. How does culture contribute – both unspoken and even more unwritten – to how girls (and boys) feel about their bodies? And why does that mean anything?
Liberation and puritanism
To grow up in a Norwegian small town in the 1970’s was no journey in sexual liberation: it was sooner full of contrasts. The culture was changing, with pressure from Norwegian equality politics and with resistance from the town’s roots in religious puritanism. Everyone knew, for example, who the few women were who sunbathed topless. And maybe even when and where they did it. And the glances they received were not attractive for girls going through puberty. At the same time, it was impressive that they dared to do it.
That first memory is followed by another: from the line in the swimming hall’s women’s shower on Saturdays. Thick, damp air and filled with chatting girls and women from three- to 80-years-old. Naked. And not a single Brazilian wax in sight. How we giggled at all of the strange female bodies!
We knew what we had to do, both in the swimming hall and after gym class. We had to wash. With soap and without clothing. This knowledge could of course be painful since we grew at different rates and were either too tall, too fat or too flat, and we had our periods at different times. But from the first day of gym class the gym teacher was there, making sure that everyone did what they were supposed to do and that we didn’t dilly-dally. It was an education in the nature of the human body. We could see with our own eyes that there was a large variation in what was “normal.”
To live in Grunerlokka (an area of the capital Oslo – roughly equivalent to Brooklyn), one gains a great deal of experience with cultural diversity and exciting discussions both in school and at extracurricular sports about how things should be. At varying points we parents have talked about why our children seldom or never shower after gym class or sports practices. When we ask the schools and sports clubs, we get various practical explanations relating to tight schedules, poor-quality locker rooms, and that it’s not a pedagogical requirement to make sure kids shower. But I wonder. At schools where teachers have pressed for showering, we hear about boys and girls who shower with their underwear on.
The French philosopher Mearleau-Ponty states in “The Body’s Phenomenology” that the body is more than its physical attributes – it is through the body and its connections that we master the world around us. It is therefore important how we feel about our bodies. During our entire youth the body changes, and it’s not much fun. The body’s changes make us feel shy and out-of-sync with ourselves.
At the same time, these changes are something we all – yes, all – must go through in order to become adults. Even though strict religious environments always emphasize covering the body and controlling innate desires. Perhaps there is a connection between how we engage and live through these physical and mental changes and how we experience life. There can be less risk for body shame and abuse and more happiness with a body someone likes and is secure in.
More nudity – and more puritanism
The ideals of how the body should be do change with time’s requirements and possibilities. Today we have different conditions for sexuality in the public space than in the 1970’s. There is more nudity and sexual innuendo, and sexual techniques are only a keystroke away. But at the same time, parts of our physical practices have become more puritanical. Young girls have seen “Trekant” (“Triangle”, a Norwegian prime-time television show that explores sexuality), and while they know everything about anal sex, they have never seen their classmates naked.
Where I go to work out these days, the air smells good and there are lockable lockers at the right height. There are several types of bathing rooms and the water in the showers is always warm. And there are many dressed women who are in their prime. The first time I saw a young woman shower with her panties on, I thought: Poor girl, she must certainly have problems since she has such a good body. I don’t think like this anymore. Changing of clothes happens like it does at the beach – and the towel around the body isn’t removed before the protective walls of the shower stall take over.
Norwegian culture consists of many small everyday practices. A few personal experiences don’t mean that an entire culture is changing. In discussions about clothed showering, it is often pointed out that it is happening because of the modesty required by Muslims. But it’s not so simple. Our media is infused with American culture that emphasizes puritan and pious values, which are reflected in television series and films.
Girls affected the most
It is also entirely possible that the lack of nudity in dressing rooms and showers has as much to do with the porn industry’s need for modesty as religious strictness. But regardless, it is oppressive. And this repression affects boys and girls differently. It is still girls’ bodies that face the strongest demand for perfection and are most often vulnerable to abuse and self-torture in the form of eating disorders and cutting. Boys can still conquer the world through physical activities.
Equality between the genders has for several decades been a part of first the governmental and political, and then the personal, Norwegian culture. The politics changed us. Women’s right to have control over their own bodies has been a central part of this. It wasn’t just turned over to individuals, but was systematically worked into practical politics and in pedagogical approaches. We conquer the world through the body. How can women conquer the world with invisible and taboo-stricken bodies?