I saw ten penises in five minutes. A smattering of breasts and vaginas certainly, but an overwhelming amount of penises, guts, peacock flexing, muscular bodies, and what is that? Oh, it’s another penis. I also saw people's eyes. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say, but it is an important note to make. People are staring at each other, unblinkingly, completely nude. No turning away politely, just unabashedly staring. Why are we doing this? Why on earth are we here? Can I go die now?
The intention was innocent enough. My German boyfriend bought me a spa gift certificate for Christmas. Somewhere, years ago, I recalled the infamous German spa culture, but I apparently let it slip away to be replaced by current spa propaganda of cucumbered eyeballs and sipping on detoxing winter spritzer. I thought about plush bathrobes and flipping through German magazines. The reality, even at an incredibly expensive and fancy spa, was quite different. You even had to bring your own towel. Rude.
This place was glamorous. There were palm trees and naked women statues everywhere. In the corner of the swimming pool there was a cafe where you can order fresh smoothies or an afternoon snack. All over there were fancy detailed doors that lead to another bath house, a sauna with crystals, or even something called a “quiet room,” where, if for some reason a relaxing time at the spa was just too much, one can always take a break and retreat to an even more “relaxing” room.
I got undressed from my bathing suit, wrapped myself tightly in my huge towel and walked with “fake-it-until-you-make-it-but-dying-on-the-inside” confidence into the sauna.
Among these statues and juice bars were gatherings of naked people. Listen, I grew up in a public school. I joined a gym (once). I have seen a lot of different shapes and sizes that a woman could be. In some ways you could consider it a Sisterhood of the No Pants kind of situation. You go, girl. Shake what your mama gave you. But to be in a close vicinity with naked men now involved, no American public school ever prepared me for that.
On a personal note: I am a prude. I don’t mind being one. I don’t mind wearing non-revealing clothing, or not drawing attention to myself in a sexual way. I’m like an enthusiastic school teacher. I am all business with a splash of color and wild hand movements, and zero suggestion of sex appeal. I am always going to be someone’s neighbor, sister, or great aunt. If you’re not my lover, my mother, my BFF, you aren’t seeing anything but my hands and face. Maybe part of my wrist if I’m flirting with you.
It is an important note to say that I don’t mind others being flamboyant, showing all the skin the world has to offer, flapping their penises around like a helicopter. I can imagine being at a strip club, blouse buttoned up past my neck and well above my chin and politely applauding both men and women showing me all of their parts. I truly think human sexuality and the human form (in all forms, gender fluid people, old people, overweight people, handicapped people) is beautiful, captivating and fascinating. I think people should be their authentic, freest versions of themselves whenever possible. And my most authentic self happens to be free when wearing an impenetrable lifeless potato sack.
That being said: I saw too much, too quickly. I did not study anatomy in college. I don’t understand how a man's gut can expand so wide, or when you work out too much you look like a stuffed sausage waddling with two meaty legs around the whirlpools. Or when a woman, maybe mid-70's, applies a bikini bottom, but refused to wear a top and let her very large, very flat breasts bob up and down in the water like strange flesh balloons. This was an education I didn’t know I was going to get. Quickly changing in my school locker room while avoiding eye contact is a far cry from witnessing bodies in full, glorious motion within an arm's reach.
Within five minutes of being in the spa in my dowdy one-piece suit, a man who works there told my boyfriend in German (also wearing a swimsuit, for emotional support) that we’re not allowed to wear them due to “hygienic reasons.”
LET’S THINK ABOUT THAT FOR A MOMENT. As you sit there, comfortably at home in America (yes, this is written from an American perspective!) , how many bets do you want to make that “a man who works there” at an American spa would say the exact opposite. “Oh sorry, you can’t be nude for hygienic reasons.” When will the lies stop or when do they begin? I’m very confused, and now very naked.
I got undressed from my bathing suit, wrapped myself tightly in my huge towel and walked with “fake-it-until-you-make-it-but-dying-on-the-inside” confidence into the sauna. It was unbelievably hot inside (Germans like pain), and there was a single man, lying spread-eagled enough so the gods could see his genitalia. He was mid-50’s, long hair, and had a miniature belly. His lean body with a slight belly paunch instantly made me believe he’s spent his entire life in saunas. He was made to be naked. He was made to be the gatekeeper of sauna etiquette. The sauna was maybe ten by ten feet, but he was the master of this domain.
I felt a flood of 15-year-old memories of depression, self-consciousness, distrust, and feeling less-like-a-woman-and-more-like-an-object come over me like a tidal wave.
He took a long, piercing look at us asked if we spoke German. He then proceeded to tell my boyfriend that we aren’t allowed to wear towels in this sauna. Afterward, in English (surprise, everyone in Germany can tell I’m not from here), looked at me and said, “You must not be ashamed of your body.”
Excuse me? Pardon me? What? I cannot hear you over the sound of my mind shutting down. You must not be ashamed of your body. Do I know you? You must not be ashamed of your body. Are you my naked sauna therapist? Something snapped in my brain. I think this is what rage feels like. Can a marshmallow neighborly person feel rage? Yes, yes she can.
I quickly left the sauna. Because it’s so cold outside, the heat from the sauna was smoking off of my body like I was an inferno woman. My towel is clenched tightly to my body and my heart is pounding in my chest. Since when does a fun day at the spa turn into an confronting-all-of-my-issues-day of hell?
Where is my boyfriend in all of this? He’s trying. He’s jumping around, telling me how brave I am, trying. It isn’t his fault, but it is his fault. It’s my fault, it’s Germany’s fault, it’s humanity's fault. To not have the choice of being naked or not, in a supposedly relaxing retreat, seems like a recipe for a panic attack. And it was. I started unravelling.
Why wasn’t I leaving, you might be asking yourself. And to that, my answer is simply my American sensibilities. My passive-aggressive, trying not to hurt someone's feelings attitude. This was a gift, after all, and we had a massage appointment at seven. I know now, in hindsight, I should have left. I was deeply uncomfortable. The fuel of my rage should have caused me to pack up my things and run. But I didn’t. I stayed, and I fumed. I pouted. I winced. I cried one tear that dried up instantly in the sauna. I soldiered on like this was a prison sentence. At one point I was literally shivering. Who knew being at a five star spa would be so traumatic?
It was just that kind of day. A kind of day you hope to have only once in a lifetime. Eventually, I was so cold we decided to go into the jacuzzi one last time. This time naked, as stated in the German rule handbook. I squinted my eyes so I couldn’t see who was around me and stepped in the bath. The boyfriend turned on the jets so no one could see anything but bubbles. I let my body relax for 2.5 seconds finally. That is, until I looked around.
My boyfriend, being terribly nearsighted, was deeply blessed by being able to take his glasses off at will. You can’t be bothered by what you can’t see. I can see everything. I can see the other whirlpools merely a few feet away being occupied by middle aged men solely staring at me. I can see those men are from all walks of life, balding, pudgy, tattooed and primarily focused on the only woman in the room. I can see that there are no other women here and somehow I became the ambassador for All Women. I can feel my body tensing up, and my toes and fingers curling in on each other through the bubbles. These men won’t leave, and if they do, more men will replace them. I have to get out of this water, and I have to let five men, aged 45-70, ruthlessly stare at my chubby, cold, anxious, but ultimately womanly body.
I felt a flood of 15-year-old memories of depression, self-consciousness, distrust, and feeling less-like-a-woman-and-more-like-an-object come over me like a tidal wave. I’m surprised I didn’t slip, so all of these naked men could swarm over me to show concern.
There are articles (some written by me) solely based on the “German Stare.” The stare is unmoving, unwavering, and only when it burns a hole in your heart do they turn away. Living here for eight months, I had gotten used to the staring. But being naked in a sensual bathhouse with mini waterfalls, glowing pools of water and 100% nudity was like the Staring Olympics. Pull me out, coach. I’m forfeiting this game.
Finally, mercifully, the massage came. I requested a woman, because I just CAN’T, you guys. No more penises in my vicinity please. I’m sorry if this seems like a man-hating feminazi article, but sometimes you just get tired of the opposite genders genitalia. In a span of a few hours, I already reached my penis quota for 2017!
The massage was in dark room with soothing music. This woman which whom I barely said two words to started massaging my shoulders. “You feel tense here.” she said. I think I may have whimpered. At this point, I was so tired of my nakedness, and so tired of skin in general, I just laid there, my lifeless body accepting her massage without comment.
But she had comments. As if to add the icing on this cake of a day, she decided to start talking and not stop. Her excitement about being able to speak English turned my moment of silence into a firestorm of one sided conversation.
“You know, Americans are so shy with their bodies.”
“You know, I massaged a stripper once and she had the biggest fake tits I’ve ever seen.”
“You know, so many men get massaged by me and always come back, and ask if I do more than just massage.”
After the massage, I went up to the lockers, put on my layers of clothing silently, and left. I was spent.
So, what does one learn from this experience? What avenue of psychological hypothesis should I be strolling down?
The best explanation I can muster as I attempt to wipe the kopfkino (that’s “head cinema” in German) from my brain, is that I found a limit. We all have them. Trying new things until running face first against a wall. They could be with math, home improvement projects, sexual adventures, etc.
So, the result of this unintentional experiment is: I don’t want people staring at me when I’m naked. I don’t want my potential mailman seeing me in the nude. The guy I accidentally didn’t tip enough at a restaurant glancing at my nipples. I don’t need the woman whose children I teach to take a gander at my bootylicious backside. Or my co-worker nervously trying not to look in my direction.
I don’t need to be in a public space where literally everyone has to be naked. I have my worst nightmares for that.