Naked, With a Passport

Travel Stories: Alison Stein Wellner considers her willingness to strip down overseas at appropriate moments as her "real traveler" badge of honor. But what's "appropriate"?

06.10.10 | 11:57 AM ET

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“Madam, is it fine?”

I opened my eyes with some effort, as my entire face, including my eyelashes, was coated in sesame oil.

The young woman was pointing at my ear. She was apparently asking me whether it was okay to massage it.

Well, let’s see. I was in Kerala, India. I’d already stripped naked with this very woman standing not more than three inches from my elbow. I had allowed her to seat me on a chair in the middle of the room, brightly lit by unflattering fluorescent lights. She had proceeded to pour the aforementioned sesame oil all over my head—the beginnings of a traditional Ayurvedic massage. As she led me to the wooden massage table, I noticed the door was more than slightly ajar; as spa staff and other clients walked past, they peered into the room. I closed my eyes. She got started on the massage proper, which was a very good one. At some point, another woman walked in to the room and joined her—a personnel addition I hadn’t been expecting—and with businesslike head-to-toe strokes, together they left no part of me untouched. 

So after all of that, I wasn’t about to fuss over the sanctity of my ear.

“Sure,” I croaked. I was hoping my tone would be casual, easygoing. I cleared my throat, tried again. “Why not,” I squeaked.

She put her fingers shallowly into my ear canal and pulled them out with a small pop. And then she gestured for me to get up, and wrapped her arms around my waist once I was standing, to keep me from falling since my feet were slick. We minced down the hallway towards the shower, I wearing nothing but my oily shine. We passed about a dozen or so women in the hallway—clients also naked, staff in saris. Everyone smiled at me.

I have no idea what expression I had on my face. Because here’s the thing: I’m not someone who is really comfortable with public or even semi-public nudity. I’m not a nudist and have never been to a nude beach, haven’t once considered mooning or streaking. I was not a Girl Gone Wild in college, I don’t even wear very short shorts or extremely low-cut shirts. Slithering around an Ayurvedic center naked in the company of many others did not exactly put me in my happy place. And yet, no one was forcing me to do it. I could have bailed out; and what’s more I certainly would have if I’d been there with anyone I knew, a friend, or—horrors—a colleague.

But the fact of the matter is, if I’m traveling solo and you ask me to strip in the name of an interesting spa experience, say, a Turkish hammam, a Japanese bath, I’ll start to unzip and unbutton. I’ll confess to feeling pride about this tendency of mine. I’ve always considered my willingness to peel off my skivvies at appropriate moments as my “real traveler” badge of honor, with extra points awarded since it makes me uncomfortable and since it’s not something that I would be willing to do at home.

Which is pretty weird if you think about it. I mean, why should it feel safer to be naked and vulnerable in front of foreign strangers than among friends and familiarity? And yet, it seems a common weirdness. There’s a whole range of semi-public-to-public naked activities that typically occur while traveling that aren’t in the category of sex tourism—spas, clothing-optional beaches, wet T-shirt contests. Many women do seem more willing to expose more of themselves abroad than they do at home. Does travel make it easier for a woman to overcome “the curse of Eve,” i.e., modesty? 

It sure seemed like it did for me.

That is, until I visited Baden Baden, Germany. I’d gone to take the waters, as they say, in this historic spa town, and had my pick of the town’s brand new facility, which looked like a YMCA in a really nice neighborhood, or the Friedrichsbad, which is the 133-year-old Irish-Roman bath. Of the half-million people that visit the bathing complex each year, only 70,000 visit the older facility, and among these are very, very few Americans. That’s because the Friedrichsbad is “nudist”: No bathing suits allowed.

Guess which one I picked? It was only after I was handed the wrist-band gizmo to operate my locker that I learned one more piece of critical info: Several days a week, the Friedrichsbad is co-ed. And this was one of those days.

Oh.

This was indeed a novelty—all my previous experiences with nudity while traveling have been strictly girls-only. I haven’t been naked in the company of groups that included strange men since the day I was born. Also I’m a married lady. A spa typically poses no challenge to my most important commitment, whereas this situation suggested the possibility of something a bit more outré. I stood in the locker room, hesitating. Could this small town on the edge of the Black Forest, with all its well-manicured gardens, possibly be concealing a bawdy swingers scene, right in this historic landmark? I stood very still and listened. I didn’t hear the telltale buh-buh-baum-chick of porno music. I continued unzipping and unbuttoning and made myself a deal: I’d keep my eyes on the exit and if I heard or saw anything creepy I’d get right out. I went in.

The Friedrichsbad consists of 17 different saunas, steams and soaks of varying temperatures. You are obliged to move through these stations in order. On the wall, maps indicated the direct path, which siphoned you towards the center of the building—a grand, domed rotunda, supported by arches and columns that rise from marble floors. It’s like a museum with the nude sculptures come to life.

I didn’t see many people at the first few stations—this was the middle of a weekday afternoon—but under the rotunda there were about a dozen people, men and women, in the soaking pools. I kept a sharp eye out, but everyone seemed with absolutely no effort to keep their gaze about six inches in front of their toes while walking, and at a fuzzy middle distance when nonchalantly soaking. In fact, when I looked around to see if anyone was looking at any one else, I was the only one with a wandering gaze. 

This observation, combined with the warm water and the steam, had a soothing effect. My eyelids hovered to half open, and a feeling came over me that I recognized: I was relaxed. I felt a little silly about my internal hysterics in the locker room. You see, I lectured myself, there’s no reason to get so worked up about these things. After a while, I got out of the pool and dripped my way over to the map on the wall to see where I was supposed to go next. 

Okay, as a travel writer, even one who is at this very moment practically inviting you to picture her naked, I feel shy about revealing that I had trouble reading the map. I mean, the place is really old, an antique, and it was really hot, and I probably need to be adorned in a certain amount of fabric for my brain to work properly. Anyway, I misread the damned map. So it was quite by accident that I learned another critical piece of information: Only certain areas of the Friedrichsbad are co-ed. 

Which I found out only after I wandered into a male-only area completely naked.

But first, let’s define naked. This doesn’t seem like a tough one: Take all your clothes off, and voilà, right?  Not exactly. “It is true that every human being on the planet has a naked body,” writes scholar Ruth Barcan in her book “Nudity.” But a universal definition of naked is a fantasy, she says, since the definition of nudity varies quite a bit by culture and context. In Old England, you were nude if you were wearing your undergarments. During the Renaissance, it was common to bathe wearing a thin robe, and even so attired, the bather would have been considered nude. In the United States there are laws on the books that consider a man nude, even if he’s totally covered up, if the fabric covering his penis is sheer and it’s erect. The template tale for all this is from the Bible, of course: Adam and Eve didn’t think they were naked until Eve bit that apple.

So, the condition of being naked depends less on the specifics of what you’re wearing (or not), and more on where you are, who you’re with, and a whole lot on what they think naked is. 

And there was no doubt about it: The men in that steamy room thought I was naked.

The moment I stepped into the room, I realized that all wasn’t as it should be. I saw wet blonde hair and damp skin, but mostly what I registered were many many many eyes, all staring at me. And then I noticed that their mouths were moving—they were shouting, in German, at me. I understood nothing. I felt rooted to the spot. As I believe all present could confirm, my blush was very widespread.

I commanded my trembling legs to get me the hell out of there. After what seemed like a very long while, but was probably only seconds, they obeyed.

At that moment, all of my pride at being more comfortable with nudity while traveling, any sense that I had of it being a badge of travel honor, evaporated like so much steam. Although I removed all of my clothing in the locker room at the Friedrichsbad, up until the moment I stepped into the male-only area, I was not naked. Yes, I was wearing nothing, but I was also appropriately dressed for the occasion. Likewise, I’d been wearing a suitable outfit in the Ayurvedic spa. There’s nothing particularly brave about blending in, especially when you consider that I would do it only when I was traveling solo—without a friend or a colleague or some other emissary of home, an anchor to my familiar definition of nudity.

Contrast that to what’s in store for a person who is actually naked in public. I recently spent an afternoon reading every single reference to nudity in the five-volume reference work “The History of Private Life,” which covers eight centuries of human history. Consistently, nudity has evoked feelings of shame, embarrassment, vulnerability. It’s been a symbol of exile, rejection, savagery, even insanity. If you’re naked when you’re not supposed to be, you’ll require the mental fortitude of a psychological warrior to withstand the societal and emotional onslaught that will ensue. It seems to me that that kind of strength would be something to take pride in—although I now know that it’s a mental characteristic I lack.

So ask me again whether travel can be a cure for a woman’s modesty, and I’ll say yes—but only on a definitional technicality. I’ll take advantage of that technicality in my future travels, but now that I know that I’m only situationally immodest, I’ll proceed with the utmost caution. Of this I’m certain: There’s a nudity taboo out there that I could haplessly violate; somewhere, a variety of Eve’s apple lurks. And I’d really rather not take another bite.


Alison Stein Wellner pursues many tasty adventures from her home in New York City. She’s the culinary travel guide for About.com, a blogger for Perceptive Travel and Luxist and has contributed to Business Week, Glamour, Men's Journal, Mother Jones, New York Magazine, Robb Report, Yankee and Yoga Journal.


11 Comments for Naked, With a Passport

Terry Ward 06.10.10 | 1:18 PM ET

The German tradition of being naked in the saunas took my American modesty issues to a whole new level. I remember the first time I experienced German sauna, in Wiesbaden a few years back. Afterward, I was getting dressed in the co-ed locker room, and was standing in my bra and underwear when I guy about my age arrived at the locker next to mine and started disrobing. Normally, I would be totally shy to be in my skivvies around a stranger—not to mention one of the opposite sex who I didn’t know from Adam! But after being in my birthday suit with everyone out in the public baths just a few minutes before, I felt like I was fully dressed at that moment. Some might argue otherwise, but I think it’s a beautiful thing, how comfortable Germans are with their bodies and being naked. I’ve done the German sauna thing a handful of times since, but I never feel any less modest for the experience. I have come to agree with the German mentality, however, that sweating it out in the sauna in the moisture-trapping fabric of a swimsuit is pretty unhygienic (this is their main reasoning for going naked). And as much as it looks like the German sauna patrons are staring into the middle ground, I’ve been informed that they’re just as likely to be surveying the scene as we eye-popped Americans are. I guess they’re just better trained at making it look casual!

Really enjoyed your story, Alison.

Sophia Dembling 06.10.10 | 3:05 PM ET

Generally, I’m a clothing-mandatory person, but my husband and I spent our 10th wedding anniversary on a Greek island with a nude beach that we hit every day. The first day, I kept my bathing suit bottom on (topless is easy, I’ve done it many time), but in about 15 minutes, I started feeling silly. After that, it was all parts to the wind for the rest of our stay. And it was great.

We saw a big German family there every day—grandparents to toddlers—-all buckers, all day. I was kind of envious of those kids. I don’t think they will ever hate their bodies the way Americans often do.

My husband insists people generally look better without their clothes on and I think I agree.

GypsyGirl 06.10.10 | 3:56 PM ET

Alison wonderful story! I’ve gone though the weirdness of learning naked confidence though traveling. There is a deep rooted physiological fear in the American culture that strong-holds lots of people. Mostly not in good ways, very sad. It is a challenge as an adult to combat social blockades. Especially when you know the frustration and fear is mostly in your own mind.

I spent a winter in Scandinavia, where the sauna is very popular. Heating up and then jumping in the ice cold Baltic sea! The sign translated to: “swimwear forbidden” There were both single gender and co-ed options (co-ed was mostly filled with men) Surprisingly, being a women- the men were very respectful of my all natural state and the atmosphere became more like a filka gathering (coffee shop gathering) to talk about history, literature and culture.

It was a good experience, a comfort zone expanding one for me- that I will always be thankful for.

Scott 06.10.10 | 7:39 PM ET

I think that it’s easier for people to get naked while on travel because the odds are that they’ll never return there again, or at least see the same people again, so who cares?  Plus I think most other countries, unless you’re in some conservative, Islamic country, are a lot less prudish than Americans are about nudity.  And third, having seen your photo on other blog articles, I think it’s easier for you, and you have less to worry about than the average traveler, with you being attractive.

Fun and interesting article though!

Alison Stein Wellner 06.11.10 | 11:08 AM ET

Thanks for the comments everyone—yeah, I was having some really happy thoughts about body acceptance and so on… before all the screaming in German started. ;-)  But it is true, we really don’t look all *that* different from one another naked, and nudity taboos are really nonsensical when you think about them with any rigor. (The difference between what you see when someone’s wearing a wet bathing suit versus what you see when they’re naked, for instance…it ain’t much.)
Perhaps we should start a desensitization movement and have a naked day at work each week, a la casual Friday. Of course, I don’t work in an office so I can make such suggestions with impunity.
Terry, I didn’t realize that hygiene was the reason for the nudist bathing…interesting, I kept thinking about all that bare skin hitting benches in Baden Baden, although I suppose a wet bathing suit would harbor more germs than it would block. (Eeew!)  Sophie—my challenge with going bottomless on a beach would be a logistical one, what with the sand and such. (Oversharing: once you start, you can’t stop.)  I suppose there’s always sitting on a towel, but then I’d be tempted to make it into a sarong.

Robert 06.11.10 | 2:32 PM ET

Alison…great story.  It’s been so many years since I went to German and Finnish sauna’s…that your story was a real memory teaser.
However…now that you’re home…you need to get naked again.

This time, by yourself or with husband…or a friend….find an AANR member nude resort, and spend a day in the sun, with a bunch of well tanned strangers…and see how it feels.

Only the first 20 minutes of nudity will seem odd.  Then it will sink in, as it did in Germany, that you are appropriately dressed…just like everyone else.  Most resorts have pools, tennis courts, volley ball courts, lakes, hiking trails. 

I go to Laguna del Sol near Sacramento, Calif….just so I can enjoy a 30-60 min run sans clothes and a day nude in the sun.  If you are a runner, you’ll find it an entirely new experience.  The difference in running without shorts is tough to describe…but it’s great.  An hour long walk is a joy too.

Thanks for a great article.  Hopefully a few more Americans can learn to shed their silly inhibitions, and enjoy the world naturally….Robert

sarah 06.12.10 | 7:32 AM ET

Oh, even conservative Islamic countries can be shockingly liberal when it comes to nudity in single-sex settings. I have a very fond memory of going to a Damascene hammam and, while naked, getting scrubbed quite thoroughly by a similarly attired woman whose physique can only be said to resemble that of the Venus of Willendorf. Only the American tourists seems to think this was anything but de rigeur.

GJM 06.15.10 | 6:48 PM ET

Nudity with strangers is a fascinating topic. 

I’m a British guy and lived in Taiwan for six months a couple of years ago.  I joined a gym and noticed a very different culture behind the locker room door. 

In the UK, guys tend to just strip off after workout and then use the communal showers. In Taiwan, everyone clutched towels to their groins when they got changed and then showered in individual cubicles. The sauna was single sex, pants-on. In contrast, I have been in mixed and guys-only saunas in the UK. In the former, pants seem to be optional, mandatory in mixed.

In my experience, the UK is not as liberal as continental Europe but it’s close.  Holland saunas are mixed and naked. Ditto Scandinavia.  I have never witnessed any staring, drooling, making improper comments, catching anything, nor indeed, any overt indications of romantic or erotic interest.

PS - I also lived in the US about 20 years ago and I was amazed at the *general* societal obsession with hygiene, nudity and ‘profanity’, and yet I was equally amazed by the North European liberal values of other Americans. It looks like the Conservatives still determine sauna etiquette! :)

Grizzly Bear Mom 06.16.10 | 1:41 PM ET

If you are dressed/undressed like everyone else, aren’t you just conforming, and wouldn’t you feel esposed if you were the only covered one in the room? 

I too am amazed at the U.S. obsession with hygiene.  At the environmental film festival(!) I sat behind women reeking of deodorant & , chewing mints.  They kept applying hand clearner.  The chemicals were overwhelming and I left.  Who told American that it reeked and was filthy? What impact will this chemical soup have on our health?

Mary Arulanantham 07.01.10 | 1:39 AM ET

I had my first full body massage in Thailand recently, and shared the experience with my South Asian sister-in-law, my two teenaged daughters, and my teenaged niece. While not 100% nude at all times, many of the maneuvers in the communal massage room, as well as in the communal showers left me with the dilemma of whether or not to try harder to cover. The masseuses couldn’t understand why our group was taking so long, but my sister-in-law is extremely modest, and I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable with my own casualness. My own daughters don’t give me much privacy at home, but they too didn’t want to cross any lines with family that they only get to see every other year or so. Trying to straddle that line was difficult. The staff was very amused by our little group. Next time, I will leave my modest relatives in another room to do their own thing, and I will relax and enjoy my nudity, in private.

Corey 08.05.10 | 7:30 PM ET

It is absolutely the case that while traveling you are more free and sometimes nudity just must be a part of that! I was studying in Cairns Australia and went bungy jumping from the rainforest canopy down into a river naked, strapped to my best friend and travel sister soulmate. At the time it felt like the most natural thing in the world. After the bungy the boys running the tower held us there for an extra long time, naked and upside down laughing our heads off until we were picked up via raft. It will always be a cherished memory.

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