As an American in Berlin, I was pretty shocked by the discovery that my (seemingly) normal gym had a co-ed sauna. What shocked me more than the idea of a co-ed sauna was the comfort with which all German people seemed to regard being naked together in semi-public places, reflective of their generally nonchalant attitude towards nudity.
I had a revelation in Berlin, and that is that Germany is more body-positive than America. Let me explain: They love to get naked! In all seriousness, nudity is normalized, and from what I can tell, there is less body shaming. Perhaps it is as a result of Germany’s longstanding bath culture, or the prevalence of lakes and swimming holes which German locals visit regularly...meanwhile leaving their swimsuits on the beach. I FaceTimed my friends: “Everyone skinny dips here! But it’s not something “naughty”…they just “don’t wear bathing suits.” (That’s how it was explained to me by an American transplant in Berlin.)
Berliners flock to the Liquidrom, but Germany is filled with baths, most notably in towns like Baden-Baden (literally, “bath-bath”) which shares a border with France. Baden-Baden is a natural source of “curative” mineral-rich spring water, believed to heal and improve the metabolism, cardiovascular system and circulatory system, not to mention ease chronic exhaustion and impart some TLC to spa guests across the board. Chic.
The co-ed sauna at my gym represented a challenge: an opportunity to shed my insecurities with my clothes, and hopefully to confront and release some of the negative attitudes I carried as an American woman. I had been Elizabeth Gilberting across Europe for a few months, and one question kept coming up…was I running “to” or “away"? I preferred the former and decided I was running to a more considered life, a more loving relationship to my self. Time spent traveling is useful for the perspective it brings. *pondering emoji*
I also realized I had no idea how to relax and it was something I would have to teach myself. I discovered that I yearned for the things not present in my normal NYC life: perspective, silence, alone time, wonder, maybe a deep breath that really feels like one, but that’s a story best left truncated in the interest of time. (New Yorkers, people have said, can be manic, overstressed and overcaffeinated.)
While it's not the most agonizing of experiences, be advised that "visiting a co-ed sauna in Germany" might quickly turn into a series of opportunities to confront the complex baggage that one carries. A humbling experience, it turns out. If you had told me beforehand that it would take 3 visits to strip down for a co-ed sauna I wouldn’t have believed you, (I like to think I'm someone who enjoys stepping outside of my comfort zone) but...it was a process.
First, I peeked through the swinging wooden doors that separated the women’s sauna from the co-ed. The second time, I nervously (and with questionable German) approached another woman in the locker room about what was beyond the wooden doors: “I’m an American….is this normal in Germany??” She laughed affirmatively.
When I finally made it inside the co-ed sauna, it took some encouraging to release my towel to the wooden slats as the others had. It was a tense moment when I finally let the towel drop, and I was able to witness as fear (and other voices) took over my internal dialog: What was I really afraid of? That I was ugly? Or perhaps that I was beautiful and yet unable to see beauty in myself? I'm not really sure why getting naked made me feel so existential, but it did, and it surprised me.
Eventually, as I attempted to sit with my fears and 'release them lovingly," (isn't it funny what kind of language comes to you in awkward/tense/dreadful/terrifying moments) this might be hard to believe, but I was actually able to relax.
Sort of. TBH, I did a fair share of intellectualizing the experience and came to the following conclusions:
The experience of visiting a co-ed sauna in Germany allowed me to discover that I had been approaching my body with a forceful goal-oriented attitude, full of expectation underlined by a dark and complicated mix of shame, disgust, and disappointment that I was not “already” what I wanted to be. I saw my body as something imperfect that needed to be “fixed” and no matter how many times I heard the mantra “you are enough, you’ve done enough” (because, wellness) I couldn’t believe it. I was ashamed of my body and my hunger. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see beauty when I looked in the mirror.
I’m proud of myself for overcoming all the "little" challenges that came with stripping down in a co-ed sauna in another country, and I think my relationship to my body has improved since being exposed to German culture and body-positivity. Full disclosure, it’s still not a perfect dialog of self love, and TBH I’m not sure what a perfect inner dialog would even look like. But my inner dialog has become more compassionate, and I no longer approach my body in the same way, as a project with "goals" to be conquered in order to look a certain way. Maybe I will never let go of my goal oriented-attitude, but I am now exploring other ways to channel that quality, for example, thinking of myself as an athlete, which feels more positive.
Decontextualizing myself from my life in NYC allowed me to see how my workaholic, fixaholic, optimization-obsessed tendencies don’t exist in the same way in other cultures. They definitely don’t exist in a co-ed German sauna. And other cultures, in particular German culture, value restorative practices more than Americans. Tl;dr I never thought that stripping naked in front of a bunch of strangers would be so existential, but maybe I should have.