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
“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.
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.