I’m not a particularly modest about my body. But I prefer to keep my clothes on around most people, and as you know, certain undignified or even humiliating medical procedures can send me spiraling into a dark pit. And while I try to love my body, to accept that a thicker waist is a reasonable outcome of my genetic background, motherhood, and the passage of time, I’ll admit that I prefer photos that disguise or omit that feature.
That’s my body as I routinely experience it in the western U.S.
Then I carry that same body to the Amazonian rainforest, where my husband and I get to spend some time with a small indigenous group that lives primarily off the forest. Before contact with the outside world in 1956, the Huaorani used to be mostly naked most of the time. Now the subgroup of them who do interact in a limited way with a few outsiders do wear clothing, but they continue to be very relaxed. It’s no big deal for women to nurse their babies openly. (I remember the surprised and even disapproving looks when I tried to do that with my babies.) They make casual jokes about making and drinking a particular medicinal tea that helps them shit out a long intestinal parasite they sometimes develop. They sleep in large hammocks, multiple adult couples in the same room. They are curious and ask personal questions right after they meet you: How old are you? How many children do you have? Why don’t you have any children together with your current husband? How much money do you pay for your house? It’s soon clear that privacy matters much less to them than to us.
So after a few hours of hiking through the forest and visiting the new school, our guide leads us to his small house. It’s essentially a porch and a small kitchen. Across the yard, another small wooden building holds the hammocks. We meet his wife, and he complains to her about how his low back is hurting. They decide to draw once again on a common treatment for backache: she breaks off large branches of a plant similar to poison ivy, he pulls down his pants, and she begins slapping his low back and butt wit the plant. Leaving aside for now my astonishment that anyone would choose to brush a rash-inducing plant over his bare skin, I was also fascinated at his comfort with exposing his rear to virtual strangers.
After his treatment, he began to refasten his pants and showed me a deep scar on his belly, telling me about the time he nearly died from appendicitis. (Most Huaorani speak Spanish as well as Huao, in case you are wondering. I have a one-word vocabulary in Huao: wapuni.) As we talked about scars, I mentioned that I had a Cesarean scar. Naturally he was interested. Vertical or horizontal? Horizontal, I told him. Can I see it? And without hesitation, I slid my pants down to show him the physical reminder of my older son’s birth. You have a little pouch above the scar, he observed; just like I have on both sides of my scar.
Only later did it even occur to me how surprising it was that I could comfortably share this scar and have this conversation with a man I had met only the day before. So little time, and already I had absorbed a more relaxed and accepting stance toward my body. Just imagine living in that kind of culture all the time, instead of one that surrounds us with images of slender teenage bodies and communicating that we should be ashamed if our bodies don’t match those images.