Welcome back to Lady Things, the column where we swim in the murky waters of the female experience. This week, we jump feet first into the naked hot tub of public nudity.
By all accounts, as a small child, I loved being naked. There's plenty of photographic evidence—me, pants-less and full of joy, not even remotely aware of how chubby my legs look and how dimpled my butt is.
But as I grew older, I developed an absolute aversion to public nudity. I would wrap myself in a towel to change after swim lessons, even as a 6-year-old. At home we were naked all the time but out in the world, I didn't want anybody to see my horrifying body.
Was it was my internalized shame at being a future woman? Maybe. Was it the neurotic belief that I had from ages 4 to 6 that I had somehow become pregnant? Maybe. (Note: When you explain how babies are made to your young child, be clear—toddlers literally know nothing and they could make some seriously wrongheaded leaps in logic.) Am I, despite my parents' best efforts, a product of a culture that glorifies sexiness while reviling the normal human body as a disgusting affront to decency? Most certainly, yes.
This dislike of nudity continued through my life. I wear shorts at the beach, even now. I wrap a towel around myself until the last possible minute before I jump into the pool.
But what's wrong with public nudity, really? Recently, I started visiting Everett House Healing Center, a sort of hippie spa in Northeast Portland. Initially, I was wary of the place, which advertises itself as "clothing optional." What I wanted was a sauna, not body shame. Also, who wants to sauna in a swimsuit? So on a rainy Saturday, I walked over.
My adult brushes with nudity have mainly been confined to going topless at Burning Man and Sauvie Island. Burning Man can be rough for a normal-to-"healthy" bodied woman. Rich dudes trying to out-rich-dude each other actually fly in models to hang out with. In real life, up close, model asses are perfect. They shouldn't even be mentioned in the same sentence as my ass. They are smooth, impossibly tan, hairless, pimple-less. You know you should turn away but you want to never stop looking. There's nothing to make you want to cover up your body like the proximity of a model's ass.
At Sauvie, the nudity is a little more democratic. But still, most of the women are just topless, and who hasn't seen boobs? And there's plenty of space to spread out, so you're not usually face-to-face with a fully nude man, just chatting.
But at Everett House, once you get into the locker room, almost everyone is naked. They are naked in the showers, in the saunas, in the saltwater hot pool, perched on the edge of the pool, in the plunge tub, in the steam room. I might have never been so naked, so close to so many naked people in my life. And it was magical.
When (almost) everyone is naked, suddenly it doesn't feel weird. It's gratifying in a way, to see what everyone is usually hiding—like learning a secret about everyone immediately. Under our clothes, everybody has a body. And yet, when we see those bodies—not the smooth model ones but the bumpy, lived-in ones—we feel uncomfortable.
Regular-person nudity is so jarring that one artist is planning an installation of 100 naked women to greet Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, and the story is getting tons of press.
We've idealized and then sexualized the naked body so much that we feel confused when we see a normal one without clothes that isn't being sexual or isn't being mocked for its imperfection. We've been taught that the only bodies worthy of love are perfect bodies, and that since our bodies aren't perfect, they are shameful.
But out in the hot pool at Everett Healing Center, there isn't a second of judgement from other people. The rules are pretty clear: It's a non-sexual environment, and there's no unwanted staring allowed. This means everyone is just naked, together.
When you see other people naked, you realize the variety of interesting, differently shaped bodies that exist. And all of them are fun to look at, though at Everett House you better not look too long. When you see that the super-skinny girl has no boobs and that extra-ripped guy has a smallish penis, and how good they look just the way they are, you think, "Maybe my thighs aren't so terrible. Maybe they are awesome, actually."
What if everyone was naked more—even naked around kids? So that instead of feeling like our own weird bodies were the only ones that didn't look perfect on a billboard, we could understand that we fit just right within the breadth of naked humans? What if unclothed bodies weren't always made sexual, which is just part of what naked bodies can be? So that we didn't feel like we had to hide ourselves when we aren't sexy or skinny or shaved correctly? Would we all be happier with ourselves and happier with each other and less afraid, all the time, that someone was about to discover what disgusting freaks we are?
The truth is, we're all freaks. We've got moles in strange places and bumps and scars. But— and sorry to get all woo-y here—our bodies are fucking amazing. They are doing so many things all the time, who cares what the skin looks like? Have you heard about kidneys? Geez Louise.
Also—and this is most important—never subject yourself to a sauna in a swimsuit.