Cultures of the body

I’ve experienced one difference between health care in the US in Sweden that has nothing to do with how folks pay for health care. Instead it is a cultural difference tapping into very different ideas about the body.

In my experience, when you see a doctor in the US, after the nurse takes your vitals they give you a robe to put on. If you are having a full exam they also give you what is basically a sheet to have on your lap.  They leave while you get changed. When the doctor is examining you, s/he does it in such a way that only a little of you is exposed at any given time. Your always mostly covered and you are never just completely, nakedly, visible.

Here it is just not like that. On my first trip to the hospital I was having my first ever mammogram. I got in the exam room and the doc said. “Okay. Just take off your shirt.” And then I stood there topless while we put my info into the system and had the mammogram. The whole thing probably took 5 minutes but it felt like ages to me because I felt so exposed. The same thing happened the next time I had a physical exam. The doctor said, “You can get undressed. Put your clothes on that chair,” and offering no robe or anything that I could use to cover up, went to sit next to the exam table to wait for me.

Of course then I bracketed my horror, took a deep breath, mentally recited my two globe-trotting maxims “When in Rome,” and “Like water over rocks,” and got on with things. And it didn’t take long before I felt completely fine and recognized that I was having a cross-cultural experience that could give me some insight into my own cultural programming.

I think it was my first trip to Sweden more than 10 years ago when I  formed the vague notion that bodies were handled differently in the US and Sweden. The Swedish newspaper I was perusing ran a story about a local hotspring and featured photos of a crew of middle-aged folks who frequent the spot. The photos captured them as they lounged about and swam in their speedos and bikinis. I noted immediately that in the US you wouldn’t typically see images like this – of average, middle-aged bodies complete with stretch marks and hair and soft middles. If you did see such bodies, they would probably be the focus of the article (say on the questionable choices of swim fashion in the 50+ set) and you would probably not even see their faces because the idea would be that you would protect the identity of people who looked like that – that their identities should not be tainted by the image of their bodies. If you did see some faces it would be because the individuals you were looking at were spearheading a movement for the acceptance of their bodies (or speedos). This lack of acceptance in the US of bodies that aren’t “perfect” in some increasingly impossible sense isn’t confined to the media. It get translated into the discomfort so many of us feel  – that we are too round, too soft, too covered with stretch marks or “cottage cheese,” too hairy, too busty, or not busty enough, etc. – and try to remedy with diets and wardrobes that are designed to hide and camoflage the parts of us we would rather deny or that we feel unsafe revealing.

It just isn’t like that here. The article that included the pictures of folks in their swimsuits made no mention of the people or their bodies – there was nothing noteworthy about it. It’s not that people in Sweden don’t care about their appearance. I would even go so far as to suggest that, on average, folks put more effort into their appearance (looking clean, tidy and au courant) here than in the US. All the same, people don’t seem to be ashamed of, in denial about the appearance of, or concerned with improving their bodies the way that we are in the US. In general, you just get the feeling that people are not motivated by some idea of “the perfect body.”

So, the doctors in Sweden don’t offer me the opportunity to hide my body because it doesn’t occur to them that I would think I needed to hide it. I have learned to feel vulnerable and exposed when my body is uncovered while they see bodies as a normal, unremarkable fact of life.

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This entry was posted in In Sweden, Interculturalism, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cultures of the body

  1. Pingback: Sjukvårdsadministration och lite naket « West 96th street

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