After climbing five narrow flights of stairs, I push tentatively against an unmarked door. Is this the ladies change room? I enter a fitness class in progress. About 20 slender men and women wearing tight black pants are lying on their backs, thrusting their hips into the air to the rhythmic chant of “les fesses, les cuisses.” I slowly back away. This scene is repeated a few times with minor variations before I finally find what must be the women’s locker room. Naked women are there. Some of them chat while sitting bare-assed on wooden benches inside a steamy glass enclosure. They have massive bushes. In fact, I have never been in proximity to so much pubic hair before, even while watching 1970s porn films. The best porn I have ever seen—isn’t most of it rather boring? Thrusty, thrusty, thrust, thrust—was at The Museum of Sex in New York City. There a crudely made 1930s film showed two flappers driving an old Vauxhall car which broke down, causing them (inexplicably) to have roadside sex with a passing chauffeur. It was awkward, fumbly, normal-body-type sex. Fascinating. My mind floods with such images as I gaze openly at the unshorn bodies of the French women. They are totally unselfconscious in a way that is new to me. I finally begin to disrobe, saving my unimpressive nether regions for last. Should I have purchased a merkin at Châtelet-les-Halles? To make things worse, the women around me have amazingly taut glutes and hams, probably from walking up thousands of steps every day in the metro. I gaze down at my pale mottly thighs, fearing that I will be mistaken for a German. These stocky legs are in no way Teutonic. I imagine that they are similar to the legs of my ancestors, angry Scottish women who strapped themselves into plows and pulled hard, grunting and farting without apology. I honour them. Others lack such respect. During a recent visit to Carcassonne in the south of France, a salesperson laughed in my face when I requested a size small dress. I was a Canadian 6 or 8, but she brought me three frocks in taille grande and they fit perfectly. When in Europe, I am big, fat, and short. My modest breasts are nevertheless quite respectable inside the locker room, even as my shoulders and back are comparatively thick, formed by years of lifting heavy weights back home. In contrast, the Euro ladies show little interest in their upper bodies. I feel proudly out of place and cannot wait to do chest presses upstairs. There I quickly learn that I need a white towel beneath me at all times, and that no one in this overpriced 12th arrondissement Club Med gym gives a rat’s ass about my pecs. It’s all les fesses, les cuisses, les fesses, les cuisses…
The Caribbean, 2006
Once upon a time I decided to visit nudist beaches in the Caribbean. To hell with bathing suits, I thought. To hell with winter. I wanted to spend a week being naked and feeling nothing but the sun, salt, and surf on my body.
Some googling later I found a tiny island which has since the sixties been a haven for northern nudies. I located a hotel on the beach with free meals and books; it was clothing optional. Take my money, I said.
How does one pack for a nudist vacation? Lots of sarongs. Some sweaters. More importantly: how does one prepare a body for a week of nakedness? Should I go au naturel? I decided upon a full body wax. And, I hit the gym. The ironies were apparent. I had wanted a naturalist experience, free of social obligations. Yet I seemed to be preparing for a distinctly performative event.
Upon arrival, the hotel was busier than expected. Also, some people were wearing clothes. More specifically, the staff and some tourists were wearing clothes. Other tourists were wearing nothing. These latter folk were white, wrinkly, and, for the most part, male-bodied. They carried towels, which they kindly put underneath their bottoms when they sat down.
I was surprised. Here was something I had not considered: what to wear inside the hotel. I also became uncomfortable. There was something strange about fully dressed hotel staff, wearing uniforms no less, bringing drinks to naked tourists. Frankly, it seemed rude to be naked in this situation. These nudies were guests in another country. Surely, if the citizens of that country were wearing clothes, shouldn’t the guests as well?
Out of respect I decided to reserve my nakedness for the beach. Soon I was heading down the boardwalk, body firmly wrapped in a sarong.
Everything was gorgeous. White sand, turquoise water. Nearby, a run-down bar served drinks and hamburgers. Everyone moved slowly. Everyone seemed happy. I squinted. Half the guests were clothed. I came upon a faded sign. Clothing section that way, nudist section the other way.
I explored the clothed section first. Families, singles, couples. Children building castles. It was wonderful. That is, until I came upon groups of fully clothed tourists with their zoom lenses pointed toward the nudies. Some of them were clearly titillated. Others were disgusted. How could people be naked around children, they wondered. It was immoral.
If this island had once been a haven for nudies, it was no longer. Apparently when they booked their vacations, the clothed folk had been unaware of the island’s nudist reputation. Nonetheless, I was determined to have the naturalist experience for which I came. I made my way past the clothed and found the nudists. Tucked away from everyone else, a languid group of white tourists, most of them middle-aged or older, were drooped across chairs, letting it all hang out. Most were men, but a few were women. All seemed oblivious to everything but the sun, the sand, and their own conversations. Some of them were playing cards.
Not my section, I decided. I walked a bit further, finding a more secluded spot. This became my spot for the week. I tanned, swam, and read naked. It was glorious. But it was also slightly nerve wracking. Any time anyone came near, I covered up. I did not want any of these people seeing me up close, I realized.
I did a lot of thinking that week. About bodies, and privilege, and white male privilege. About how some male-bodied tourists could walk about a resort naked. And about how other bodies, tourist and otherwise, could not. I also thought about cloth. When worn, it can suggest prudery. But it can also imply respect. Respect for others’ hospitality; respect for others’ situations.
Finally, I thought about borders. About who could fly over borders and indulge in naked vacations. And about who could not.
I learned a lot, that week. Would I ever do it again? No.
Gangneung, South Korea, 2013
I’m nude, laying on a wet massage bed with my skin being violently rubbed away by an aggressive but somehow jovial Ajumma. My arms and legs are pushed and pulled in every direction so that she can reach each crevice and valley that my body has to offer; she scrapes away the offensive layers of my dead skin. The Ajumma jokingly says that I am getting whiter. I silently gasp as she strips down the tan that I have worked so hard to maintain from the summer. This is all part of the jimjilbang experience, I tell myself. As I look around, I see the chunks of skin falling away from my back and stomach. Looking further away, into the bath area, I notice women walking around with towels around their hair to keep it away from their dedicated cleaning and skin scraping. Of course, the woman that I have working on my lower back is more covered, wearing a single pair pink briefs. Sweat and excess water pour down her body and onto mine. I am not completely uncomfortable. The room temperature is warm and the humid air relaxes my muscles after a long day at work.
I was not this open when I first walked into the locker room with my friends earlier that afternoon. We giggled and moved around trying to find some semblance of modesty as we threw our clothes into the locker. Armed with only our small hand towels we ventured into the steam room and bath area. Upon seeing the other women first showering and then going into the baths we followed suit, trying to blend in as much as we could, although it was difficult as a blonde curvy foreigner. Once we sat down in the baths, the water covered us, and we relaxed. We looked around and I saw a woman laying on a massage chair being scraped down with an abrasive cloth. Her skin turned pink and then red as the exfoliated skin piled up around her. Minutes passed until she was finally finished, walking away to shower. That is when I got up, walked over, smiled, and lay down. After finishing, the Ajumma sighed and looked to see if she had missed any spots. I could feel that she hadn’t. I walked over to the shower to rinse away any last debris, suddenly realizing that I had forgotten to bring my towel with me. I never really needed it.