Saturday, June 13, 2015


A vibrant pool culture is as Icelandic as pylsur and hangikjöt. You find outdoor swimming pools in nearly every teeny tiny nook and cranny of the country. Icelanders go to the pool no matter the weather or time of year. Here, you don’t need an occasion to go to the pool. Exercise? Visit with friends? Something to do with the kids? To get away from the kids? Doesn’t matter, a pool around the corner is waiting for you.

While there is a lot I have to say about pool culture and the relationship between Icelandic people and their bathing, this time I want to hang out in the locker room and talk about naked bodies. Nudity. Exposure, body image, confidence, and community.

Long ago, on my first trip to visit Iceland, my sweet sister in law graciously offered to take me on a trip to the pool. As we were walking in, she turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I know it is a bit strange, but in Iceland, you have to take a shower without a bathing suit on before you can go in the pool.” I nodded vigorously. My internal monologue running something like, “No problem. Message received. I am a totally hip-and-with-it traveler. Nothing to hide. I can do like the Europeans. So liberal. I am like that, too!”

We found our lockers and started to disrobe, and like a brainwashed puritan robot, I immediately started to step into my bathing suit, towel carefully draped around my shoulders to obscure my naughty bits. Bits that had never before seen sunlight.

My sister in law stopped me and said, patiently, “Um, no. No bathing suit.” Her eyes swept the room, and I took her cue and glanced around. I saw naked mothers sitting on towels with naked babies on their laps. Naked kids pushing one another into lockers. Naked teenagers blow drying their hair. Naked grandmothers rubbing lotion on their arms. Naked women everywhere I looked. Bodies out. My heart jumped into my throat. 

Then, it hit me like a freight train how stupid I looked hunched over and delicately concealing my precious hidden private parts, for fear….of what? That someone would see me? Judge me? Reject me? I don’t even know. Where I am from, this is just not something you do. People do not get naked in front of one another. Maybe if you are about to have sex, but then typically with the lights off and the covers up to your chin. I was stepping into new territory, and didn’t even have panties to back me up.

Safe to say that my acceptance of the naked Icelandic locker room practice was rapid and drastic. The kids and I now race to see who can get undressed first when we take a trip to the pool together. I have (on more than one occasion) shared a naked hug with a friend I bumped into in the showers. I like to consider that I have turned into an advocate, of sorts, for being naked around other people. In fact, I like it so much that I hardly ever think about it anymore. Maybe I have become Icelandic in that way.

To summarize, this is why I think we should all get naked.

You quickly realize that nobody gives a shit what you look like. Seriously. Nobody is staring at you. A quick glance through the locker room and you realize that everybody has scars, wrinkles, juggle bits, saggy bits, bumpy bits, hairy bits. Yours is just one of those bodies that is perfectly, imperfect. You are a human! 

It is empowering to see people up close and personal. I don’t think many people have the chance to see examples of real, strong women in the nude. We see women in a pushup bikini laying on the hood of a car, holding a hamburger while somebody pours a beer over them, but we don’t see Mrs. Henderson from down the street in her altogether. In the showers in Iceland, I have seen breast cancer survivors, disabled women, catheter bags, and women who have been on earth so long that they take a nurse with them to the pool so they can stand in the shower. 

Once, while I was struggling to breastfeed my newborn daughter, I took my crewed up, bloody, shredded nipples to the pool with my mom who was visiting at the time. While we were in the shower, we saw a woman holding a baby who was a couple of months older than my daughter. "See?" my mother commented as she glanced across the shower, "That mama's nipples are tough as nails. Yours will be too. Just wait." She was right. And given how close I was to giving up on the whole thing, I don't know if I would have believed it was possible if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.

Growing up exposed to the diversity of human bodies gives you a more realistic sense of your own. When I was younger, I didn't understand what airbrushing was. It didn't occur to me that it wasn't possible for me or any other human being to look like people in the magazines. I didn't like how I looked, and didn't understand why I was so different than the beautiful people. I didn't realize that I was being sold something (makeup, lotion, perfume, a watch, a purse, shoes) and that the people looking up at me from the pages were more advertising art than human being. 

I imagine that both my daughter and my son will benefit from growing up in a society in which they see naked people. As they watch their own bodies grow and change, I hope that they can accept themselves with grace and confidence.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff Mef. My mother (Mary Winifred) eventually accepted this swimming thing in Iceland - as a cancer survivor -but she was also the sort that took her handbag with her when she went whale-spotting in 1997. Take care, Mary Allyson