Once you truly embrace it, you may find nudity to be liberating in unexpected ways.
When Elena and I booked our tickets to Baden Baden with our friend Chrysoula, we had a classic girls’ weekend winter agenda: keeping warm at Christmas markets with cups of hot mulled wine, visiting the museums and world’s most beautiful Belle Epoque casino, and of course enjoying the spas – one contemporary, and one classic – in a town that defines spa culture in its very name.
The Friedrichsbad is more of a bathing temple than a spa – a kind of Art Nouveau/Neoclassical bath palace. We were excited to go, and curious about one aspect in particular: the Friedrichsbad is entirely textile-free. We knew this in advance But apparently this has been an issue in the past, because by way of greeting, the receptionist said: “You must be nude to use the baths. Completely nude. Absolutely no bathing suits allowed. Nothing.” This kind of clear communication is a refreshing hallmark of German culture. At the Friedrichsbad, we ended up finding that nudity is surprisingly refreshing, too.
Having lived in Germany for a couple of years, I was already familiar with mixed-gender nudity, where they really know how to take the sex out of it. Most large public swimming pools have mixed-sex nude saunas. Elena and Chrysoula had less experience with it, so we had a trial run at Baden Baden’s modern Caracalla Baths.
Bathing suits are worn in all the indoor and outdoor baths and steam baths at the Caracalla – a mixed-sex and family friendly facility that has the more playful mood of a poolscape rather than the hushed reverence of a spa.
A Nude Warm-up
The Caracalla also has a Roman Saunascape on an upper floor: several saunas, of varying temperatures. I went up to see what it’s like, and an attendant (who was dressed, incidentally) indicated a row of lucite shelves and reminded me that the saunascape is a strictly textile-free zone.
The Surprising Psychological Advantages of Mandatory Nudity
It’s a lot easier to be nude when it’s compulsory. It takes the subversive, even potentially naughty, quality out of it. When nudity is mandatory, you’re not a hippy or an exhibitionist; it’s just the rules. Along with your bathing suit, you end up stripping off a thick layer of taboo.
You also strip off a layer of ego. The “I” that we share with the world is a curated, partly sartorial, construction. Even something as small as a bathing suit, besides ensuring modesty, is a choice. Stripping it off liberates you from more than spandex.
If you feel less than confident nude, you’ll feel better about it when you see a room of other people who have not been photoshopped and airbrushed. Our species comes in a beautiful variety of shape and size, far greater than the media would have us believe. An experience with public nudity can make you feel more confident in your own skin, and more broadly embracing of our shared humanity.
Nudity and Context
A bra covers the same surface area as a bikini top, but we don’t wear it to the beach. Clothing is not just about surface area, but intent. Exposure works exactly the same way. My friend Sarah and I were enjoying a weekend at the Gellert (where bathing suits are mandatory), and she observed how different the mood of exposure was. At the beach, some are there to see and be seen, as well as to enjoy the sand and the waves. The mood can share more with a bar than with a swimming pool. In a spa, exposure is not about seduction. The emphasis is solely on health, and this creates a completely different mood, in textile-free spas even more so.
The Health Benefits of Nudity
Many of us first experience public nudity in a sauna. Saunas are about relaxation and, above all, perspiring. Having completely bare skin is essential for an effective session. Sweating through synthetic textiles detracts from the experience, and doubly so for women who may be wearing a maillot or bra top. Once you’ve enjoyed a sauna in the nude, wearing a bathing suit in one is intolerable.
In a thermal spring, giving all of your skin direct access to the healing properties of the water enhances the experience. Also, in spas we often go from station to station. And, as Chrysoula pointed out, it’s really nice not walking around in a wet bathing suit.
The Sensual and Aesthetic Benefits of Nudity
If you’re at a thermal spa, having nothing between yourself and the water is extraordinary. Bathing is not just healthful and relaxing; it can be a profound communion with nature and also with history. The thermal springs feeding the spa have in many cases been enjoyed for centuries, sometimes millenia.
A Uniquely Intimate Experience of Architecture
Being nude in an outdoor thermal pool – like at Esalen – feels as natural as can be. Nudity in the small space of a sauna is relatively unintimidating, especially on account of the low lighting. But being nude in a vast, airy, architecturally resplendent surroundings is something else altogether. It’s surreal, ennobling.
Lovers of architecture will delight in the purity of the aesthetic experience. The timeless quality of historical structures is nearly always marred with contemporary fashions and palettes, but we’re used to it; no one visits the Sistine Chapel in the nude.
Bathing fashions – polka dots, florals and stripes – inevitably clash with historical spa architecture. The nude, on the other hand, is a classical architectural adornment. Nudity in a great bathing palace removes the architectural experience from the temporal sphere, giving it a nearly spiritual quality.
Mixed-Gender Nudity: Etiquette
In cultures where mixed-gender nudity is commonplace, even sometimes mandatory, freedom of the body is matched by a reserve of character. There is no unseemly ogling, leering, or lewd remarks. People keep their gazes short and discretely unfocused.
The Friedrichsbad in Baden Baden, where we experienced mixed-gender nudity, has some days of the week where men and women are separate for the initial phases of the experience, but they come together in the glorious domed bath at the center. This was a good way to get used to it. By the time we joined the men, we had already been nude for a couple of hours and it no longer felt unnatural.
Mens’ behavior- whether restrained or enthusiastic – is usually scrupulously proper. In the central pool at the Friedrichsbad, a manaccidentally grazed my pinky. His back was to me and he did not know I was there. He drew his hand away, horrified, with apologies. Another time, in the Münster-Therme of Dusseldorf, I was trying to navigate a crowded sauna. A nude man cheerfully lent me his hand to help me down, as I tried to brush my damp breasts or buttocks against as few strangers as possible.
Where nudity is the norm, it’s so normal that it’s stripped of any awkwardness at all. He might as well have been helping my with my groceries.