By Dharini Parthasarathy
I sighed deeply as my boyfriend reverse-parked the car. This outing was supposed to be relaxing. I could see that it was for him; he was whistling as he looked over his shoulder. I, on the other hand, was almost on the edge of my seat, clutching my backpack as if ready to flee into the woods the moment the doors unlocked.
My friends had offered sympathy on our WhatsApp group the evening before, after I shared my upcoming predicament. “Have a stiff drink before you go.” In the morning I woke up to another message: “Goodluck!! You can do this :)”
I swallowed nervously as we made our way from the parking lot to the building. I had just signed up for an entire day of roaming around stark naked. No clothes. Just my body.
When my boyfriend first suggested we treat ourselves to a day at a sprawling wellness spa about 25km from Antwerp, a Flemish city in Belgium, I imagined something along the lines of indulging in elaborate massages, partaking of a slow meal by a fire and maybe a swim, all appropriately clothed of course. He casually dropped the N word when I remarked I hadn’t brought along a bathing suit, never expecting to need one in the dead of the European winter.
“What? Completely naked?” I gasped, horrified. I banished the thought with a shudder and hoped it would never come up again.
It did, a few weeks later. What was the big deal? he asked. It was a non-sexual setting and having clothes on in a spa was just…wrong. It would be fun but no pressure.
I decided to confront what exactly bothered me about this idea. I consider myself an open-minded person, so why was I so self-conscious about my body? When was the last time I actually felt a cool outdoor breeze graze against my breasts and pubes? At the ripe age of 33 could I finally scale this bastion of insecurity?
None of these concerns seemed to haunt my boyfriend. Our backgrounds could not be more different.
Running around naked during family vacations was the staple of his childhood stories in Belgium. Growing up in the Europe of the decadent 70s, with parents who embraced the nudist lifestyle, any opportunity to discard clothes was an opportunity not to be missed. It was tricky most of the year in the rain and the cold but summer brought with it the promise of blissful nakedness. Allowing the sun to kiss your bum was the very essence of life.
I grew up in India. Like many young women, I learnt to camouflage my curves after being touched, pushed, groped and pinched on my breasts and ass as I navigated through crowds and life. The piercing male gaze seemed inescapable, and my body a liability.
Despite my best efforts, had I also internalised the barrage of media images that depict women’s bodies as always sexual, always perfect and always up for scrutiny? Being naked was just unthinkable. It was the stuff of bad dreams.
After some thought, I decided to do it for myself. If not in Europe and in the presence of someone I trusted, then where?
Once we registered ourselves, I enquired where the ladies’ changing area was. My boyfriend grinned as he led us into the unisex locker room. A middle-aged naked man nodded a polite hello as he briskly walked past us. My eyes quickly averted to the floor. The sight of a naked stranger is at first startling. The absence of any form of gender segregation even more so.
I tried to act nonchalant. My boyfriend began quickly stripping (still humming) while I slowly peeled my stockings off. I held the terrycloth bathrobe close to my chest with one hand as I undid my top’s zip and the my bra with the other.
I had to abandon the bathrobe at the communal shower area where we could scrub ourselves with brightly coloured sea salts before proceeding to the saunas. Once again I was taking my time.
Naked people of all ages, shapes, genders and sizes were sauntering around, alone and in pairs, couples and friends, all chatting and laughing and at ease. Could they sense this confused Indian woman in their midst who didn’t seem to know what to do with her arms? Was it ok to make eye contact? It felt beyond surreal. What was I trying to prove and to whom?
The discomfort lasted just a few minutes. I didn’t need a drink after all. I gave up the robe once I realised that being clothed was more of an oddity than an advantage. And then I began to enjoy it.
It felt wonderful to walk across a room stark naked without worrying about your body constantly being under a sexual gaze. Sure, it’s inevitable that naked people observe other naked people around them just like everyday clothed people do. The details that make us interesting and give away our life stories: the operation scar on the shoulder, the stretch marks, the large mole on chest and the various patterns of body hair and freckles.
But on my naked spa adventure, I noticed that nobody really cared about my body. No one was fixated on anyone else. It felt both intimate and liberating. Being human and alive. I had never been so exposed before and yet I felt the freest I have ever felt with my body.
By the end of the day, clothes seemed a distant distraction. We tried every sauna on the campus, ate a warm lunch (with bathrobes on) and swam naked under the stars. As I bobbed up and down in the heated pool I told my boyfriend how glad I was to have done this, even as I wondered to myself if I would do it again. I think the significance of the moment was slightly lost on him, accustomed as he was to being naked. For me, it was a revelation and a celebration.
Dharini Parthasarathy is a Bangalore-based professional.