Sauna chronicles: naked and shameless – Julieta Muñoz
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Julieta Muñoz / Miscellaneous  / Sauna chronicles: naked and shameless
5 May

Sauna chronicles: naked and shameless

“Showering completely naked is forbidden”, read the sign in the women’s locker at the swimming pool in Quito where I used to go years ago. I wondered what would happen if I did. Would they scold me? In high school, you would not get fully naked in front of your classmates, whether it was in the dressing room or the showers. Nudity was equivalent to indecency—or that’s the message I got. I was very self-conscious about my body from childhood. Generally, showing skin made me uncomfortable, because I thought my body was not beautiful, so I preferred to hide it under many layers of clothing. Wearing short skirts or dresses, tank tops and bikinis felt weird. The first time I was confronted with my own nakedness was in a public pool in Iceland. When I moved there, just before turning 18, I was a shy, insecure girl who felt embarrased about the naked body. A few days into my new Icelandic life, I experienced the famous public pools and thermal baths. Naked women walked around the changing room, unaware of my shock. I trembled in fear, thinking they would stare at me. Of course, they couldn’t care less about another naked woman. For them, this was totally natural, being surrounded by other women who have the same body parts as you do. What’s the big deal? Well, I was not used to this display of nudity. After several visits, I was able to uncover myself, literally and emotionally.

In many places around the world, adequate bathing etiquette dictates that you wear a breathable towel or nothing at all when you enter the sauna, steam bath or hot pot. It’s considered to be more hygienic. I visited Japan with an Ecuadorian group and one of the highlights, for me, were the onsen—the hot springs. The women in the group were surprised and troubled about going in naked. Bathing suits are not permitted. I encouraged them to embrace the ordeal by stripping first and jumping in the hot pots. Blushed faces and muffled giggles followed for a few minutes, until they joined me and the Japanese women. By the third onsen, the shame was gone. However, I presume their boldness did not make it past the Japanese trip.

Culture determines how you experience life. We are raised differently and we carry our cultural identity wherever we go, shaping our interactions with people and our relationship to ourselves. The social environment in which you grow will allow you to feel fine in situations like a nude sauna. You are vulnerable when you are naked, but you won’t feel vulnerable if you are in the right place. One of the most interesting sauna experiences I had was in Amsterdam. I went to a mixed-gender nude sauna where I was one of the few tourists. I shared the sauna and steam room with men and women of all ages and body types. I was fully exposed and yet I felt perfectly safe and relaxed. I saw zero judgment or body shaming, but rather pure trust and respect for others. It was liberating, a boost to my self-esteem and confidence. The fact that the room was filled with strangers I won’t meet again fueled my serenity. A friend told me she met her male boss in one of these nude saunas—awkward, I would say. Then again, the culture is different. I cannot imagine a nude sauna in the Ecuadorian context.

The way we build relationships can be so disparate. I find it odd that northern Europeans have no trouble being naked around strangers in the sauna, but will not kiss you on the cheek the first time they meet you at a party or event. Latinos will kiss and hug you almost immediately to show friendliness, but, at least from my perspective, they would not join you in a nude steam bath—that’s another level of intimacy we hesitate to engage in. Human cultures are so diverse and fascinating, which is why I enjoy traveling and hanging out with the locals, especially when it means getting out of your comfort zone and questioning your preconceptions of good or bad, right or wrong, and normal or bizarre.

I look forward to more saunas of mindset shift and learning.