NOT LONG AGO some summer-camp girlfriends and I had a sleepover, and at about 3 a.m., after we'd exhausted the topics of cute guys and the new 2005 SATs, the talk turned to our 16-year-old bodies: thighs, bellies, hair, boobs, booties. Did we like them? Did Jess wish she had Nomi's legs, did Maggie covet Natasha's complexion? Did we hate changing in the school locker rooms, did we plotz at the thought of being seen in our bikinis?
Sprawled out on sleeping bags, munching on mini-marshmallows and Cheez Doodles, we were somewhat surprised to find out that we all shared a similar sentiment: We felt fine about our bodies. Sure, Natasha confided, she wished her boobs were "more symmetrical," and Maggie that she had "less hairy upper-inner thighs," but in a hierarchy of things that obsessed us, these issues fell fairly low on the list. We looked, we all agreed, "good enough" for the locker rooms. And at the beach? Well, chicken legs, love handles, flat chests . . . they were just what we'd been dealt.
We knew that this level of body acceptance was very different from that of most teenage girls. America's consumerist culture, after all -- the vast self-improvement aisles at pharmacies, women's magazines that promise 6 or 8 or 10 steps to a perfect butt month after month, our society's fixation on Hollywood looks -- all seem almost intended to make girls feel like shit. Each one of us knew girls who stuck to mineral water while the rest of us split Chinese food, who passed up incredible class trips because the thought of someone seeing them undressed or without makeup flipped them out.
It was clear to us that our summer camp's overall culture had, to some extent, immunized us against this teen epidemic of body loathing. But how?
"The BIK," Toni said, referring to our camp's communal bathhouse, a plain concrete building -- one side for girls, the other for boys -- where we all (campers, counselors, assorted others) day after day, and summer after summer, showered naked with each other. BIK is a Hebrew acronym for bait keesay ("house of the chair"), a euphemism for bathroom. Ours -- with its no-frills shower rooms -- wasn't anything to write home about: the pipe missing its showerhead, dozens of bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash strewn over a couple of wooden shelves, the slightly slimy floor.
Early in the morning or late at night there might be only two or three showerers in the BIK, but at rush hours like right before Shabbat or just after swim, there's hardly standing room. The building is intended for use by campers 12 or 13 and older, but as the single-shower stalls in the younger kids' bunks inevitably break and flood, they often use the BIK regularly, too.
In the BIK, a 10-year-old camper rinsing off after a swim might suddenly find herself in a room full of naked singing 15-year-olds and counselors -- and maybe a nurse or lifeguard or two -- every one of them exhibiting an impressive ease with exposing their differently shaped bodies. "It's like the Great Equalizer," said Toni through a mouthful of Cheerios, "a place where you see all these differently shaped bodies that make you realize how ridiculous it would be to spend every minute of every day miserable about how you look."
"And when you're 8 or 10 or 12," someone else chimed in, "and you see all the older girls you completely idolize having very not ideal bodies, but they're singing and chatting and doing the naked hokey-pokey, discussing what kind of potato chip they like, you see that they're 100 percent comfortable being naked, and you want to have that comfort, too."
The lessons we learned at the BIK are profound (and extremely countercultural). Here are six properties that I think made the BIK work for us:
It requires an initial leap of faith. When a girl first steps into the BIK naked (a lot of girls start out showering in their bathing suits, and then there's that day when they "take it all off"), it's scary. You have to pretend you feel fine when you really don't, hoping that pretending turns into the real thing. It does.
There's a culture of support. The larger culture makes you feel inadequate, and the truth is that the constant competition is exhausting. The BIK is a relief from that. Everyone who steps into the BIK is affirming an implicit covenant: We support one another. Being naked was (or is) difficult for every single one of us -- and that creates a feeling of safety.
It's multigenerational. The larger culture is pretty age-segregated, so the 8-to-25-year-old population of the BIK is unique. For younger girls, being able to identify with older females is a source of pride. The older girls and counselors, for their part, know that they are role models for the young showerers, and having that "responsibility" provides a potent incentive to be, as one counselor told me, "positive and open and free about our bodies."
The BIK is a reality check. Showering with dozens of other females over the course of a summer means that you see bodies of all different shapes and sizes. It cures you of the oppressive belief that you're the only one who is imperfect. Hannah, 16, recalls one shower during which every girl put forward her largest physical insecurity. Hannah's overwhelming memory is that she hadn't noticed any of these things -- a mole on the backside of someone's ear, different-colored nipples, a faint unibrow. "It suddenly occurred to me that the things I obsessed about, other people weren't noticing about me, either," Hannah says.
It's pushing back against American culture. It's unbelievable -- and tragic -- to realize that it's actually subversive for females to feel okay about their bodies, to take back our right to feel even adequate. As one of my friends said, "We should be arrested for feeling this good about ourselves."
It's joyful! When you're naked in the shower and your whole self is out there for everyone to see, you basically have nothing more to lose. You can regress to the years before you learned to feel insecure about your body and, like a toddler, just enjoy the opportunity to run around nude. It's pure liberation.
Showering in the BIK is affirming, empowering, and fun, and it gives us the tools we need to keep working at the ongoing struggle for self-acceptance. The greatest challenge is during the winter months, when, lonely under the showerhead, you begin to feel too fat, or too flat, and you have to work to recall the lessons of the BIK.
"At home I try to spread the BIK just by being completely accepting of people -- in every way, but especially physically," said Toni. "Everyone has the potential to be comfortable with her body, but not everyone has the privilege."
Reprinted from the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith (Fall 2004). Subscriptions: $21/yr. (4 issues) from 250 W. 57th St., Suite 2432, New York, NY 10107; www.lilithmag.com.