How to Not Be Okay with Your Body in a German Spa


I saw ten penises in five minutes. An occasional sighting of breasts certainly, but an overwhelming amount of penises, guts, peacock flexing, muscular bodies, and what is that? Oh, it’s another penis. I also saw people’s eyes. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say, but it is an important note to make. People are staring at each other, unblinkingly, completely nude. No turning away politely, just unabashedly staring. Why are we doing this? Why on earth are we here? Can I go die now?

The intention was innocent enough. My German boyfriend bought me a spa gift certificate for Christmas. Somewhere, years ago, I recalled the infamous German spa culture (for Americans, not so strange from a global perspective), but I apparently let it slip away to be replaced by current spa propaganda of cucumbered eyeballs and sipping on detoxing winter spritzer. I thought about plush bathrobes and flipping through German magazines. The reality, even at an incredibly expensive and fancy spa, was quite different. You even had to bring your own towel. Rude.


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I am a personal prude. I don’t mind being one. I enjoy wearing non revealing clothing, or not drawing attention to myself in a sexual way. I’m like an enthusiastic school teacher. I am all business with a splash of color and wild hand movements, and zero suggestion of sex appeal. I am always going to be someone’s neighbor, sister, or great aunt. If you’re not my lover, my mother, my BFF, you aren’t seeing anything but my hands and face. Maybe part of my wrist if I’m flirting with you.

It is an important note to say that I don’t mind others being flamboyant, showing all the skin the world has to offer. I can imagine being at a strip club, blouse buttoned up past my neck and well above my chin and politely applauding both men and women shaking what their mothers gave them. I truly think human sexuality and the human form (in all forms, gender fluid people, old people, overweight people, handicapped people) is beautiful, captivating and fascinating. I think people should be their authentic, freest versions of themselves whenever possible. And my most authentic self happens to be free when wearing an impenetrable lifeless potato sack.


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Within five minutes of being in the spa in my dowdy one-piece suit, a man who works there tells my boyfriend in German (also wearing a swimsuit, for emotional support) that we’re not allowed to wear them due to “hygienic reasons”.


As you sit there, comfortably at home in America (yes, this is written from an American perspective!) , how many bets do you want to make that “a man who works there” at an American spa would say the exact opposite. “Oh sorry, you can’t be nude for hygienic reasons”. When will the lies stop! He then offered the helpful suggestion that if I spend time in the sauna (where, you guessed it, I have to be naked) I can slip off my swimsuit shoulder bands underneath my towel so it’ll look like I’m naked. Great pro-tip, Dude! Too bad it wouldn’t have worked in the slightest!


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Listen, I tried my best. I got undressed from my bathing suit, wrapped myself tightly in my huge towel and walked with “fake it till you make it” confidence into the sauna. It was unbelievably hot inside (Germans like pain), and there was a single man, lying spread eagled enough so the gods could see his genitalia. He takes a long, piercing look at us asked if we speak German. He then proceeds to tell my boyfriend that we aren’t allowed to wear towels in this sauna. He then, in English, looks at me and says,

“You must not be ashamed of your body.”

Excuse me? Pardon me? What? I cannot hear you over the sound of my mind shutting down. Do I know you? Are you my therapist? Something snapped in my brain. I think this is what rage feels like. Can a marshmallow, sunny, neighborly person feel rage? Yes, yes she can. And it is blinding.

Men sit in a mobile sauna that is mounted on a four-wheel drive truck in a forest in Barnaul

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Where is my boyfriend in all of this? He’s trying. He’s jumping around, telling me how brave I am, trying. It isn’t his fault, but it is his fault. It’s my fault, it’s Germany’s fault, it’s humanity’s fault. To not have the choice of being naked or not, in a supposedly relaxing retreat, seems like a recipe for a panic attack. And it was. I started unraveling very slowly.

Why wasn’t I leaving, you might be asking yourself. Your whining is annoying, to say the least. And to that, my answer is simply my American sensibilities. My passive-aggressive, trying not to hurt someone’s feelings attitude. This was a gift, after all, and we had a massage appointment at seven. I know now, in hindsight, I should have left. I was deeply uncomfortable. The fuel of my rage should have caused me to pack up my things and run. But I didn’t. I stayed, and I fumed. I pouted. I winced. I cried one tear that dried up instantly in the sauna. I soldiered on like this was a prison sentence. At one point I was literally shivering. Who knew being at a five star spa would be so traumatic?


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The saving grace was the swimming pool. Surprisingly, you can wear your swimsuit in the swimming pool. And I did. I put all of my anger and frustration into kicking back and forth, even with five naked people swimming next to me, along with my newly nude boyfriend. I swam and I swam. This wasn’t swimming for relaxation or fun, this was to expel the anger I had in my heart. And it was working. If I didn’t focus too hard, I won’t see a penis. If I don’t focus too hard I can forget that I’m here unwillingly/begrudgingly. That is, until my boyfriend, the dolphin that he is, decided to swim under me and accidentally kick my inner thigh, hard.

It was just that kind of day. A kind of day you hope to have only once in a lifetime.

Eventually, I was so cold we decided to go into the jacuzzi one last time. This time, naked as stated in the German rule handbook. I squinted my eyes so I couldn’t see who was around me and stepped in the bath. The boyfriend turned on the jets so no one could see anything but bubbles. I let my body relax for 2.5 seconds finally. That is, until I looked around. My boyfriend, being terribly nearsighted, was deeply blessed by being able to take his glasses off at will.

You can’t be bothered by what you can’t see.

I can see everything. I can see the other whirlpools being occupied by middle aged men solely staring at me. I can see that there are no other women here. I can feel my body tensing up, and my toes and fingers curling in on each other through the bubbles. These men won’t leave, and if they do, more men will replace them. I have to get out of this water, and I have to let five men, aged 45-70, ruthlessly stare at my chubby, cold, anxious, but ultimately womanly body. I felt a flood of 15 year old memories of depression, self consciousness, distrust, and feeling less-like-a-woman-and-more-like-an-object come over me like a tidal wave. I’m surprised I didn’t slip, so all of these naked men could swarm over me to show concern.


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There are articles (some written by me) solely based on the “German Stare”. The stare is unmoving, unwavering, and only when it burns a hole in your heart do they turn away. Living here for eight months, I had gotten used to the staring. But being naked in a sensual bathhouse with mini waterfalls and glowing pools of water and 100% nudity was like the staring Olympics.

At this point, everyone is threatening. It wouldn’t matter if these men were clones of the Dalai Lama. If there were a couple hundred Dalai Lama’s naked, I would be unnerved.

Finally, mercifully, the massage came. I requested a woman, because I just CAN’T, you guys. No more penises in my vicinity please. And she started massaging my shoulders.

“You feel tense here.” she said. I think I may have whimpered. At this point, I was so tired of my nakedness, and so tired of skin in general, I just laid there, my lifeless body accepting her massage without comment.

But she had comments. As if to add the icing on this cake of a day, she decided to start talking and not stop. Her excitement about being able to speak English turned my moment of silence into a firestorm of one sided conversation.

“You know, Americans are so shy with their bodies.”

“You know, I massaged a stripper once and she had the biggest fake tits I’ve ever seen.”

“You know, so many men who get massaged by me always come back and ask if I do more than massage.”

After the massage, I went up to the lockers, put on my layers of clothing silently, and left. I was spent.

So, what does one learn from this experience? What avenue of psychological hypothesis should I be strolling down? The best explanation I can muster as I attempt to wipe the kopfkino (that’s “head cinema” in German) from my brain, is that I found a limit. We all have them. Trying new things until running face first against a wall. They could be with math, home improvement projects, sexual adventures, etc. So, the result of this unintentional experiment is: I don’t want people staring at me when I’m naked. I don’t want my potential mailman seeing me in the nude. The guy I accidentally didn’t tip enough at a restaurant glancing at my nipples. I don’t need the woman whose children I teach to take a gander at my bootylicious backside. I have my worst nightmares for that.

How to Not Be Okay with Your Body in a German Spa