I have problems with nudity – I think it is a cultural thing. An overhang from our Presbyterian, prudish past? Possibly?
Although I grew up in a family where nudity was not shameful and it was not strange to see members of my family naked, I distinctly remember the first time I had to get changed for sport in high school. 12 years old, every one of us entered the change room, found a private place where we could face the wall and tried to somehow get our P.E. kit on without taking off our tunic. 13 years old, the technique changed. Each of my classmates slid skirts and scungies (oh yes) on under their tunics, but then whipped off their tunics to reveal bras. Bras? I realised as I slunk to the toilet with my PE kit that I was the last in my class to graduate to a bra. Devastated, that night I begged my mother to buy me a bra the next day, she dutifully did so, and said bra worked its way up to my neck the next lesson, but that is another story…
I also know it is not only me that has a problem with collective nudity. In my early 20’s a group of friends from the musical theatre scene (not the most prudish of gangs) were at a New Year’s Eve party somewhere near Ulladulla on Australia’s South Coast. The hosts suggested that at midnight we should all run naked into the pool. At the 10 second countdown the two groups started to visibly split – one lot getting naked, the other, shocking even themselves, dashing to their cars and heading home. I grant, that we were ashamed of our behaviour at leaving and spent many of the first hours of the New Year debating why we were not so free.
I am somehow conditioned, but clearly not alone.
Since being in Europe for the last ten years I have occasionally come up against the odd Swedish colleague (I mean odd as in occasional, not odd as in weird) who is more than happy to conduct a dressing room chat starkers. I also floated from Buenos Aries past Antarctica around Chile, from Hong Kong to Shanghai and down the East coast of Australia, and from Bangkok, to KL, past India and Egypt with a soprano from Devon who insisted on leaving the bathroom in our cabin with her hair wrapped in a towel and nothing wrapped around her body – I blame Devon’s lay lines and her joy in seeing me uncomfortable.
Yesterday, back in Berlin, I decided to treat myself to an afternoon at the Liquidrom. It boasts an underwater swimming pool, rooftop pool steaming in the snow, various different saunas and steam rooms and a bar with lilos. All very relaxing.
Although my German has improved since last I was here, helpfully the management gives English speakers a card detailing the rules of the pool. There aren’t many, but the most important is: “Swimming costumes must be worn in the swimming pool, but no clothing is to be worn in the saunas and steam room for hygiene reasons”.
Was ist das?
But I can do this, and I have paid 20 Euros for the privilege, so in the change rooms I slip into my new red, halter-neck bikini and summoning the deportment of Jane Russell I stride out holding my white bathrobe. I cannot bear at first to look at what the other patrons might or might not be wearing, I think: “First I shall find my bearings by doing a recce of the locations of pools and saunas and spas. I head for the underwater pool as soon as possible as this is a place where swimming costumes are allowed, nay are compulsory. I slide into the deliciously warm underwater grotto and float around on a few pool noodles. While the activity level in the pool might be much calmer, quieter and the water a lot warmer than an Aussie pool in the summer heat, I am well prepared for a life spent in bathers, few clothes offend me not.
Relaxed, I wander out of the pool and head for the steam room or Dampfbad. I love a good steam room and like most singers fancy that I am not just relaxing body and mind, but my vocal chords as well. So I go to a dark corner of the complex, where helpfully there are glass boxes for your swimming costume and steal myself to get naked. True to 12 year old form, I take my costume off from under my robe and wrapped in a towel, I head for the Dampfbad. It is a long room with two parallel benches covered in slate, but it’s dark and steamy and there seems to be hardly anyone in the room and so I am free to head to a dark corner and place my towel on the bench – I am no biologist, but I am not really sure how sharing a slate bench with many other naked butts is hygienic, so bring the towel to cover my arse, so to speak.
I lie down and I feel myself relax – I exhale, I can do this, I am not ashamed of the human body, I open my eyes and inhale just in time to see an unknown member swinging past my eyeline. He’s hanging loose and free and as he and his girlfriend flop onto the slate bench opposite me and start canoodling I start to wonder whether I am still in a “Gesundheits Raum”, or whether I have come to something entirely different.
I stagger from the steam room, thinking that etiquette is probably to somehow position my now wet towel for privacy, but as I walk out of the door there are suddenly men and women just walking around stark, bollock, naked. I have already slipped back into my bathrobe and head for the bar area. It is delightful, selling soup and sandwiches, surrounded by people rugged up in their bathrobes and lazing on lilos.
The lilos look out onto the rooftop pool, and then I see behind the pool, just hanging out on tiered benches as if at a sporting game, a wall of naked human bodies. This is the sauna, and it’s full of men and women just soaking up the heat, well lit and staring straight at the be-robed patrons in the bar eating their soup.
I start to realise that in everyone else’s nakedness, I, striding around in my red bikini, am the odd one out. While everyone else is hanging free, breasts down to their knees, skin pale, penises flaccid, it is me in my halter neck that is dressing my body as something sexual rather than something functional.
I am so lost in the etiquette of this place:
- Now if one wants to go for another swim and needs to put their bathers on again, does one just dress and undress for a swim in the middle of the room? I head for the nearest WC, call it conditioning, but there is something inherently sexual for me about putting on or taking off a bra and pants in front of other naked parties.
- When one walks into a sauna and there is only one other patron there, a naked man, does one de-robe and get comfortable in the heat? I sit for a moment, stare intently at the cracks in the ceiling, debate de-robing and then decide this sauna at 90 degrees really is too hot.
- Additionally, does one eventually face her prudish conditioning and head for the sauna (80 degrees) that faces the bar and rooftop pool? I find a moment when no one else is in the sauna and manage to find a spot that is almost behind a half wall, kidding myself I am hidden, I shimmy off my robe while lying down. Stretching out, I fold my hands under my head and enjoy the glorious heat.
That is, until I hear other patrons entering, and wonder whether my pose of arms up, cunningly preventing boob droop, constitutes exhibitionism!!