Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cultural Perspectives on Modesty

It's not often that culture shock really hits me any more. Not that I am above culture shock, just that I continue to adapt to the Latin culture more and more. While I may have moments of confusion or discomfort, I generally feel fairly comfortable in most situations these days, or at least I can sort of figure out what's going on.

So it really caught me by surprise the other day when something happened that left me standing speechless, mouth hung open.

The kids and I went to a balneario (swimming pool) last Sunday with our neighbors and some of their friends.  I went to the locker room to change into my swimsuit.  I didn't see any changing rooms, so just changed in one of the toilet stalls.  When I came out, that's when I saw it. Women walking around, well, completely naked. No pena (shame). No attempts to even try to cover any part of themselves as they walked back and forth to the showers and toilet stalls.  I think I froze.  I hope I didn't stare!  Am I just a prude?

It's not like I'm not used to nudity...after all, the tribal group my parents worked with in Colombia didn't really use much clothing and it never really bothered or affected me because that's just the way they were and I accepted it.

But I guess this is one aspect of the Mexican culture that I had not yet been exposed to (no pun intended!), because it really caught me unaware.  I returned to where my friends were sitting and I debated whether or not to mention it, but then I realized it was a great opportunity to get some further insight into the culture here.

They laughed when I told them, and it did lead into an interesting conversation about cultural perspectives on modesty, etc.  Apparently, complete nudity is quite common here in women's locker rooms and steam baths and is nothing to be embarrassed about.

They were quite interested in the fact that the nudity would surprise me since they had the idea that everyone from the U.S. is quite liberal in all things.  I shared with them that not all Americans are frat-party, girls-gone-wild, Spring-Break-at-Panama-City-Beach sort of people like they might see on t.v.  That some of us are from staid, Bible-beltish Midwest region and we don't necessarily care to bare ourselves in front of other people at the drop of a hat.

Most locker rooms in the U.S. that I've seen have individual changing rooms and I would say that most people, well, women anyway (I don't think that I am qualified to comment on men's locker room habits), would avail themselves of the changing rooms instead of changing out in the open.  And most would probably use a towel or something to cover at least some part of their bodies in the locker room (of course, I could be out of touch with reality since I'm not that up on popular culture back in the U.S. these days).

We talked about other aspects of modesty, other differences.  In Mexico, many women feel very comfortable showing more cleavage than is normal in the U.S. (well, at least in many places in the states and among more conservative people).  It is more appropriate for women in the U.S. to cover up more of the chest area than here in Mexico.

On the other hand, most Mexican women cover up their legs much more than in the U.S.  My friends told me that until recently, most women still wore skirts in this part of the country.  While pants and blue jeans are now very common here, skirts are still worn by many older women, especially in the more rural areas.

Although it was interesting for me to notice that at the pool, there was a wide range of bathing suits, from quite revealing to rather modest.  I gather that in that particular setting, it is not inappropriate to wear even a very revealing suit. I did notice, however, that while not actually in the pool, most of the women preferred to wear some sort of cover over their suit. And there were quite a few older women who didn't even swim or get close to the pool, they were there just to accompany the family.

In comparison to the U.S., shorts are rarely worn in public here in Mexico except for specific events, such as for exercise and sports.  According to my friends, this is because the sight of skin on legs, especially above the knee, is more of a turn-on for Latin guys.  Pants and jeans are often very tight, but as long as skin is not showing it is considered modest.  My neighbor told me that in many cases of violence against a woman, she might be blamed for the violence by dressing provocatively, showing too much of her legs.

This is an interesting contrast because in the U.S. shorts and short skirts are very common and not necessarily considered immodest or inappropriate for public attire.  

So anyway, I've been thinking more about cultural differences and how much I have yet to learn about the Mexican culture.  There will most likely be some more surprises for me around the corner...

So when it came time to change back into our regular clothes, Gracia and I headed back to the locker room.  We thought about changing in the main room just like everyone else, but when push came to shove, we just couldn't do it was back to the toilet stalls for us...maybe next time.


Ellie said...

This made me smile, since my early days were near you and it brought back memories. I used to go to the river on wash day with my little friend. Her mom would strip us, scrub us till we were red all over with a coarse stone, tie our hair in a knot on the top f our heads, and spank our little bottoms as she sent us off to play for the morning. She and the other women washed their laundry, even the clothes they wore. They laid things out to dry, and when they were dry, they called us back from our play t get dressed and walk home.

The village was all there... all mostly naked.... the men were upstream, the women down stream, but the kids ran all over. There was no shame, no embarrassment, and no harassment.

I've been in changing rooms in the US where many women just change out in the open. I've run the gamet from being raised in a "free" environment, then moving to a place where you didn't show your ankles, and then to Europe where people laughed at me for putting a top on my daughter at the pool - "she's just a toddler!". I tend to change out in the open now - like the European's say, "no one will look at you anyway - you are no different than anyone else".

But I did notice that skirts are decent, and shorts are not when I lived there. Strange, huh?

Rebecca Conduff Aguirre said...

Hey, Ellie! Yes, it's all very interesting...what can bring us up short sometimes! :) I still have much to learn...I don't think I would mind so much quickly changing in front of others (women) down to underwear, but it would be quite another to wander around in the buff! lol

Jamie Jo said...

As I read this, I am sitting in southern here in Southern Mexico in shorts (gasp!), hoping no one comes to the door. Call me a prude, but the nekkidness thing still gets to me. I remember being embarrassed having a Temazcal massage with another lady, and well, yeah. No privacy. Yikes. Interesting.

I haven't visited your blog often enough, but I'll be back.

Rebecca Conduff Aguirre said...

Hey, Jamie-Jo! Thanks for stopping by! Yeah, I've gotten to where I hardly wear shorts any more here, even at home! lol Although many women do dress down in their own homes, seems like the 'rules' are different there.

Yeah, I hear ya on the massages, that would be like, awkward! lol

Have a great weekend!