Monday, July 21, 2008

Sweating it Out

When I was seven or eight years old the prime attraction of a hotel stay was the possibility of an indoor swimming pool. I've never been a water lover, but when my best friend and I were lucky enough to unfold ourselves from the back seat of her family's Suburban after six or eight hours on the road, we flung on our bathing suits and sprinted toward the pool because the pool meant we were on vacation. And next to the pool at the Holiday Inn there was always a teeny tiny wood-lined sauna where we played around throwing water on the fake lava rocks and climbing up and down the cramped benches until a hotel employee sent us back to our room to eat Domino's pizza.

So I've always known what a sauna is, though I didn't realize until recently how popular they are in some parts of the world, and even then I shrugged off the practice as one more quirky European habit I'll never understand. Sitting and sweating naked, feeling my lips chap and trying to stand the heat for one more second, hoping the stranger on my left doesn't remove his towel before I gasp toward the door and the fresh air outside? Nope. Didn't get it. But lately my head has been miserably clogged with allergies and tense with the anxieties of the move. My sinuses are overflowing and my neck is clenched, and yesterday when a friend suggested we spend the afternoon swimming and sweating, I decided it might be a perfect antidote for my ailments.

That's how I found myself inhaling eucalyptus aroma in a hazy roomful of nude men and women (yes, I was naked too), as we gazed at an aquarium of exotic fish installed in the wall. Nemo flitted among the coral and I sat there in my altogether, trying to liken this spa-like experience to the cramped stinky quarters at the Holiday Inns I've known and really, there was just no comparison. I wandered between a steam room with flickering starlights in the ceiling to an outdoor hut larger than my own living room, complete with roaring fireplace. I felt my nose clear and my shoulders fall. I breathed lemon-scented heat, then plunged into a peaceful pool with a view of...well, with a view of a bunch of naked people.

I lay there in the water, watching fifty unclothed bodies stroll from sauna hut to bar to lounge chair. I worried about the etiquette of the situation (Should I look? If not, why is everyone else looking? If so, isn't that weird?) and then I finally got distracted by all the fascinating people I saw. The last time I saw so many nude bodies in one place was either onscreen in "Eyes Wide Shut," or backstage at a ballet performance in college, and those were just flashes of skin. But here I saw beer-sipping, laughing, lounging, negotiating, strolling, pretzel-eating. Old people, kids, long hair, pink hair, a guy with just one hand, and what looked like a business meeting in one corner of the bar. All without clothes, or towels, or bathrobes. Though one lady was wearing Crocs.

I don't spend much time thinking about my body. I inherited genes that keep my weight issues to a minimum, and I've never had the kind of curves that make anyone sit up and take notice, so really I'm just grateful that it does what I need it to do - walk, house my brain, digest almost anything, grow a cute kid. But I realized as I lay there watching some lady scold her kid for running near the pool (yes, they were both naked) I've had a seed of an idea in the back of my brain that Normal People have bodies like Victoria's Secret models. And that's because the only time I see naked or nearly-naked women, it's in a lingerie ad or on a skin poster. And the last time I saw a bunch of people like me without their clothes on was in the locker room in high school PE when we were all 20 pounds lighter and firmer in every way.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to advocate handing out towels and collecting clothing at the door of your next corporate event (BlogHer 2009: The Year We All Went Naked!), or even promoting nudie posters of big beautiful ladies (though that sounds good too). But what if, at the gym, I didn't hide behind the locker door and instead allowed the group of giggling tween girls changing into their swimsuits to see what a grown-up lady looks like? What if I had seen my squishy grandma's body, including her mastectomy scar, without clothes when I was forming ideas about strong women? What if we were allowed to see what even those Dove ads don't tell us: that women's nipples are different sizes, and people have hair in different amounts and different places, and even that girl you think of as skinny and gorgeous has cellulite on her hips?

What then?


Nicole said...

That is a great post, and indeed one of the things I also experienced living in Europe. The locker rooms at the local pools were just chock full of normal women of all ages with normal bodies who didn't give a shit if other women saw them. It's so different than the way women here get undressed, behind towels and (as you say) lockers and individual cubicles. Even the showers were communal at most Czech pools, and I remember two older ladies in particular who would soap each other's backs. It was so sweet.

I think in the U.S. we are totally out of touch with what the real female body looks like, and that's partly why most women spend their lives hating their bodies. It's sad. I totally agree that there needs to be more normal nakedness to get people over that. :) I'm up for naked BlogHer if you are.

C N Heidelberg said...

I just read an article a couple of days ago that suggested taking your kids to try on clothes at places that have open dressing rooms so they can see what real bodies look like, to counter the warped media images. Similar to your idea!!

Christina G said...

Great post! I'm pretty much okay with my body in all the various sizes it's been over the years, but I've never felt as good about it as I did right after going to a nude spa in Budapest. I think Americans would be so much happier about their bodies if they could see what normal people look like, instead of comparing themselves to airbrushed, photoshopped genetic abberations.