Every couple of months, my friends and I head to a local steam bath.
And no, I don’t mean spa. This particular steam bath was built in 1927 as a Jewish ritual bath, and pretty much nothing has changed since then.
Even though swimsuits are technically allowed, one would look, and feel, far more awkward wearing a swimsuit than spending the day naked with 20 strange women—women who have converged upon the steam bath like pilgrims seeking the holy land, experiencing healing that only nudity can provide.
For eons, women have shared a sacred, naked sisterhood with each other.
And unless we return to our ancient, unclothed roots, until we collectively embrace nudity, our culture will remain tormented and sick. We will stay rooted in the bonds of racism, sexism, ageism, and intolerance. Paradoxically, we suffer from body-shame, eating disorders, and depression, yet the obesity epidemic runs rampant. All because of our propensity to stay covered up and to hide.
Unity through Nudity.
I am handed a small hand towel, a sheet, and a locker key. Winding my way into the modest locker room, I feel my pretenses begin to drop. Women, either stark naked or wrapped toga-style in their sheets, lounge everywhere. Shoes off, phone off, jewelry off, clothes off, I feel more at ease, more myself, with every layer that I shed. And so my healing begins.
Entering the baths requires a shower, as all oils, lotions, and makeup must be washed off in order to keep the water clean. Long hair needs to be clipped up and pulled out of the face. Grabbing my small, white hand towel, I walk gingerly across the slippery floor, toward the shower, and into what feels like another dimension. Steam fills the air and collects by the ceiling, which is painted light blue with fake clouds.
A sea of naked women surrounds me. They are old, young, thin, fat, short, tall, tattooed, scarred, powerful, and frail. They speak in hushed tones and carry the same, simple, white hand towel. Free of makeup, hair, jewelry, or accessories, everyone is equal. Women of every shape, size, color, and description imaginable, quietly mill around in the haze. And it takes my breath away.
Nobody is rich or poor, married or single, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, stylish, or simple. We are simply just human; honest and humble in our vulnerability. I am just another naked body with a white hand towel, wet hair clipped unflatteringly to my head. And it’s a beautiful thing.
I no longer worry if my hair is falling or my mascara is streaking. Pulling my stomach in is pointless. The last remnants of the identity I have created around myself fall away and I become part of the naked mass. With nothing covering me, I have nothing to hide or to fear. I’m already naked; there’s nothing left to be taken. I am simply a part of the whole.
The Naked Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
Sitting there, resting my head against the wall, watching the women in front of me, I am overcome with the great beauty of the aging process. All of us age. Yet we are not given access to the beauty of the process. We do not have the opportunity to look upon old bodies. We don’t even have the opportunity to look upon real, regular, raw bodies. In our culture, every time bodies are shown, they are either edited or sexualized. We are never given the opportunity to see bodies as they really are.
There is a woman who has had a mastectomy, whose chest looks like a molded, plastic baby doll. There are young women with firm, tight skin, and tattoos. Some women’s stomachs are so stretched out from pregnancy that the skin on their bellies looks incongruous with the rest of their bodies. There are the heavy women who fill out their bodies, in beautiful, round curves and there are women who have folds of squishy, fat hanging from their bodies. The variety of breasts and nipples is indescribable. The array of pubic hair is astounding. The steam bath is where I learned that even pubic hair turns gray with age.
No wonder we are miserable. No wonder we have such shame in our bodies, our age, and our size. “What’s wrong with me? Why am I so ugly/fat/thin/tall/sort?” is the constant refrain from women everywhere. But being at the steam bath, being naked with my friends, I know that the answer to all of these questions is quite simply, nothing. Nothing is wrong with any of us. At any age, at any weight or size, we are all okay.
We just don’t see it, because we stay covered up.
Peace, Love, and Nudity.
Being naked is what makes us okay. Lounging in this vast mix of bodies, where nobody is remotely the same, allows me to gauge exactly who I am. Exactly where I need to be. I begin to appreciate my own folds, bulges, and contours. I see how I used to be when I was younger, and where I’ll be in 5, 10, 15, and 20 years. And I’m grateful for that.
I understand the process. My own body is interesting and beautiful in its distinction. But covered up, I lose the opportunity to see or to know that. It is the ritual of being naked with others that allows this understanding.
At the end of the day, we head back toward the locker rooms, toward our identities and lives. Back toward separation and covering up. Except that we can no longer be completely separate or hidden from each other.
We have spent the day naked together, in sacred, communal space, and because of this, we understand that we are all one. We are all the maiden, the mother, and the crone, all at the same time. And it is from this place of unclothed understanding that we begin to heal.
Originally published on Elephant Journal on December 23, 2017