When friends of mine from the states talked about coming to visit me here in Germany, they asked about visiting castles and other historical landmarks. Those are all wonderful, I told them, but so is the shopping, the walking paths, and the spas. As if I'd sent a needle across a record, our conversation fell silent; and even though we were all on the phone, I could tell everyone was looking at me.
Most of the spas here in Europe are nude. Not all of them, but I didn't tell my friends that.
Quite suddenly we were discussing the merits of perfect bodies and how those who don't have them shouldn't show them to the rest of the world. They told stories of 300-pound female bodies donned in denim and gauze-like material. They talked about flabby, middle-aged men in Speedos. They told these stories as if the world was made up of only two kinds of people — perfect and most decidedly not perfect. There seemed to be no in-between for them. They talked as if perfection was real and wasn't the end result of physically airbrushing away freckles and healthy protruding blood vessels and digitally altering the least bit of contour out of the picture. They don't see themselves as perfect and automatically categorized themselves as not beautiful.
My oldest daughter and I stepped into our first nude spa holding hands. We were nervous and quite taken aback by all the nakedness. We were also too excited with the prospect of a new experience to pass it up. Others had told us about the wonderful days they'd spent in the spas. We, too, just had to know. With a knowing glance, she and I agreed that the row of men sprawled out under 12 heat lamps was probably the most disturbing thing we'd ever seen. While co-ed throughout, we tended to stay where there were mostly women. It was here that I came to understand just how beautiful the female form really is no matter what it looks like.
There's simply no comparing the sensation of a whirlpool in a swimsuit to the whirling bliss of bathing in the nude. It also helps that the healthcare system in Germany covers the cost of spa visits for its citizens. This makes it a very affordable venture for those not in that system. It costs me less than $20 for a day of visiting beautifully landscaped pools, heated grottos with hot water falling from afar, whirlpools, vibrating beds in cool rooms, and saunas of any given spa here. In the states, the same would cost me a healthy car payment — and I'd have to wear a bathing suit.
It's no coincidence that the most popular piece of public-speaking advice is to picture everyone naked. Nudity is the great equalizer. Without a $600 suit, that man's GQ haircut is no longer the standout feature in the room. Without her Victoria's Secret underwire, that woman's sparkling diamond ring isn't what the other women are focusing on anymore. Seen for what we really are, we are no longer intimidating to the person who is nervous about speaking in public.
The nude spa is this same human experience — in real life and on a much grander scale. With nothing to hide or hide behind, everyone is left with the only thing we really own — our body. I think maybe my friends have a hard time picturing naked bodies that aren't perfect and haven't been airbrushed. In fairness to them, it would be a little weird if they did picture it because it isn't a norm for most people in the states. It's different for me, not just because I go to nude spas, but also because I've been drawing nudes most of my life, and most of the time with a live model. There is also the matter of my mother.
My mother's 1970 mastectomy at the age of 31 left her horribly scarred. Hers were not the comparably clean-cut lines of today's surgeries. She was a beautiful woman — 5'9", long-legged, and brunette. She had bright eyes, a brilliant smile, a beautiful walk, and lovely mannerisms. She had a radical mastectomy that left her with a transparently thin sheath of skin between her breastbone and the rest of the world. The surgeons removed the sweat glands under her right arm and this left a gaping hole where her upper arm met her body. They took an 8"x10" graft of skin from her thigh and hoped it would take to her chest. It didn't. It infected and left yet more scarring. Another surgery to repair nerve damage left more scarring and more nerve damage. She didn't want anyone but me and her mother to help her dress or bathe when she needed it — which was surprisingly not as often as one might think given the stiffness, immobility, and pain that so commonly set in after a radical mastectomy in those days.
I suppose you could say I got used to the way she looked, but rather it was that I came to appreciate what her body had been through, what her mind and heart had endured. In this, I was able to see the beauty of her experience, determination, stamina, and energy. It wasn't a matter of looking past the scars; it was more a matter of realizing what the scars meant and what they really represented.
She didn't think she was beautiful, even before the surgeries, but I did. I've never seen anyone as beautiful as my mother.
I've not seen a nude female body in any spa that tells the horrific story my mother's body told, but each has their own. The bodies I've seen aren't difficult or disgusting to view on any level. They tell many stories and I can relate to some of those stories just as much as if the person talked about their experiences. Many of us could relate to the stories these bodies tell — surgery, being pregnant with a big baby or more than one baby, walking everywhere, carrying small children, holding larger sick children, years of bending down to pick things up, and climbing stairs and hills with heavy bags of groceries. Combine the lines, scars, wrinkles, stretch marks, and varicose veins with the look in someone's eyes — wisdom, sadness, and joy — and you all but know their life story.
That others would compare everyone to a perfect, healthy, 20-year-old standard is the loss of the one who would compare. They've lost more than they know. They don't know themselves as much as they could and so have never opened themselves up to knowing someone else. There is no comparison between our bodies any more than we can compare each other's minds or hearts. Who among us has a Harvard-educated mind, a well-traveled heart with a lifetime of experiences, and a firm and fully packed body? No one has all that. Having one will cost you another — always.
Young, pretty, in-shape bodies are a pleasure for the eyes to behold, no doubt. The way some dress themselves, in-shape or not, speaks volumes of how they view themselves. Sometimes the story they tell with the way they dress is so sad and so lonely, it's hurtful to see. They'd be so much better off nude, sitting blissfully in a heated grotto of warm bubbling water. I've personally never thought it was funny to see out-of-shape, badly dressed people because there but for the grace of God and all that.
It's easy and convenient to judge others and their stories when our own flaws and sad tales (no pun intended) are covered up. When no one is covered with anything, it's quite suddenly not about the others or what they look like. It's very much about what others can see of us. More specifically, it's about what we see of ourselves and know we are showing the world. When in a nude spa, we've no choice but to accept our every flaw. Either that or banish ourselves to the locker room. It's not about what we might see but rather what others might see.
When nude, we can't hide behind our money, education, titles, and property. Whether they admit it or not, for most, nudity is less about modesty and more about status. In the nude, no one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, a doctor or a maid. We are all the same — naked. If we do come out from behind what we have and come to accept our every flaw, we'll soon come to see our own beauty. In so doing, we will be able to see the beauty in others and will soon realize others are seeing the same in us.