Swimming pools and Icelanders go hand-in-hand like drunks on a Saturday night and Ali Baba kebabs. Even the smallest towns in Iceland have a local swimming pool complex, resplendent with at least one hot tub. There is nothing quite like soaking in the soothing waters of Iceland, checking out the locals in minimal covering and staring up at the wide sky. It really is the true “Icelandic” experience, no hot dog reflux required.
However, like all good things in life, there is a small catch. If, like me, you come from a British colony (Baby Prince George I love you!) or some other conservative place, you will be very familiar with the concept of body shame. Nudity is reserved for lovers (lights off, please) and medical searching of your body for possible cancerous moles. High school changing rooms became a lesson in the art of completely changing your outfit without exposing any part of your body.
No nude, no swim
So what does this Victorian-era throwback mentality have to do with swimming in Iceland? Well, dear friends. If you are not aware, ICELANDIC LAW states you must shower/clean yourself SANS bathing suit before and after entering a public pool. Big deal, I hear you say? Well, these showers just so happen to be communal. As in, you must shower completely starkers in front of a crowd of people. For people hailing from prudish lands, this can be quite confronting (disconcerting).
It took me a month of living in Reykjavík to build up the courage. I decided my first time should be alone (get your mind out of the gutter please), because the idea of my new friends seeing me in my full glory was too much to handle. I also decided my maiden voyage would be in Akureyri, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do there.
The first thing you’ll notice in Icelandic change rooms is butts. Everywhere. Locals will happily walk around the entire area in the nude, even going so far as to engage in conversation while their bits are getting some air. The first time I entered the changing rooms, I kept my eyes firmly on the ground. After schlumping to a locker, I failed to open it three times. After firmly establishing myself as a foreigner, the time had arrived when I would have to be naked in public.
The naked truth
Suddenly, I was flooded with feelings of shame, inadequacy, and guilt. I managed to force myself to undress, but quickly wrapped myself in a towel. I was paralysed, I couldn’t move. My mind was saying: “There is no way you are exposing your dirty, sub-par body to these perfect specimens of human. No.”
I seriously contemplated if it was possible to just redress and skulk out of the change room, run out of the complex and never go to an Icelandic pool again. Luckily, my neuroses towards quitting outweighed the ones towards nudity. I just swallowed my pride and marched (well, more like scurried) into the showers. I refused to face anyone but the showerhead, and I am pretty sure my entire body was clenched during the experience.
I’m really happy this quasi-panic attack occurred. It uncovered deep-held body shame vibes I didn’t even know I still had. Since that fateful day in Akureri, I try and visit the pools in Reykjavík every day. Not only do I love the healing and revitalising effect of the water, but bearing my bod in a safe setting is doing wonders for my self-esteem. I was even comfortable enough to “do the change rooms” with a friend this week, flashing her one singular breast in a little “up yours” salute to body shamers the world over.
Next challenge: to follow the “body love” attitude of a local DJ and let half my genitals hang out of my swimsuit while relaxing in the sauna. No shame, baby.
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