Guest Editorial - Learning To Love My Body At 90°C!
During our visit to Nature Spa's recent event launch, we had the pleasure of meeting up with the founder of the popular Sauna Explorers website - and here, in her own words, is an in-depth editorial detailing how her love of saunas first got started, her initial reservations about baring all, and the ways in which sauna experiences can actually help people overcome their body insecurities.
The first time I was in a sauna naked, I was uncomfortable. Shy. While my boyfriend indifferently argued that the proper way to enjoy sauna is to be fully naked, all I wanted to do was to cover my breasts and apologise to the entire universe for being bare open.
This was a small, public sauna in a hotel gym, which had only us as guests at the time. When I hesitated to take off my swimming suit, I was not really hiding from the prying eyes of anyone. There was nobody other than me and my boyfriend. But I was in a public space. There still was the heavy presence of society, the notion of ‘others’. The social pressure even when there is no audience at present. A kind of self-censorship. All encompassed by a deeply established sense of shame.
In the eight years following that experience, I have visited countless saunas, most often in full nudity. I have sweated in dark smoke saunas of Finnish forests with Finns and Estonians and Japanese alike. In Southern Germany, I scrubbed sugar and salt on my sweaty body side by side with red-faced, blue eyed Germans who were twice the age and three times the size of me. In Switzerland, I have competed with the fittest and strongest Swiss bankers, sitting and sweating bravely on the uppermost benches where the heat is most intense. While visiting a free public sauna in an industrial park in Gothenburg, I have socialised with Swedes without speaking a word of Swedish.
When I moved to England a few years ago, I searched and searched, and finally came across a decent public sauna I can visit. When I got there, I delved into the changing room, which happened to be full of men, and I started taking off all my clothes without a second thought – only to be told that it was a men-only room and nudity was not allowed. “Oh”, I said: “I thought this was mix-gender.” The men who were with me in the changing room were largely shocked at the sight of my unflustered bare bum. But well, it was an honest mistake. I took my towel and left. I did not feel even a tiny bit of shame.
Only within the space of a few years, I had gotten used to the concept of public nudity, which is very common in most spas and saunas I have visited in Central and Northern Europe. But not so much in England…yet!
And how did I get here? What happened to the 20-something girl who was too ashamed to sit in her skin uncovered at an empty hotel sauna? How did she end up exploring public nudity without the chains of body-consciousness, shame, sexuality and judgement while visiting the most wonderful saunas across Europe? How did she experience all sorts of empowerment and humility in hot, dark rooms full of women and men of all trades, all nationalities, and all religions? How did she make so many deep connections while sweating side by side with utter strangers, not caring one bit about how the naked body looks like, but bonding with the eyes, over conversations about life, the heat, and their love of the steam?
The answer is a bit of friendly encouragement, and some practice.
I believe that sauna is one of the rare remaining spaces where humans can genuinely feel connected to themselves, to each other and to the elements of nature. There, in 90 degrees Celcius, just feeling the heat and the steam, I experience equality and even a sense of unity with everyone in the room. No matter who we are, where we come from and what we look like, we are all hot, red, and we can’t wait to jump into freezing cold water in a few minutes.
Sauna is the perfect reminder of our basic needs that unite us. In the public sphere, we pretend to be so different and unique in the roles we take up. We put our clothes on, and wear masks that are tightly clad on our faces as we play along. But in the sauna, we can remember our similarities on a regular basis. The intimidating boss, the tired construction worker, the loving nurse, the bored housewife, the student, the unemployed, the millionaire, the jet-setter and the gardener all look one and the same when they are resting on a sauna bench.
Once I had this revelation, going to the sauna became a passion for me. It was also my cure. At a time of my life when I was trying to figure out who I am, who I should be, what I should do, it felt therapeutic to make weekly visits to a sauna; a space free from judgements and expectations. The space for me to be just my authentic, natural self.
Visit after visit, I became more comfortable with different ways I relate to my body. There were days I was proud of my natural beauty, my femininity, and I flaunted it in the sauna. Who cares? There were days where it didn’t matter how I looked as long as I could sweat in silence and have some time on my own. Who cares?
The day I crossed another milestone was when I realised that I could visit the sauna even if I was menstruating. It was the most natural thing for bathing women throughout history, and indeed it had to be! Growing up in a society where periods were something dirty to hide, and a reason to hold-back, I suddenly discovered something else about me that I didn't have to feel ashamed of. I was learning self-acceptance. I was learning to be proud of all I am.
Now in my thirties, I must say that there is a more established sense of self-confidence, self-acceptance, and maturity around my body image. On most days, I do not need the sauna experience to remind me of this. In fact, it takes rigorous mental work and questioning of one’s own limiting beliefs to be here. But sauna bathing is what triggered this journey in me, and I am very grateful to have been introduced to it as a physical gateway to explore these topics.
For that reason, I am looking for opportunities to share the love of sauna with as many people as I can. Not to mention the health benefits, which is a whole topic of its own.
With every person I encourage to give authentic sauna bathing a try, I feel more fulfilled. If you are curious about my sauna travels, and want to read more about the saunas you can visit in Britain and abroad; check out my blog saunaexplorers.com and my Instagram @sauna_explorers.