How a hot pot locker room in Iceland reminded me that body image is cultural and that self-love is a continual practice.
When was the last time you got naked in front of strangers? I practice getting metaphorically naked in front of strangers all the time on the internet in the form of baring my feelings, vulnerabilities and thoughts to the internet. However, on this last trip to Iceland, I learned that there are many ways to practice self-love and that just because we think we are comfortable in our bodies, there will always be lessons to learn.
It was a cold late-January afternoon and we had decided to spend time at Gamla Laugin (or Secret Lagoon) which is a natural hot spring in the Golden Circle area of Iceland. After paying for my ticket, the worker reminded me that they do ask that we shower without a swimsuit on prior to entering the hot pot. (Many of Iceland’s pools have minimal or no chlorine in them, so for everyone’s peace of mind, all who get into the water have to make sure their body isn’t polluting it with germs.) I nodded, and headed towards the women's locker room.
I entered the fairly empty locker room with my friend that I was traveling with. We both chose a locker and began to strip off our many layers of winter clothing. I wasn't sure where the showers were located, so I wandered around getting oriented with the locker room. There was a concrete divider to separate the main part of the locker room with the line of shower heads. There were no curtain to divide them, no privacy. There were posters highlighting all the regions you must lather attentively: head, armpits, undercarriage, feet.
I meandered back to my locker with my mind racing. "I know they said to shower naked but I am sure it will be fine if I just keep my swimsuit on!", "Okay, my mind is made up, I will just wear my swimsuit into the shower, take it off momentarily and then pull it back on." I looked to my friend and voiced my concern. In America, we just aren't raised to see other women (or people) naked like in Europe or other cultures. In locker rooms, we have totally separate showers or, at the very least, they are separated by a curtain.
Then, while still deciding what I was going to do, I noticed an older woman entering the shower area completely naked, like it was the most natural thing in the world. And that is when I realized it IS the most natural thing in the world. I felt a bit of jealousy for the women of Iceland, not just because they have the privilege of calling this beautiful country home but because they get to grow up feeling comfortable with the female form. They grow up feeling comfortable with their own body but also the bodies of real women. Real women with saggy breasts, pregnant bellies, stretch marks, cellulite, tall and thin, tall and squishy. There is no Photoshop in the locker rooms.
These few moments in the women's locker room were turning out to be quite introspective. What was I apprehensive about? What was I afraid of? What was making me uncomfortable? It was that woman that gave me courage. I pulled off my clothes and headed into the shower (which no one else was in, by the way). I felt proud of myself for not allowing whatever body-image demons that were lingering in my mind to win that day. I also felt this sense of freedom. I pulled on my swimsuit and opened the door to an arctic blast of wind. I hurried into the hot spring, and felt instant relief from the biting cold.
“I think the swimming pools are what make it possible to live here,” the young artist Ragnheidur Harpa Leifsdottir said. “You have storms, you have darkness, but the swimming pool is a place for you to find yourself again.”
When it was time to exit the hot spring and head back into the locker room, I had no apprehension. I peeled off my wet swimsuit and headed into the shower. I did take notice that there was a woman showering with her bikini on. I wondered if she was having an introspective moment of her own. I hoped that my courage would rub off on her. I hoped that she had a self-love practice.
I wanted to tell you this story because it felt trans-formative for me. I wanted to remind you that self-love is a continual and daily practice. Shame demons come from nowhere sometimes, and that is okay. I encourage you to find your own "Icelandic hot pot locker room" moment. Practice standing in front of a mirror, naked, and speaking all the things that you love about your body. Surround yourself with real women, real bodies. Stop punishing yourself trying to look like someone that you aren't or an image that was curated.
On another note, if you do find yourself in Iceland in search of the nearest hot pot, I highly recommend this website!