De-sexualising Female Nudity in Reykjavik
On my recent trip to Iceland’s capital city I was unexpectedly confronted with a room full of naked females. No, I was not in a strip club and I hadn’t walked into the wrong place by accident. This was in the shower and locker room at Nauthólsvík, a geothermal beach located a couple of miles outside Reykjavik’s city centre, and I later learned that it was perfectly standard practice.
I had done absolutely no preparatory research for this trip since it came immediately after the Boshemia reunion in Washington DC, USA. I was therefore unaware of what now seems to be common knowledge about the Icelandic people; nudity is no big deal (unless it’s out in public or indecent). It is a rule at every public swimming pool that you must wash thoroughly, with soap, in the nude before you can enter the pool. I have since read that many pools have shower wardens who enforce the nude shower rule, although this was not the case at Nauthólsvík.
My friend and I picked our way across the room awkwardly, retreated into a corner and gingerly began undressing. I peered shyly around the room, trying to take courage from the other women there who were completely at home walking around the locker room butt naked. It took a good few minutes to adjust to the situation, but I very quickly came to two important realisations:
That nobody is going to be staring at you like you’re an idiot for being in the nude because everybody is.
That nobody cares what you look like and nobody was judging anybody else.
It was uplifting beyond belief. It was freeing. And aside from everything else entirely, it was a strange but nice novelty to see what actual woman look like nude. I had never really thought about the fact that the only other people I have seen in the nude aside from myself are my mum, my siblings and past and present sexual partners. All other reference of naked bodies has come from media. The females in that locker room were not perfectly airbrushed models in glossy magazines or actresses made up to perfection on screen. Just everyday women going for a swim. Young bright girls, old wrinkled grandmas, hairy women, non-hairy women, round-bellied women, slim women, strong women; all were unashamed, relaxed, unembarrassed, and naked side by side. (Imagine what it would do for young girls’ self-esteem to regularly be in the company of women of all ages who are totally at ease with their bodies! What would their idea of a ‘normal’ body be then?)
The atmosphere was one where nudity is totally unremarkable. Unfettered from their cultural status as sexual objects, commodities, baby carriages and nursing vessels, they were just bodies. I realised that my initial discomfort was because I was unused to seeing other women’s bodies uncoupled from societal norms and demands (read: desexualised) and I didn’t know how to react to this new way of seeing other people’s nakedness.
In hindsight I am glad that I didn’t already know of this custom. My knee-jerk reaction of surprise, confusion and mild embarrassment showed me how ridiculous I was to be so prudish, and made me realise how antiquated and deep-set the British and American sense of embarrassment around nudity is as a concept. Ultimately I was embarrassed about my own embarrassment rather than about the nudity. How deeply was this attitude towards naked bodies ingrained in my mind that it elicited embarrassment before anything else in me, an openly liberal-minded feminist? The friend I was with works as a model and frequently does nude shoots, but even she later told me that she initially felt self-conscious in that locker room. Bodies – and especially female bodies – have been so over-sexualised by media and advertisement and centuries-old yet deeply ingrained underlying misogyny that just the simple act of being nude becomes shocking, scandalous, shameful, provocative. Is the fear of seeing nude bodies to do with embarrassment from feelings of inadequacy? Or from embarrassment around genitals and sexuality? We are frequently taught to look away for fear of evoking sexual urges, or implying sexual intent. Bodies are never just bodies.
The longer we were in there, the more I felt that we were the ridiculous ones for still trying to shelter ourselves behind towels and hands. Buoyed by the sense of freedom and confidence newly instilled in me in this new situation, I stopped bothering to try.
Disclaimer: I am writing this article from my experience as a cis-gender female. I acknowledge that this experience may be very different, more uncomfortable or more negative for a transgender person as the locker rooms are typically gendered in a binary way. However, there are many examples on the great wide web of positive trans experiences in the pools in Iceland as well as advice and guidance on the places which can best accommodate a unisex or private locker area, including popular tourist bathing sites such as Blue Lagoon and Myvatn Nature Baths. The people of Iceland are in general very accepting, accommodating and open-minded and will do everything in their power to make your visit as comfortable as humanly possible.
This TripAdvisor comment thread is helpful and features both advice from locals and information from responses from other people's specific enquiries.
This blog post details the personal experience of one individual with using the locker rooms at an Icelandic pool.
Pink Iceland is frequently cited as a good source for advice and enquiries about specific places' facilities.
We would be delighted to hear any personal experiences from transgender people about their swimming experience in Iceland that may help others in the future.