… And clean as a whistle
“Do we have to shower naked at this one or can we get in it dirty, like pigs?” asks my mother, on our way to swim at the London Fields Lido swimming pool. My mother is a native New Yorker born on the island of Manhattan. I am American by birth but British by naturalisation (I’ve lived in the UK for nearly half my life). We have just returned to London from a week in Reykjavík, making that my eighth week this year. We swam nearly every day, and the first time I felt compelled to explain ahead of time that you must shower, naked, with soap, before you’re allowed anywhere near an Icelandic swimming pool. My mother, unsurprisingly, looked a little worried.
What is the deterrent to showering naked before getting into a pool—to being naked in the company of others, for that matter? Of the same sex? The only times the Americans or British are ever really naked in front of other people for an extended period of time is during sex or at the doctor’s, and neither is always absolutely comfortable. For Americans there is a built-in cultural self-consciousness that borders on shame. Like our language, we get it from the British. Icelandic friends have recounted their bemusement at an episode of ‘Friends’ where Joey walks out into the living room naked and everyone violently recoils, shouting for him to go put some clothes on. This doesn’t translate to Icelandic.
In the Icelandic locker rooms, and I can only speak for the women’s, one can usually recognise the Americans (and the British for that matter) by the towels they wear to walk to the showers. As if our modesty, protected until the showers, will be preserved in them. I can understand, though. My first time in an Icelandic swimming pool I was acutely aware of my shyness. Feeling uncomfortable but being adaptive, I pretended to be invisible and got on with it, without a towel. However by this time around, being a regular swimmer in Iceland, I am over the nudity. I confirmed this over the summer when I ran into a woman I met at Kiki bar in the showers. She had texted me at 5 o’clock one morning, but I never texted her back. That’s potentially embarrassing enough with clothes on. However, we had a full discourse about what happened and why, all as she was shampooing her hair and washing her breasts.
For everyone who frequents the pool, the London Lido has a grand total of five outdoor showers with inadequately timed pushbutton-operated ”on” cycles, as well as three indoor showers in the women’s changing room. I suspect there are the same amount in the men’s. That’s eleven showers for an entire facility the size of the Laugardalslaug outdoor pool. The day we went, the five outdoor showers were out of service due to maintenance. “When you think about it, people are not clean when they go into pools. I go under [the pool showers back in America] with a little trickle of water to get wet so they don’t tell me to shower, and I don’t use soap,” my mom remarked. “It’s healthy that people are made to wash their assholes and their genitals and under their arms. (Also their feet and heads.) It shows a societal value. It shows that society values cleanliness.” On sunny days at the Lido the water is clouded with sunscreen, sweat, and whatever else.
There are so many advantages to Icelandic pools and I’ve not even started on the geothermal angle. Take adequate time to observe, reflect and compare the American and British pool systems with the Icelandic ones. Cleanliness aside, the lack of “modesty” cubicles means that we see each other’s bodies. Real bodies. Not airbrushed bodies. Ones of all shapes and sizes with folds, zits and cellulite, varicose veins, beautiful and bizarre, you name it. The first time I was in an Icelandic locker room, I exclaimed to myself, ”oh, so that’s what other women look like.” What a relief.