I live in Netherlands now, and have noticed the numerous differences between Europe and the United States. One of these is the fact that in many saunas/spas, you are required to go in your birthday suit.
In the U.S. we have no problem putting half-naked people on huge billboards and all over magazines. But, tell a group of Americans to strip down naked in front of each other and they’ll look at you with the same horror I reserve for bathrooms at nightclubs. In Europe, nudity is seen as natural rather than the hyper-sexualized way it’s portrayed in American television and movies.
I put my apprehension and fear aside to step into an experience so far out of my comfort zone that it became a minuscule dot in the distance, only visible with military grade binoculars. The experience: a naked spa. Shock! Horror!
Walking into the locker room, I looked around for separate men’s and women’s sections. There were none. I realized my naked sauna experience had already begun. I found a little corner of the locker room and began to undress. I heard people entering and threw on my robe as fast as possible, looking around with crazy eyes as if I was Eve hiding behind a bush to preserve my modesty. When I was finally ready, and naked under my robe, I walked into the main part of the complex.
(I did worry for a second that I would be the only naked person. I’ve had vivid dreams of this happening while I was standing in my high school cafeteria.)
There were dozens of showers, various types of saunas and steam rooms, a pool, and a hot tub. Oh, and about 100 naked people. I gingerly took off my robe and tried to wrap a towel around myself. I looked around, nervous and not really sure what to do first. A woman came up next to me and whipped off her robe, put it on the hook, and walked away with the confidence of Naomi Campbell.
By nature, I felt like I should be covering up in public. I felt as if my body was something to be kept private, even if I did have the exact same parts as everyone else. I was worried about the assessment other people might give me, and the judgement prying eyes would cast upon my looks.
I took off my towel and walked over to the showers, quickly side-stepping around people, and trying not to bump into anyone (you would be surprised how much you worry about accidental physical contact in this situation.)
I stood in a line of about 10 other people, men and women, trying to enjoy the warm water and relax. I had avoided eye contact with everyone up to this point, however I realized by doing this it looked like I was staring at their bodies, and I immediately moved my gaze upwards.
In the showers I got pretty curious and looked at the bodies around me, surprised at the various shapes and sizes. Breasts of different sizes, with nipples of different shapes. Flat butts, round butts, curvy stomachs, flat stomachs; all I had ever really looked at was celebrities who, like a Victoria’s Secret catalog, always looked exactly the same.
After my shower, I walked back to find my robe, feeling a bit like a baby alien (naked, wet, and surrounded by other bodies in similar circumstances.) I stepped into a sauna that was nice and dark, and I laid down, relaxing for the first time. I noticed a woman sitting across from me who looked so comfortable in her own skin. She was older, with 2 round folds of skin on her stomach, and slim legs.
In the U.S., we’re taught that you should cover up your body if it doesn’t look absolutely perfect. We’re constantly dieting, and hate-exercising at the gym as if we can never be good enough. We study photo-shopped celebrities on the covers of magazines or criticize other women to make ourselves feel better.
In Europe, especially in Netherlands, there is a distinct feeling of “this is who I am, take it or leave it.” Hundreds of people were walking around this sauna, putting their bodies out there in public, and feeling completely confident and relaxed about it.
I exited the sauna, and walked across the room with my head held high, with the same Naomi Campbell walk as the woman before me. But, I was in my own body, and that felt pretty damn good.