“Whether on a Croatian beach, in a Finnish sauna, a Turkish hammam, or a German spa, a fun part of travel can be getting naked with strangers.”- Rick Steves
The first time I remember having to evaluate the notion of being naked with male non-relatives was at a pool party the summer after fourth grade. There, I realized that for whatever reason, I was uncomfortable with changing into my bathing suit in front of others. I didn’t re-evaluate my nudity comfort level until the seventh grade, when I first began attending an all-male high school with compulsory after-school athletics, where I first encountered the previously fabled communal shower. Changing into gym shorts before the mandatory fitness test at the beginning of the year, I caught a glimpse past the lockers into that chamber of two dozen spouts. There, it was implied, I would sooner or later be showering with at least some of the 125 other twelve-year-olds that our new teachers had repeatedly already referred to as my brothers. The variable wasn’t whether, but when.
Once I moved to the high school locker rooms as a freshman, suddenly upperclassmen wrestlers with a bodily width twice that of my skinny shoulders were trotting around naked, weighing themselves on scales or dipping themselves in ice baths. I wasn’t even safe in my team’s own locker room, where boys even skinnier than I changed underwear in full view of one another while they discussed that day’s Latin tests. As jarring as it was for me at first, I got used to the new environment soon enough. We were all men around here, weren’t we? We could handle some athletic nudity, as long as we all maintained a kind of unspoken code of conduct. The real kicker, though, was the dynamic presence of one Mr. Pruitt, a biology teacher and cross-country coach with a penchant for shouting at the changing freshmen as he strutted through the locker rooms to the showers with nary a towel at his waist.
Even once I had accepted Mr. Pruitt’s locker room eccentricity as a fact of my high school experience, it still took me a little while to get comfortable with the whole situation. When I was freshman, the prospect of showering with a performatively senile old man was enough to endure even the sweatiest of car rides home. But when I started taking on more post-practice music or theater commitments, I realized that I couldn’t continue to approach my extracurricular life with the same attitude that had guided my eighth grade Science Day. As a straight man, if I wanted to be able to talk to any of the girls after Rock Band, I would need to wash myself at school. Naked. In the company of other adolescent boys. Who would also be naked.
Despite my initial apprehension, I eventually got on board with these communal showers. After all, there were plenty of clean towels and the water was perfectly hot. Before long, Mr. Pruitt and my fellow athletes, runners and wrestlers and linebackers alike, became welcome shower companions. I enjoyed joking and chatting with my friends after a long run and before a longer night of homework, and our nudity ceased to bother me by about halfway through my sophomore year. Plus, I was alone at least half the time.
Even if many of my peers habituated themselves equally well to our situation, there nonetheless remained an implicit code guiding our naked interactions. Any acknowledgement of our collective nudity was at most implicit and at best nonexistent. Sure, we got naked together, but we sure as hell didn’t talk about it, spending our brief showers complaining about our chemistry grades or quoting Vines only a third of us had seen. Any expression of discomfort would in the end be nothing more than the subtle implication that you weren’t as masculine as your peers. The trick was to walk that middle line. In the end, you just had to shower with your boys, no commentary required.
So the whole time, you kept your eyes up. You were either looking at your friend’s face, or you were looking at the showerhead. Anywhere else, any mere suggestion that you were sneaking a peak or else cooking up some sort of naked prank, and you were bound to be heckled so hard that you’d endure sweat-sticky car seats for at least another month before you plucked up the courage once again to hit the showers. By the end of high school, I had adopted paradoxical views towards collective male nudity as something that wasn’t sexual until it was acknowledged, at which point the erotic nature of our communal status became as rigid hyperbolic. I didn’t think to question this rigidness, whether collective male nudity could ever be less unawkwardly awkward, until I took a bath with my best friend.
I’ll explain. This past winter break, I visited my friend John for a long weekend in Germany before I continued on my own solo trip through Italy. Based in the sleepy city of Freiburg, John had already visited many of the surrounding towns and cities worthy of day trips, both within Germany and in neighboring Switzerland and France, so my ideas to visit Basel or Strasbourg the coming Saturday were quickly shot down. As we sipped tea in a student cafeteria and wondered if we might go anywhere, John said quietly, even nonchalantly, “We could go to those naked baths in Baden-Baden.”
Located in southwest German state of Baden-Würtemberg, Baden-Baden is home to the famous Friedrichsbad, a circuit of seventeen thermally heated indoor baths at the center of town. Based on the traditional Roman style of communal bathing, Friedrichsbad offers a relaxation experience where “the changing temperatures and the precious thermal water in the various baths have a regenerative effect on body and soul,” according to the website. The only stipulation is that all bathing is done ohne Kleidung: without clothes.
John had first come across the baths through an article entitled “Naked and Relaxed in Baden-Baden,” written by noted travel author Rick Steves, in which he writes humorously of his solo experience in the thermal baths. Initially fazed by the nudity requirement, Steves recounts how he adjusted quickly to the typically European shamelessness. If it wasn’t too much for Rick Steves, why shouldn’t we also go for a relaxing skinny dip too?
“Johnny, I’m just going to put it out there,” I said, thinking back to all my post-practice showers, none of which we had ever experienced together (we met doing musical theater). “We’re going to see each other’s penises.”
My former classmate sipped his tea slowly before clicking his tongue. “Yeah. I was thinking about that.”
“I won’t be weird if you won’t be weird.” I paused. “And let me just tell you now: I’m a grower, not a shower.”
He nodded, consolingly but also in agreement. “Me too, Pete,” he said. “Me too.”
So it was decided. Tomorrow, we would be going to these spa baths, hoping for the greatest relaxation experience either of us had ever imagined without acknowledging our nerves. “I’m hoping that after tomorrow I’ll be able to divide my life into two phases,” John said on the tram home that night: “Pre-baths and post-baths.” We were simultaneously nervous and excited about the baths that we talked about it the entire night with John’s German roommates, as we proceeded to drink far too much wine. In fact, that night was the first time I ever vomited from drinking. The stiff joint I’d hit didn’t help me either. I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d just crawled out of a sewer.
On the train to Baden-Baden then, I thought of the baths less as an adventure in testing the limits of my modesty and more as a much-needed cure to my bodily woes. The previous night’s sense of adventure and the morning’s liver pains had both obscured the crux of the coming adventure: the nudity. John and I shared a salty butter-pretzel in the city center before walking to the baths, where the receptionist reminded us in speedy German that here, at Friedrichsbad, bathing shorts were not permitted.
Entering their locker room, I half-expected to see a couple of six foot five wrestlers walk past me to weigh themselves once again. But instead, it was just my boy Johnny and I, all alone, wondering whether now was when we took off our clothes, or later. John, whose German is far better than mine, found a staff member and inquired. “You can go ahead and get undressed,” he said.
And like that, John was naked. And then, so was I. Here we were, two twenty-one-year-old boys, standing naked in a locker room, about to immerse ourselves in a series of variously temperatured forms of water.
Though there was no compulsory order, the various stations were numbered to indicate a recommended path through the maze of stress relief, complete with suggested durations and reminders in four languages to maintain silence. The first station was a hot pressure shower, encouraged for three minutes and easily the nicest shower I had ever taken. John and I exchanged various remarks of admiration for the apparatus as we stood alongside German adults, all of whom were clearly much older and much less surprised at all this naked luxury.
We proceeded to a series of sauna rooms, each hotter than the last, where we drew the glares of several scraggly old men when I asked my friend, “Johnny, do you feel all your troubles melting away?” By the time we’d left the last sauna room, barely fifteen minutes into the experience, the nudity had become so normalized that I ceased noticing it in those around me or myself, having already grown accustomed to the ensuing lightness of my unclothed state.
We proceeded to the first of the actual baths, which was relatively warmed but lacked jets. We nestled against the walls of the pool, any tension from our backs having disappeared three stations ago. “Johnny, you know how the great question of philosophy and literature is the search for the meaning of life?” I asked my friend. “This is it, pal. This is it.”
John agreed. “They should just stop trying to invent things,” he said, his eyes closed. We sat in silence for a few minutes, soaking in the sensations of freedom and happiness that permeated the waters, unmitigated by the resistant clunkiness of even the thinnest clothing. “If I was a king, or a rich man,” John began before gesturing around at the tiled walls and vaulted ceilings. “This is what I’d buy.”
We moved on to some of the hotter baths, one with actual jets, where we somehow ended up in a serious conversation about politics or something else vaguely consequential. I was taken aback, then, when John interjected, “Okay real talk time, Pete, honesty hour.”
“My ball sack feels as light as cotton candy.”
I told him I wasn’t sure what that meant, especially since both of his hands were resting on the pool wall. Then I sat there for a minute more before concurring, the jets streaming around us like we’d never imagined they could. At this point, not only was I apathetic to my public nudity, it had become positive. Here, thousands of miles from the locker room showers where I first got naked with other men, I was experiencing something wonderful liberating. That John and I were there with so many old Europeans, all of us naked, only made that sense of liberation even more powerful.
Only at one point in the entire experience did I see someone, a woman, whose naked body was not an indication of advanced age. “Was she hot?” my girlfriend asked on the phone that night. I honestly could not tell you whether she was, since I had become so inured to our state that the only thing I noticed was that John and I were not the youngest bathers there by forty years.
After we completed the primary sequence of baths, we came upon the third to last station, the first not to involve any kind of water or steam but instead half a dozen lotion dispensaries. We proceeded to finish this two-hour interrogation of our bodies by both rubbing them with generous amounts of lotion and staring at them in the wall of full-length mirrors across from the wall-side lotion bottles. “You know what, Johnny?” I asked. “We’re two pretty good-looking men, I’d say.”
“Pete,” he responded, gently slapping his cheeks in a final action of self-refreshment. “I was thinking the same thing.”
After the lotion came a choice between the reading room and the nap room; the choice was clear. Two attendants handed us in fresh towels before swaddling us in blankets and guiding us onto beds. Once they left, the only sounds were a quietly ticking clock and three old men snoring, all of whom had left by the time I awoke half an hour later. Having discarded the blanket yet still wrapped in a towel, I spent some time in the adjoining room reading a book of short stories while sipping on peppermint tea, but our hunger overtook us shortly after John joined me. We adjourned to the locker rooms, where we caught a glimpse of a still-clothed group of French tourists doing the same locker dance we had not done two hours prior. Amateurs, I thought as I put my pants back on.
The entire time in the luxurious baths of Baden-Baden, I didn’t feel an ounce of sexual energy. Even though I saw more naked people those two hours in Baden-Baden than all the other people I’ve ever seen naked in my life (including in movies), I’m inclined to wager that my trip to Friedrichsbad was perhaps the least sexual thing I’ve ever done. In the words of Rick Steves, nudity doesn’t have to be sexy; it can instead just be “open and free.” Why are Americans so uncomfortable with nudity then, so quick to sensualize or eroticize it?
We might chalk it up to homophobia, to rigid gender standards, or to just plain old insecurity. In the end, though, I think it comes down to that sense of modesty still ingrained in so many of us from an early age, example of the Puritan influence that permeates so much of American culture, from our work ethic to the cultural taboo on premarital sex that still lingers in some areas of the country. On the other hand, Europeans take daily afternoon naps and have no issues rolling lying on the beach and letting the sun tan their junk. The more I think about it, I’d much rather have the latter.
But what would I know? I’m just a guy who went to a naked bath with his best pal. All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Illustration by Melina Huang