I was talking to a colleague today who had an awkward encounter with a former client at the gym. She was in the locker room changing out of her swimsuit when the woman approached her. “Maybe I’m just a prude,” she told me, “but I couldn’t have a conversation without wearing clothes.”
Some people have no problems with nudity. You see them in the locker room in all their glory, casually drying their hair or checking themselves out in mirrors. They come in all shapes and sizes and, to a certain extent, I envy their nonchalance.
I, on the other hand, am one of those women who turn their backs to the room, face the wall and get (un)dressed dangerously quickly. There have been a couple of times I’ve nearly tangled myself in my clothes in my haste to get them on or off (I know, lying on the ground caught in your own underwear is probably 100x more embarrassing than flashing your ass to the room for a few seconds longer, but I still seem to push the limit). I also don’t use the shower at the gym unless absolutely necessary (read: will have to get on public transportation).
But a couple of years ago, right after I first arrived in Belgium my boyfriend took me to a spa for my birthday. The whole day was a complete surprise — I thought we were going to a barbecue with his fraternity brothers. But when we arrived at the spa, the receptionist led us to a changing room, handed us our robes and towels, took one look at the bikini my boyfriend was taking out of his bag (he packed it for me to keep it a surprise) and informed us that we had just checked in to a nude spa. That’s right, no clothing allowed.
Because my boyfriend had worked so hard to keep it a surprise, I put on a happy face and figured I’d just take one for the team. To say I was uncomfortable would be an understatement. I didn’t know where to look (or where not to) and kept my robe wrapped tightly around me whenever we were in the ‘public’ areas (you only had to remove your robe to go into the saunas/showers/pool…you know, all the good stuff).
But as the day wore on (and after receiving a hell of a good massage) the awkwardness that followed me around at the beginning of the day melted away. It seems that when you’re surrounded by nudity, your own nakedness is less of an issue.
At one point in time, I was lounging in one of the saunas with my boyfriend when an older couple joined us. Joery and I were speaking in English (obviously), so after a little while the woman leaned over and asked where we were from. I said my boyfriend is Belgian, but I was from the U.S. She leaned back, chuckled and said, “an American? In a nude sauna? Good for you!”
While I don’t think prudishness (or über-self-awareness?) is entirely tied to culture (I’ve seen my fair share of let-it-all-hang-out public sunbathers back in the states), this reaction was intriguing. Are Americans really considered to be so nudity-averse? Is there any truth to the stereotype?
The experience of not only walking around in the buff but walking around in the buff while surrounded by strangers was eye-opening. By the end of the day I was less focused on my own body and more on the experience of the spa. And while I was (relatively) comfortable at the spa by the end of the day, and would consider going again, I think it would have to be in a place where I was guaranteed not to run into people I actually know. Because once you run into that client/co-worker/friend-of-your-parents in the buff, I don’t think your relationship will ever be the same. Rather, it will forever consist of incredibly intense eye-contact.
(to see more of Spencer Tunick’s photographs, visit his website).