Growing up I was always acutely aware of all the ways my body simply didn’t fit the mold of what I thought it meant to be a woman. I had a round face with full cheeks, a unibrow, increasingly dark upper lip hair that rivaled that of the bar-mitzvah-aged boys of my grade, short stocky legs with thick thighs, long sideburns, and — most devastatingly embarrassing to me— hairy arms. The magazines I read confirmed my insecurities, and the characters in movies and TV that I looked up to (specifically Sandy from Grease, and later Summer from The O.C.) gave me a very narrow definition for what it meant to be a valuable and desirable woman. Desirability was the key. At the core of it, I had inferred that femininity equaled desirability, and how I felt about myself and my body was based on how I assumed others saw me. This dissociated sense of self felt normal and natural — as natural as it felt to suck in my stomach all day.
I looked to outside cues to create guidelines on how to make my body more acceptable, and by eighth grade I had developed a solid routine to keep my body up to par. I joined Weight Watchers and journaled about my weight loss journey; mastered the blowout (a blowout that felt very precious and that I protected wholeheartedly); successfully erased all traces of frizz in my hair each morning before school; began wearing Spanx under my jeans as I waited for my flat stomach to emerge from all the carrots (zero WW points!) and crunches I’d committed to. This prep work often started the night before with a facial hair waxing session. I would never dare do this level of grooming in the morning because showing up to school with irritated red patches of skin that seemed to scream “I have to remove hair from my face” was a mortifying thought. Just as important as it was for me to prepare my body in this way, it was vital to give the illusion that I didn’t have to make these edits in the first place. This behind-the-scenes regimen and the secrecy of it made me feel even more embarrassed and alone. It was mentally and physically exhausting.
The only reprieve from this feeling came during the summers I spent at my Jewish sleepaway camp — and more specifically, in my bunk at this camp. For two months out of the year I was surrounded by other girls twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Each day was a whirlpool of nudity; the bunk swirling with soft tummies, pubes at varying levels of fullness, and butts — some that were curiously smooth and others that resembled mine with a cute little triangular patch of wispy hair pointing down as if signaling to the buttcrack. I was no longer alone in my perceived deviations from femininity. Having a human body with hair and smells and rolls of fat wasn’t strange. Initially this environment was a shock and I clung to the classic JCC locker room maneuver of squirming underneath my clothing to get undressed to avoid being totally naked. Fortunately for me, the bunk I was staying in that summer had recently been renovated to include two showers. As long-time campers explained, this was a big deal because normally all the campers in the girls’ area would share the larger shower house which was equipped with the suggestions of stalls: flimsy curtains separating shower heads that were typically disregarded to make space for more bathers. It was a free for all naked shower party and terrifying to me at the time.
Shower times — especially on Friday afternoons before Shabbat — were eye-opening enough, so I was happy to take shelter in the private showers we had. I had never gotten ready for an event with other girls, and at camp I shared three mirrors with about twenty girls. When I plucked my eyebrows there were at least two other girls layered on top of me doing the same, sometimes with a boob or two dangling in front of my face in the process. I heard girls talk about their toe hair, the deodorants that kept them sufficiently dry and clear of pit stains, and requests to be on “leak patrol” as we all agreed that periods tend to go rogue the moment we put on a nice outfit. Yes, we were still participating in these almost ritualistic grooming activities to look “better,” but our sticky, hairy humanity was on display — and accepted as just that. Human. It suddenly was very fun to have an unpredictable and messy body.
Midway through the summer, the private showers ran out of hot water just hours before Shabbat and I had no choice but to brave the shower house. I was one of just a handful of girls in my bunk who famously chose to wash up in the bunk each night, and some decided to stay true and withstand the cold water. I seized the moment, locked eyes with one of my fellow newbies, and with a knowing nod we went off to the shower house together. We nervously stood in line with the other girls — campers and counselors alike — and wondered if we would ever be so confidently blasé about being this naked in front of this many people. Everyone was chatting with each other, catching up on each other’s days, totally unaffected by the nudity they were about to offer up. My fellow modest friend and I quietly agreed that we would keep our flimsy shower curtain closed (at least at first, and go from there). As we found ourselves at the font of the line, we stepped into a cloud of steam and through to a truly magical and disorienting scene. There were wet, naked bodies everywhere. Soap suds clinging to full bushes and shaved pubis alike. Even the cool older girls had real bodies; with fat and stretch marks, dimpled butts, and boobs of truly every shape and size I could imagine — some that I honestly didn’t know existed. We shuffled into our space, mesmerized and a bit overwhelmed. Once in the shower house it suddenly felt a little silly to be hiding our bodies because there was clearly nothing either of us had going on that hadn’t been seen before. What was there to hide? After a quick shampoo, we decided to draw back the curtain. And just like that I was simply another body roaming freely, nothing to critique, nothing to change, nothing to hide.
The drawing back of the curtain was a eureka moment of sorts, but it wasn’t a magic cure-all that erased all my insecurities or body hang-ups; swim class remained my most dreaded hour of the day and I subjected myself to a host of diets over the years. But I had found a space to let all that pressure go; spending two months of the year with these girls encouraged me to (if only for a moment) reconsider the ideas I had about how I had to look or how women should look. I left each summer knowing that me and my body had a loving home to come back to.
Ariella Elovic holds a BFA in Communication Design from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been featured by The New Yorker, Teen Vogue, Refinery 29, Buzzfeed, KAAST, and Womanly Magazine. Ariella has collaborated with various female-interest brands, including Lunette Cup, What’s In Your Box?, Lunapads, and Cora for Women. She lives in New York.