Thursday, December 10, 2015

When nakedness is...relative

I took a deep breath, looking at myself in the mirror. You can do this, Catherine. Everyone is doing it. It’s fine. You’re fine. I walked toward the door. See? You can do this. Down the hall...were they looking at me?, wait? Yes? They were!!? I glanced down, AGH! How do people do this? I just feel so NAKED! 

Let’s play a game. Which picture was I so worried about looking like?

I'm on the right in a carefully draped sari.
Here I'm going hiking.
The answer is....B! I was in Australia this last time around and was trying to convince myself that wearing jeans with no fabric to wrap around my waist wasn’t going to mark me as an escapee from the red light district.

Modesty is dictated by culture. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), a modest woman is careful to cover herself from her waist to past her knees, not allowing any outline of her thighs or curves to show....but in some places, as long as she’s married and has had kids, topless is quite acceptable!

Traditionally, women wore the grass skirt, or purpur. Nowadays, the purpur is only used for special occasions, like this dedication of a maternity wing at a local hospital.

These purpur are very fancy! (photo taken in Madang)
A classic woman’s dress in PNG is a laplap (a wraparound skirt, like a sarong, that goes to mid-calf or ankles) and a meri blaus (a large baggy shirt that reaches somewhere between the hips and the calves).
Here I am in a meri blaus and laplap

However, with 830 different language and culture groups in PNG, fashions also vary throughout the country.  Out in the islands, it’s common to wear white to church, and sleeveless is reserved for only garden work—puffed sleeves should be worn in the classroom or formal occasions. Out in Western and Gulf Provinces, women skip the meri blaus entirely and wear baggy shirts with skirts or loose capris (or culottes—which is basically a separated skirt). With the influx of Western culture, some towns are a bit more daring—women are starting to wear wide trousers with a short meri blaus just past the hips.

Various styles...from loose capris to culottes to skirts (and we're complaining how our boat driver didn't get muddy at all!)

Appropriate horseback riding attire means I either tie a laplap around my waist or wear a long meri blaus over my jeans or breeches. When I go swimming, I start with a swimsuit...but then I generally throw on a t-shirt (for sun protection) and a pair of men’s board shorts (baggy, down past my knees).

Here's my friend sporting a lovely laplap!

A long meri blaus does the trick.
Men’s clothing rules are a bit freer. Traditionally, men wore only a malo or a loincloth. Nowadays, as long as the clothes aren’t tight (and shorts are around knee length), they can pretty much wear anything (or nothing...), including pajamas, bathrobes, and women’s bright pink blouses! Formal events, like church or workshops, usually find the men wearing button down shirts and long trousers (and in the outer islands, men will even wear a laplap).  Shoes and socks are always optional, of course (most people here wear flip-flops/thongs or just go barefoot).

At the same maternity wing celebration, men wore traditional (and very fancy) dress.

So, you can imagine, after living in a place where my knees haven’t seen the light of day in public for years, wandering past the beaches of Cairns or Hawaii is a bit like diving headfirst into the waters of Antarctica!