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By James McKean
“That’s disgusting. There is no way I’m taking a bath with strangers.”
It was spring break, and my friends and I were in Budapest, Hungary. One of us, Dontae,couldn’t be convinced to go for a dip at Széchenyi, one of the city’s renowned public thermal baths.
“I don’t even know how to swim. And it’s cold outside. And it’s so unsanitary.” Dontae insisted.
“First of all, the water is shallow enough to stand in. There’s a reason they call them thermal baths. And it’s completely sanitary.” This last bit I wasn’t sure about, but I had been to the Gellért Baths once already and hadn’t noticed any unusual bumps or rashes.
But Dontae had one final argument. “I hate the idea of being so exposed around people I don’t know.”
“Maybe he’s a ‘never-nude’” I quipped, referring to Tobias, the character on Arrested Development who showers in cut-off jean shorts because he literally can’t stand to be naked, even in solitude.
And who really feels confident in that nearly naked state? I wasn’t eager to slip into a bikini after subsisting on a holiday diet of Russian blini, Finnish ciders, and Hungarian kakós csiga pastries.
During my first Budapest bathing experience, several days earlier, I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious as I floated lazily in the rooftop pool of the Gellért Spa with Hannah, Edek, Stella, and J. I was sure their opinions of me wouldn’t diminish in proportion to the amount of fabric I was wearing, but part of me was still hung up on whether or not I looked good in the minimal coverage of a Lycra/polyester blend.
But I couldn’t care less what the nameless strangers who were also at the Bath that day might have thought about the circumference of my waist or the scar on my thigh. In fact, by the time Dontae refused to join us for a day at the Széchenyi Baths, I had already decided to take my Hungarian bathing experience to the extreme: I was going to visit the clothing-optional single-sex Gellért thermal baths, and I was going to go au naturel.
For much of my life pools have served as my watery home-away-from-home. I swam competitively for six years, and lifeguarded for five. I used to proclaim nonchalantly that my favorite odour was chlorine.
When I arrived at the Gellért Spa, I changed into my bikini in the locker room, preferring to ass-ess the situation with a little bit of coverage before I undressed entirely. I stepped into the cavernous thermal bath chamber and looked around. Soft, green light was filtering through the skylight high above, and the arched ceiling and walls were covered in Art Nouveau mosaics in tranquil shades of aquamarine and emerald.
And nobody was naked.
And suddenly, the legs which I had intended to soon slide my bikini bottoms over, straight to the floor, felt feeble. I had promised myself not to leave Gellért until I had bathed in the buff, but was I to be the only one? Was I even in the correct room? I was standing on a tiled walkway in between two pools. The signage indicated that the water to my right was 38º, to my left it was 36º. I chose the warmer pool, and waited.
Sure enough, several naked women soon entered the room. I breathed a sigh of relief, and although I remained in the water, I unclipped my top and slipped out of my bottoms, setting them on the edge of the bath.
But my nervousness didn’t retreat. Although I wasn’t wearing clothing, the water lapping at my chest still concealed me. So I forced myself to wade over to the steps, stand up straight, get out of the water and cross the middle walkway, a distance of about three meters.
I did it, but it felt more like a mile. Don’t run! The voice inside my head squeaked, as I fought the urge to dash as quickly as possible back into the warm, caressing comfort – and privacy – of submersion. When I googled “self-consciousness about being naked” I unearthed numerous articles and blog posts about uncomfortable experiences, most of them from women.
In a promotional excerpt from a book called Look Better Naked on Women’s Health magazine’s website , author Michele Promaulayko notes that she surveyed 3500 women, of whom 72 percent “immediately said they looked better clothed than naked.” At first, Promaulayko writes insightfully that “when we’re naked, it’s not just our bodies that are on exhibit—it’s our hearts, our souls, our very self-worth that feels exposed and ripe for criticism.” But she quickly runs off course, pushing the surveyed women to admit “which body parts made them most self-conscious.” She concludes that 77 percent of these women “were highly motivated for Women’s Health to help them look better naked.”
Although Promaulayko initially acknowledges that it is more than just our physical features that feel on exhibition when we’re naked, she goes on to focus solely on corporal parts, suggesting that if we simply improve our bodily appearances, our qualms about nudity will dissolve. Surely there is a wrinkle of truth in this (and to be fair, the book is titled Look Better Naked) but isn’t it more helpful to tackle the psychological side of self-consciousness alongside the physical?
Around strangers, I wasn’t anxious because of the way I looked without clothes on. It was the feeling of complete exposure that was throwing me. The scariest part of being naked isn’t how attractive we feel – it is about being laid bare to the world, with no safety net.
I’m glad I stripped down in Budapest. I won’t be fleeing to a nudist colony anytime soon, but I’m not becoming a never-nude, either.
I like keeping parts of myself to myself. I appreciate the security of clothing, and I plan on wearing it in public from now on. But I have to say, there was something liberating about taking it all off.